Nabil Bahgat: The Aragouz player who became a diplomat‎

Amira Noshokaty , Tuesday 19 Jun 2018

Nabil Bahgat, a professor of theatre at Helwan university, the founder of WAMDA ‎troupe for Aragouz
Nabil Bahgat, a professor of theatre at Helwan university, the founder of WAMDA ‎troupe for Aragouz and Shadow Puppets (Photo courtesy of Nabil Bahgat)

‎"This is the summary of my journey: the Aragouz who became a diplomat!" he laughs, ‎explaining how honored he is to re-ify the folk art of puppetry, or aragouz, on an international level. Speaking to Al-Ahram Online is Nabil Baghat professor of theatre at Helwan University, the founder of WAMDA ‎troupe for Aragouz and Shadow Puppets, the former head of Beit El-Sehemi, and the ‎former Egyptian Cultural Attache to Kuwait. ‎

Born in 1975, In Abu Kebir, village, Sharkia, Bahgat's perception of folklore was quite ‎different. ‎

‎"To me it's more of my perception of life or how I take a stand on life. I always notice that we live a certain life style while television, portrays a totally different style so I ‎never believed it. You see in Beheira, I grew up watching folk rituals alive in the march of ‎the prophet's mulid, daily rituals, baking cookies during Eid, Ramadan rituals," he told Al-‎Ahram Online. ‎

Such an authentic Egyptian background had a great impact on Bahgat as a young boy. He gathered that certain of his grandfather’s proverbs and sayings reflected much more ‎than mere words. Eish takhod ya Bardisi min taflisy? (What will you gain, Bardisi, from ‎making me stone broke?) was one his grandfather repeated. As it turned out, Bardisi ‎ruled Egypt after the French invasion, and as people strained under the ‎immense taxes he imposed, so Egyptians revolted against him. ‎

‎"This is what makes me believe more in the social history and collective memory contained in these words – ‎I side with the oral history, the one that comes from the people, and not the official ‎version. I believe that history is not made by rulers, it is made by the marginalized, rulers ‎only write it not make it. And this is the destiny of history: that it’s true but unfair, because it ‎overlooks the thousands of real people who made it. Take the high dam for example, and ‎how it is said that Abdel Nasser is the one who built it, what about the builders? History here is not telling all the truth. That’s how I see it," he notes.‎

Bahgat's revelations continued to unfold, as he pursued his studies in Arabic poetry and ‎theatre. He attained his masters’ degree specializing in the theatre plays of cultural icon Badia Khairy. ‎His PHD was focused on the work of playwright Abu El-Seoud El-Ebiary. Before long he was assistant ‎professor of theatre in Helwan University. ‎

‎"I published my masters degree in a book, a few years ago. But Badia Khairy opened up a ‎gateway to other worlds, other questions. I always wondered, what makes Egyptians ‎responsive to certain art forms? My own answer lay in the reception of these art forms. Like how come all Egyptians like certain plays for example, or certain of ‎Om Kalthoum’s songs?" ‎

“But the theatre I watched did not represent me,” Bahgat admits to how he felt after becoming assistant professor of theatre. Shakespeare is great but does not represent me, nor ‎does Oedipus.”‎

‎"I asked myself a question, why didn’t my dad ever take my mother to the theatre? ‎Because it does not represent them. The way the theatre was designed in the form of a ‎box was mainly to protect people from immensely cold weather in Europe. Our theatres ‎are open air yards."‎

Such reflections on people, modern culture and modern theatrical performances triggered ‎a further question, why are there numerous constraints when it comes Egypt’s renaissance? The ‎answer is that we do not believe in the people: we start where our predecessor started and ‎not where they ended," he notes. ‎

Haunted by the cultural identity of Egypt, Bahgat saw the sign that inspired him to go back ‎to the roots and dig deeper. "I was walking in downtown Cairo and I read a big sign reading ‎'Shahrazad’ featuring a blond with blue eyes in her bikini." As alienating as it was, the sign ‎lead him to a treasure. "I decided to start by searching for the first theatre I ever ‎witnessed, which was the aragouz.”

