Meet the master of Turkish shadow puppets, Cengiz Özek

Farah Montasser, Sunday 29 Apr 2012

As part of this year's Spring Festival, Turkish shadow puppet master, Cengiz Özek, brought his famous shadow theatre play, The Garbage Monster, to Cairo and talks with Ahram Online about it's history and fascination today

Garbage Monster

At the small entrance hall of Beit El-Seheimy (El Seheimy House) in Old Cairo, children gathered around the Andalusian fountain in the middle around the stage of a puppet theatre. They anxiously awaited the famous Karagöz. Known to Egyptians as Aragoz, (since Egyptians often drop harsh "k" sounds) Karagöz is a hand puppet character known for his high, squeaky voice and sense of humour.

Beit El-Sehimy is directed by Nabil Bahget, a theatre professor, who established Egypts' first folk doll museum on the same premises. He also reintroduced Karagöz and shadow puppet theatre to the Egyptian public through numerous shows and workshops through Wamda theatre troupe (of which he is the founder). El-Sehimy offers shadow puppet and Karagoz shows on a weekly basis.

In Egypt, throughout the first half of the 20th century Karagöz's puppetmaster would tour the streets of Cairo and elsewhere to perform publicly and entertain children, hoping to make some money. Among the rich, Karagöz was a major  source of entertainment for kids parties and birthday celebrations.

This year, on his short visit to Cairo to partake in this year's Spring Festival, Cengiz Özek takes traditional puppet theatre and presents it behind a white projection screen to produce a Turkish traditional art form.

According to Özek, "Shadow theatre is the most important form of art that originally came from Asia, mainly India, and was then adopted by the Islamic Empire, the Ottomans and Persians, too."

This form of art was transported to the Islamic Empire and Arabs through the merchants' journeys back and forth from Asia.

"Shadow theatre is a form of art that has always been appealing and influential to all people of all nationalities and cultures," Özek expresses his appreciation for his life-long passion.

In 1977, as young as 13 years old, Özek started his traditional Turkish shadow theatre with his first production Magic Tree, a play based on the shamanistic sources of shadow theatre and compiles elements from a selection of authentic and old performances that remain common among Turks. "It is part of the Turkish artistic heritage," Özek tells Ahram Online.

Proud of his Turkish heritage, Özek, through his vast repertoire of classical Karagöz plays, produced his first modernisation of Karagöz with The Garbage Monster in 1998. In that same year, Özek founded Istanbul's first International Puppet Festival, which stands today as one of the major artistic annual events in Turkey, attracting many from around the globe. "Our festival will start right after the Spring Festival here in Cairo," he says.

As entertaining as puppets are for children, puppetry has also influenced the political lives of some of Middle Eastern countries "like Syria for example," says Özek. The main puppet characters that Özek took from the Turkish tradition and modernised are Hacivat and Karagöz.

"Those two characters were introduced to Syria through the Ottoman rule, yet the Syrians at some point mastered this form of art and took it to the street using those Turkish characters to protest against the Ottoman reign and mock the khedive (Ottoman ruler)," Özek explains.

"Such performance were, later on in the 20th century, adopted in Algeria and Morocco, also to protest, but against the French occupation," Özek recounts.

"Shadow and puppet theatres present the voice of the people," he tells Ahram Online, aiming at bringing it back to life. "I am seeking to make shadow theatre as popular as it once was," he admits.

"Shadow and puppet theatres present the voice of the people," he tells Ahram Online.

"I am seeking to make shadow theatre as popular as it once was," he admits.

The Garbage Monster

During his short stay in Cairo, Cengiz Özek, presented The Garbage Monster a play that includes both traditional characters Hacivat and Karagöz, friends who are constantly having hilarious arguments.

In the storyline, Hacivat wants Karagöz to go fishing with him but Karagöz refuses, so Hacivat goes fishing next to Karagöz's house.

Extremely annoyed by his presence, Karagöz starts throwing his garbage into the water so that Hacivat catches the garbage instead of fish. Little did he know that the Garbage Monster was lying in deep waters, where trash was being thrown. As a punishment the Garbage Monster swallows Karagöz.

The audience, especially the younger ones, enjoyed watching both characters battle it through to save themselves from the monster.

Besides, his Garbage Monster performance, Özek invited in all shadow theatre enthusiasts to take a four-hour workshop at Beit El-Seheimy prior to the show.

"I was thrilled when I saw a large numbers interested in this form of art," he tells Ahram Online. Due to the short timeframe of the workshop, "I only managed to teach attendees how to make my characters and engage in the stories I present on stage. Normally, my workshops last over a week or two, which allows participants to create their own characters and stories," Özek says.

Özek's shadow characters were brought to life with children quickly becoming engaged and following Karagöz's every move.

Hacivat and Karagöz are currently off on a world tour, starting with Istanbul, then Bosnia, Taiwan, France and the US.

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