Q&A: Last of Egypt's puppeteers

Doaa Hamza, Thursday 28 Feb 2013

More than a puppet, comes the Aragoz — a voice of truth in everyday Egyptian life for children and adults alike; Ahram Online spoke to Adel Madi about an art near passing from existence

Last of the puppeteers
Adel Madi (Photo: Doaa Hamza)

The Aragoz, joyful forever
Runs in a thousand alleys
Through thousands of squares
He has no known address
But a card or two up his sleeve
A stick sharper than a tongue
A club to back it all
He keeps it all aside, just in case
While at it
You made me a man
Strong like a rod
From the land of Egypt, standing tall
While at it
Say a welcome to the champions
While at it
Make me forget
While at it
Long live the homeland
While at it
Long live the Aragoz

The above lines, from Fouad Hadda’s The Aragoz Song, summon the life of that traditional entertainer, the Aragoz, derived from Qaraqosh, the name of the vesir during the reign of Saladin whose tyranny was mocked by Egyptians. 

The Aragoz, as an art, started between the 13th and 14th century and lasted well into the first half of the 20th century. 

Today, only a handful of practitioners remain, one of whom, Adel Madi, who spoke to Ahram Online about the challenges of keeping this art alive.

How did you start your career as an Aragoz practitioner?
I have been acting for 35 years, first with the Workers Theatre in Shobra Al-Kheima, and then with the Said Saleh Troupe. My first experience as an Aragoz artist was when I learned how to use the whistle, the small metal piece that one puts in the mouth to produce the high-pitched voice of the Aragoz. One of my colleagues in the Workers’ Theatre, who was familiar with the art, taught me. I was a quick learner and before long I became quite passionate about this form of art. Then I had an opportunity to work for the Alternative Studies Centre Troupe (Markaz Al-Derasat Al-Badila), which was active in providing work for the poorest children. During this period, I honed my skills as an Aragoz artist, because I was performing every day. This was in 1993. Since then the Aragoz became my main passion. For the past 20 years I have been both acting and performing the Aragoz on stage.

Have you been in shows combining theatre and the Aragoz? Is there enough interest, do you think, in Aragoz shows?
I participated in many shows combining the theatre and the Aragoz. But I am the only one who, for the past 10 or 15 years, performed Aragoz sketches on the stages of the Theatre House of Art and with Al-Samer Troupe, which has now folded. These shows were for children and grownups. There was great interest in the past by the Popular Culture Theatre (Masrah Al-Thaqafa Al-Gamahiriya). For example, director Abbas Ahmad was dedicated to this form of art. So were two of the greatest directors of popular culture, Saleh Saad and Bahaa Al-Mirghani, both of who unfortunately died in the Beni Suef theatre fire of September 2005. The two were fans of traditional arts and folk music. Whenever they worked, they included the Aragoz in their work. In general, the Palaces of Culture (Qusur Al-Thaqafa) were interested in the Aragoz shows. I worked in many shows in the Palaces of Culture and the Theatre House of Art. These shows were for grown-ups and resembled political cabaret shows. I am talking about shows such as "Yama Fil Gerab" (Bag of Tricks), "Al-Mohakma" (The Trial), "Darb Askar" (Askar Road) and "Al-Shottar" (Conmen). Recently, I played in "Abu Al-Arrif" (Mr Know It All) at Al-Hanager Theatre. Other shows were for children, such as "Namnam" (Tiny One), "Bayaet Al-Hawadit" (Story Peddlar), "Al-Mesahharati" (Ramadan Drummer). The Aragoz offers entertainment to children and it is also great in political sarcasm for grownups. This has been its function as art since Mamluk times.

Why don’t you offer Aragoz shows in the streets as performers traditionally did?
The street Aragoz needs special equipment — what we call an Italian Box. The Aragoz who performs in moulids (saints’ days) usually has a custom-made cart resembling a kiosk. When I was young, I used to love watching the traditional performances. But when I started learning the art, as an actor, as part of a play, I discovered that the theatre performance must differ from that of the street. For example, the street Aragoz was traditionally sharp tongued and rather obscene. The sarcasm was so pronounced that obscenities were common in the show. When I started working for the Children's Theatre, I became aware that there is a certain language you cannot use in front of children. The children of this generation use computers and Playstations for entertainment, and they expect a different type of Aragoz. I try to rise to the occasion and use suitable vocabulary. Even when sarcastic, the vocabulary must be appropriate in the presence of children. While working with the Studies Centre and civil society organisations, we went to the street and did Aragoz shows. We kept the vocabulary simple, especially when addressing street children. We tried to help them develop their imagination. The Studies Centre is sponsored by Germany. You need financial support to be able to tour the streets.

