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A Midnight Chat With El-Aragoz

by Alaa Elbannan

It’s two o’clock in the morning, and I’m sitting in my bedroom, trying to finish this article about el-Aragoz. Have you ever heard of him? He is a glove puppet in a red costume, a galabeya (a long loose-fitting garment worn in the Middle East) and a tartoor (a pointed hat). He is famous for his high-pitched voice. However, el-Aragoz is not just about a puppet; it’s a whole show, a complete theatrical experience—and, according to some people, a dying art form.

According to one of the foremost Aragoz artists, Saber Elmasry, it is the smallest stage and the biggest stage. The smallest for its really simple tools: a wooden folding screen and a fabric bag with all the puppets inside—including el-Aragoz, the main puppet. And the biggest because, with these modest materials, only one artist and an assistant create a wealth of characters and plays.

Let me tell you more.

Long ago, before television, radio, and cinema, el-Aragoz was a captivating means of entertainment. The artists used to travel around many cities and villages across Egypt, carrying a mobile theater on their backs. Then, in the middle of any neighborhood, they would set up their tools and start the show. People loved it, especially children. Today, unfortunately, when children have so many other distractions, the traveling show is slowly becoming obsolete. Just like cassette tapes and manual typewriters, el-Aragoz will someday become ancient history.

So, why should I write about something that is dying?

EL-ARAGOZ. I am NOT dying!

ALAA. GOSH! What are you? Where did you come from and when?

EL-ARAGOZ. I am el-Aragoz, the smartest and cutest puppet on the planet. I have been here since forever. Now, who are you?

ALAA. I am Alaa; I am a writer.

EL-ARAGOZ. Wow! A fighter.

ALAA. A writer.

EL-ARAGOZ. And you don’t want to write about me because you think I’m becoming extinct! I heard that, too! That’s harsh.

ALAA. I’m sorry, but that’s what I’ve been reading and hearing. I know some artists still show you around, but it’s not like before.

EL-ARAGOZ. Well, nothing is ever like before. It’s the technology and the media. THEY ARE EATING ME ALIVE!!

ALAA. OK, calm down, buddy! Umm . . . you know, I really like your red tartoor.

EL-ARAGOZ (blushing). Oh, you do? And you don’t think it’s out of fashion?

ALAA. No, it’s really cool, not just for anyone though, just for el-Aragoz.

EL-ARAGOZ (frowning). OK, let’s get back to the subject. Why don’t you want to write about me? Even if I am history, shouldn’t you still write about your heritage?

ALAA. Well, you’re right actually. I’m just wondering if it would be of interest to my young readers.

EL-ARAGOZ. You’ve got young people? Where? Where? I love young people.

ALAA. Say hello then. Most probably someone is reading this right now.

EL-ARAGOZ. OK, let me fix my tartoor . . . Ehem . . . HELLO THERE . . . HELLO. No one is answering. (Whispering to himself) Am I really dying?

ALAA. Don’t get distracted please. I really need to finish this article. Tell me more about yourself? What is your origin? What is your mission in life? What is this art?

EL-ARAGOZ. Hey, hey, slow down, girl. One question at a time (sighing). OK, my origins . . . well to be honest, I’m not really sure about this part.

ALAA. Not sure?

EL-ARAGOZ. I know it sounds weird, but “we” are heritage, a traditional art, from a very long time ago. You can’t really tell when exactly it was invented or who started it. But, my great-great-great-grandpa, the Mighty Aragoz, used to say that this art first appeared near the end of the Fatimid Period—(the Fatimid period (909-1171) was a Shia caliphate that spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. Cairo was its capital)—at a time when rulers were really cruel and unfair. So, some revolutionaries came up with the idea of using a puppet to express themselves, to criticize the rulers, and to make fun of them without getting caught. They hid their identities and only showed el-Aragoz. Really smart, right?

ALAA. Aha! Now, that’s interesting . . . but confusing at the same time. I read somewhere that el-Aragoz descends from an original Turkish art called qara-qoz, which literally means “the black eye.”

EL-ARAGOZ. WHAT? That’s a rumor.

ALAA. Do you really have to be this loud?

EL-ARAGOZ. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t make sense, because qara-qoz is the Turkish name for shadow puppetry, which was originally created in Egypt. So, it would be more logical to say that el-Aragoz is inspired by Egyptian shadow puppetry rather than Turkish shadow puppetry. It’s an Egyptian art; historians and travelers all vouch that it’s one hundred percent Egyptian—(Nabil Bahgat, El-Aragoz El-Masry, (Cairo: The Supreme Council of Culture, 2010)
El-Aragoz El-Masry (Egyptian Aragoz) by Dr. Nabil Bahgat is the only book written on the origins of el-Aragoz and its creators, it includes a detailed archiving and documentation of all the shows performed by different Aragoz artists. It has been Dr. Bahgat’s lifelong passion, and we are grateful to him for providing us with the main source of information and inspiration for this article.)

ALAA. I see your point and admire your vast knowledge by the way. And you do seem really patriotic, too.

EL-ARAGOZ. Of course I am exotic.

ALAA. I said “patriotic”.

EL-ARAGOZ. I am not chaotic! I am quite organized!

ALAA. Ahh! Can’t you be serious and act like a normal person?

EL-ARAGOZ. I am not a person; I am a puppet.