Unlike the Turkish Qara Qoz, (Black eyes), the wooden ‎puppet dressed in Red is an Egyptian invention mobile puppet theatre, that criticized the ‎political and social status quo. It is said that the name aragouz, rhymes with Qaraqoush, ‎Egypt's most vicious vizier, who was doomed to a legacy of mockery. The aragouz was a ‎popular and successful form of street art, roaming mulids and street carnivals, and over ‎the years winding up as the favourite puppet show of children's birthday parties. ‎

Bahgat's quest in search of aragouz art started off by asking university professors where he should look. "When they told me that it died out a long time ago, I realized the gap between academics and people, so I started my own search in mulids and ‎came across the ensemble I am working with now." ‎

By 2003 Bahget founded the Wamda (spark of light) troupe for folk arts, which revived the art ‎of aragouz as well as shadow puppets. With the masters of the trade on board, from Amm ‎Saber, the oldest aragouz puppeteer in Egypt, to the late Hassan Khanoufa, the last ‎shadow puppet master, Wamda managed to revive and renovate Egypt's oldest folk ‎arts. Since 2004 and up to this moment, Wamda troupe gives a weekly workshop for young ‎children as well as a performance of aragouz and shadow puppetry every Friday at Beit El-‎Sehemi, El-Moez street. ‎

"I've created the first archive for aragouz art including all the acts, on CDs and in a ‎published book; then I wanted to create a new generation of aragouz players and ‎managed to get the state to recruit the aragouz and shadow puppeteers in Beit El-‎Sehemi,"‎

From 2007 to 2017 every Friday is self-production. Now seven artists and their seven families are ‎gaining their monthly wage from the art of aragouz. It’s a great success to ‎work in arts, to revive the artform and sustain a living. Folk arts can be of economic value. ‎‎"The greatest thing that I’ve ever done is the fact that I succeeded in conveying my ideas ‎to the artists that worked with me." ‎

Through Wamda troupe, Amm Saber Egypt's oldest aragouz puppeteer was acknowledged and ‎honored at the closing ceremony of the Arab Forum for Puppet Art and Shadow ‎Puppets in its third round in Cairo 2015.‎

Bahget currently has an application to the Immediate Preservation Committee of UNESCO, to create a ‎school to preserve the art of aragouz.

‎"I've always wanted to produce differently, without funds, for one can produce a show ‎then sell it to the state. And this is what I did, and so without any funding we can create ‎beautiful art. And it worked just fine."‎

Thanks to Bahget's efforts, replicas of Egyptian aragouz puppets are showcased in ‎international museums in the United States and all over Europe. As for Egypt, Bahget ‎launched the annual seminar of the folk doll from (2006-2012) as well as a permanent ‎exhibition of folk dolls including the authentic original wooden molds at Beit El-Sehemi ‎

‎"Before I started working with the aragouz and shadow puppetry artforms, there wasn’t a single Youtube ‎clip of them on the internet. Not even one picture. We ran ‎over 100 workshops to create aragouz and shadow puppets. We wrote 36 performances, in ‎addition to reiterating old performances."‎

Four years ago, he was chosen as the Egyptian Cultural attaché in Kuwait. And during that ‎time, Bahget created over 500 Egyptian cultural events, as well as enhancing the capacity of the Egyptian cultural office in Kuwait.‎‎

"I wanted to show people that something like al aragouz can make you into a diplomat. ‎Working with the aragouz made my resume very impressive, and brought me lots of publicity. It made me ‎represent Egypt in over 36 countries of the world. True I revived aragouz, but he carried my name as well, as he is the one who truly presented me to the people."‎

‎"I used to tell them I am the aragouz that became a diplomat and this is what I really ‎meant. If you work on the local it will take you to the international. ‎

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