Are you suggesting that the state should offer support to the Aragoz and other forms of folk arts?
When we worked in the Studies Centre, we had German funding. You need money to tour. You need money to go to the south and the Delta and to visit neighbourhoods even in the capital. Financial backing is a must. Beit Al-Soheimi, which is run by Nabil Bahgat, is subsidised by the state. It has art centres and runs workshops on the making of puppets. This is important no doubt. But more important still is the question of who will decide what puppet to make: Is it the puppeteer or the Aragoz? How do you approach this matter? One of the great things about Beit Al-Soheimi, it has Amm Sayyed, one of the oldest Aragoz practitioners around. His mere presence lends weight to the place. But the workshops mostly focus on making the puppets and forget about the needs of the Aragoz artist. How to handle the puppet in your work is essential. You want to use a proper puppet, not a doll.

Is there a shortage of good writing for the Aragoz on stage?
The iconic Aragoz show was The Big Night (Al-Leila Al-Kebira) by Salah Jahin, who knew how to keep the dialogue short, almost telegraphic. The Big Night was produced in 1959 or 1960 and it was written as if it were in quatrains, which made it easy to memorise by heart. Nothing that the Cairo Puppets Theatre has produced for the Aragoz since has matched The Big Night. In the Studies Centre, we try to be careful with the selection of the writers. We try to get someone from Qena, for example, to write a show for the Qena children. Then I take the dialogue and shorten the sentences to adapt it to the Aragoz part.

Does the Aragoz tend to improvise a lot?
The Aragoz artist is allowed to improvise on stage. In "Bag of Tricks" by the late Saleh Saad, staged in 1999 and 2000, we presented the closest thing to street shows. This was in the grounds of the Opera House complex, and we just walked around the grounds to collect the audience, who later on interacted with us and became part of the show. A lot of improvising went on in this show. This was during the Intifada in Palestine, and I recall that something of a demonstration formed during the show, and it was led by the Aragoz. Eventually, it became part of the show. This was very much like a traditional street show. When we work in the streets, we have to make the sentences short and snappy.

Is the Aragoz threatened with extinction as an art form?
Yes, the Aragoz show and the art of handling the puppet is dying out, except on stage. No one is taking interest in the Aragoz, neither the state nor NGOs. Take, for example, the Cairo Puppets Theatre. It has no Aragoz shows. Since 1960, when The Big Night was playing, only one other show, Namnam, was staged, and even that didn’t run at the Puppets Theatre. The Puppets Theatre is doing marionettes and some glove puppets, but no Aragoz. There is no Aragoz and no shadow plays either. Let me tell you this, and I know that historians will back me up: the origin of the puppet show is the Aragoz, not the other way around. How can you have a puppets theatre without Aragoz? There are a lot of young people who never saw an Aragoz show in their life. Can you believe that? And in films, the only film that paid attention to this art is The Second Wife (Al-Zogah Al-Thaniya).

The Second Wife and also another film, The Aragoz, tackled this form of art. What did you think of such films?
The Aragoz was more about politics than the art itself. The script was all about politics. Omar Sharif played the Aragoz, but the film didn’t elaborate on the trade. I was hoping that at least 20 minutes of The Aragoz would involve scenes in which we hear the typical voice of the Aragoz. But the songs were performed by Omar Sharif, using his normal voice and not the trademark voice of the Aragoz. In The Second Wife, the Aragoz was utterly unforgettable.

Will the time come when children cease to enjoy the Aragoz?
I don’t think that children will ever cease to enjoy the Aragoz or puppets. I see them in the Puppets Theatre, where I worked for nearly seven years, and they are always ecstatic whenever the Aragoz comes on stage. It is sad to see this art fading away.

Are there still good Aragoz artists around?
There is Amm Sayyed in Beit Al-Soheimi, and he is one of the all-time greats. There is Nasser Abdel Tawwab. There is another man in Alexandria, but I forget his name. The rest are just performers who specialise in birthdays and private parties and haven’t been properly trained. The veterans are only a handful.

After 20 years of involvement in the Aragoz art, have you ever felt any regret for not focusing more on acting?
Never. I haven’t regretted falling in love with this form of art. I started out as an actor and I still act, but I don’t feel true joy except when I am doing the Aragoz. I wish to see more writers offering Aragoz sketches for children's theatre and for political cabaret. The state is neglecting this art, which is one reason for its decline. If the Aragoz is used properly, it will give us much opportunity for sarcasm, for self-expression. It can also be used in the media. I believe in the Aragoz and will never give it up. Acting is just a job for me, but the Aragoz is a passion.

If the Aragoz were to speak about current conditions in Egypt, what would it say?
"Hear me out," this is what it would say. Aragoz practitioners used to mock political conditions in the late Mamluk era. Wouldn’t we be able to use it right now?

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