Iconic Egyptian puppet show El-Leila El-Kebira is main attraction at Hakawy festival opening
Ati Metwaly, Friday 8 Mar 2019
The Cairo grand opening of the Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children took place in Hanager Theatre on Thursday


Thursday marked the grand opening of the ninth edition of the Hakawy International Arts Festival for Children, the only large-scale annual event in Egypt which brings local and international theatre shows to a young audience.

The highlight of the day was the iconic puppet musical El-Leila El-Kebira (“The Grand Night”).

Prior to the official opening in Cairo, the festival had already held events in Alexandria (from 4 to 5 March), visiting a few locations with a number of shows and attracting numerous children who came with their schools or families.

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The Thursday opening in Cairo saw the presence of Culture Minister Ines Abdel Dayem.

The event honoured Nagy Shaker, the renowned puppeteer and a multi-disciplinary artist who created El-Leila El-Kebira.

Shaker passed away in August last year, and an honorary shield was presented by Abdel Dayem to his wife Vera Lagator.

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Born in 1932, Shaker -- who had worked in many art forms, experimenting with visual theatre, cinema, paintings, sculpture, graphic work, even interior and architectural design -- is best known for his contributions to Egypt's puppet theatre, and as chief designer for El-Leila El-Kebira.

Shaker’s inspiration for it came from short radio programmes on moulids (folk carnivals celebrating the Prophet Muhammad or a Christian saint). Turning the celebratory mood into a full-length play with a developed plot and distinctive characters was definitely a challenge, yet the towering trio, puppeteer Nagy Shaker, poet Salah Jahin and composer Sayed Mekawy, were determined.

For the play, Shaker created numerous unique and lovable characters: children, clowns, a lion tamer, the omda (mayor), and street vendors such as Nishan, a puppet modelled on Jahin himself.

The play debuted in 1960, to unprecedented success.

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The story and the marionettes touched the hearts of children and grown-ups alike, and was critically acclaimed.

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The international accolades began with Bucharest’s international puppet festival in 1960, where it won awards for puppet and scenography designs.

Such achievements were repeated over the years as the play continued to collect awards and recognition in Syria (1967), the USA (1980), Jordan (1993), France (1995), Italy (1997) and Tunisia (2000), as well as Egypt.

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By 4pm on Thursday, the school trips began being replaced by media and families bringing their children to the opening, eager to witness one of the rare performances of the iconic show alongside numerous other shows scheduled for the day.

To many children of today's generation, El-Leila El-Kebira is known only from the stories told by their parents and grandparents.

It was a great opportunity for them to get closer to the important values and a theatrical tradition that Egypt was proud of in the 1950s and the 1960s.

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The play also presents the moulid celebrations in a unique format of well-sculpted puppets, whose features and movement add lively dynamism to the show.

On the grand opening day, Hanager Theatre saw a large number of media interested in documenting the festival.

The opening was announced to the rhythm of drums performing at the open area in front of Hanager Theatre.

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When the time came, the attendees were invited to enter the theatre to enjoy El-Leila El-Kebira as well as Storm (UK), HiHaHuttenBouwers (Netherlands), and H2O (Germany).

In parallel, the mobile library offered storytelling in Hanager's grounds, while the Falaki Theatre (located near Tahrir Square) presented ZooZoo from the USA.

Although none of the shows lacked artistic uniqueness and a captivating creativity, and each received a great deal of attention from the young audience, for the Egyptian audience, El-Leila El-Kebira was the main attraction of the day, having created a big buzz among Egyptians of different backgrounds and generations.

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By the opening day all the tickets had been reserved,and despite support from the Hakawy team, a number of families who had hoped to get into the performance were left disappointed.

As the festival continues through this week until Saturday 16 March, Cairo's young audience will have an opportunity to take in many other Egyptian as well as international performances.

See the programme here.

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Ahram Online is an official media partner of the ninth edition of the festival.

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