ALAA. You are driving me CRAZY.

EL-ARAGOZ (bashfully). I am just trying to go along with the atmosphere; I am a bit nervous. . . . You really think I don’t need to change this tartoor?

ALAA. Relax. I’m sure everyone will like you. And, yes, keep the hat. So, where did you learn how to speak English?

EL-ARAGOZ (arrogantly). My stories have been translated into English, and my shows have been performed all around the world. Workshops were held in America, Tunisia, Jordan, Yemen, and Spain to teach this art. I also have this Aragoz friend who lives in America; he taught me.

Don’t worry, I am here, I
always have been, and I
always will be

ALAA. Well done! You also have a distinctive accent; it goes well with your squeaky voice.

EL-ARAGOZ. My WHAT?

ALAA. I meant your charming voice. . . . How do you get this pitch?

EL-ARAGOZ. It’s my artist; he puts a small piece of metal called el-amana in his mouth. He puts it at the back of his throat. . . . Weird, huh? And a little dangerous, too. It makes my voice squeaky . . . I mean freaky . . . no, no, what I really mean is charming.

ALAA. So, Mr. Charming, tell us more about your “artist”.

EL-ARAGOZ. The artist is the man who creates me out of wood and fabric; he also does the voice and the moves. He is talented, witty, and flexible. He has a sense of humor and the ability to improvize, and he can easily change his tone of voice, accent, or dialect. Also, he has to be creative enough to put together an entertaining show using very simple equipment and must have the gift of being able to relate to different kinds of people and to create space for the audience to interact and feel that they are part of the show. The challenge for him is to show el-Aragoz’s emotions—sad, happy, surprised, or angry—through the moves, the positions, and the pauses.

ALAA. That IS challenging.

EL-ARAGOZ (whispering). I will tell you a secret. Some artists get really involved in the show. You might even catch them crying or laughing behind the screen . . . crying for real.

ALAA. Wow! I guess they are really dedicated artists.

EL-ARAGOZ (giggling). I think they are losing their minds. Ouch! Stop pinching me. OK, OK, they are dedicated, sophisticated, and very well educated. Happy now?

ALAA. Haha . . . Go on.

EL-ARAGOZ. There’s also the artist’s assistant. He doesn’t stand behind the screen, though; he stands beside me to make conversation, or to repeat some words, or sometimes even to create a soundtrack with the tabla (small drum). He is very talkative and annoying, just like you.

ALAA. Hey, watch your mouth.

EL-ARAGOZ (giggling). OK, you know what the most important factor of the show is, after myself of course?

ALAA. What?

EL-ARAGOZ. The audience. They make the show happen. They interact and guide me, they make me change my mind sometimes, and they can even make me change the end of the story.

ALAA. This is a very unique quality about your shows; it pushes the audience to become more than just a passive recipient.

EL-ARAGOZ. Passive? Recipient? Why did you turn into an old college professor?

ALAA. I mean, they don’t just sit there and watch; they jump right in and participate.

EL-ARAGOZ. Yes, exactly! It creates harmony when you find everyone in the audience uniting and calling for an action, like, “Beat him, catch him,” or whatever else they want me to do.

ALAA. So, tell me more about the show itself. Are there any other characters? Your friends, perhaps?

EL-ARAGOZ. They are not all my friends. There are many characters, and they represent our entire society. There’s my dear wife—the most beautiful, ugly wife in the world. There’s also my son. Then there’s the fighter, the barbarian, the policeman, the doctor, the undertaker, the beggar, the soldier, the thief, the midwife, and the customer. You see, most stories are related to the lives of average Egyptians. So there are stories about everything: politics, domestic problems, education, marriage, unemployment, joining the military, and even death.

ALAA. Impressive. I believe this art is really special; it discusses our social issues and problems through humor and with such a positive attitude. And the show always ends with a revolutionary action. I really like that about el-Aragoz.

EL-ARAGOZ. Yes, that’s always the climax of the show. When I attack the source of corruption and purify the community from its evil . . . I AM THE HERO! However, ehem, there are times when I just tell a funny story for the sake of laughter, nothing more.

ALAA. Yes, but there is always a moral behind your stories.

EL-ARAGOZ. Yes, the moral is that one should never give up; one should stand up to the bad guys, be courageous, FIGHT FOR JUSTICE, AND SAY “NO” . . . and have fun, too.

ALAA. But themes like death? How can that be a show for children?

EL-ARAGOZ. Well, the thing is, my show isn’t just for children. It was originally meant for adults. Also, I can tell the same story in many different ways, depending on the place—if it’s school or a village or a birthday party.

ALAA. OK, so let’s wrap this up.

EL-ARAGOZ. Oh, you’re going to sing?

ALAA. Said who? Why should I sing?

EL-ARAGOZ. That’s how I start and end my shows, with a song—a pop song with the same theme of the show. So, in your case, you should sing.

ALAA. No, I’m not singing. You sing. Yes, come on, sing. What’s wrong?

EL-ARAGOZ (coughing and panting). I can’t sing. I think I’m dying. Farewell, my friend.

ALAA. No, don’t die!

EL-ARAGOZ (yawning). Of course I won’t die, you talkative, irritating writer. I need to sleep; it’s three o’clock in the morning. . . . Don’t worry, I am here, I always have been, and I always will be.

 

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