Mediaeval drama in Fatimid Cairo
Osama Kamal takes a new look at the old art of shadow puppet theatre
This was the next best thing to time travel. The show at the Beith Al-Soheimi on Al-Darb Al-Asfar, off Muizz Street, the main thoroughfare of mediaeval Cairo, was based on a play written in Cairo seven centuries ago. Amid the stone walls of the old palace in the heart of the historic Fatimid city, everything fell together: the architecture, the performance and the interaction between audience and actors. Had he still been alive, Mohamed Ibn Daniel, the 13th-century dramatist who wrote the play in its original form, would have loved it.
By profession Ibn Daniel was a kahhal, the mediaeval word for an eye doctor. When in about 1258 the Mogul army overran his home town, now Mosul in today's Iraq, he needed to get away. He came to Cairo and made a name for himself in the lively entertainment scene in the city, which was then, as now, one of the most enchanting urban centres in the world.
A contemporary of Zaher Beibars, the great Mamluk leader who was instrumental in expelling the Moguls from the region, Ibn Daniel wrote numerous pieces for the shadow theatre. These pieces, one of which inspired the show at the Beit Al-Soheimi, were called babat (the plural of babah ).
The play that I attended, Myself And My Cousin Against The Crocodile, was based on Ibn Daniel's The Crocodile. It is the story of a fisherman who is caught by a crocodile. His wife asks the moqaddem (police chief) for help. The moqaddem, in turn, asks the strongman, the Moroccan and the Sudanese man to work out a way to defeat the crocodile. It is the jester, however, who finally extracts the fisherman from the crocodile's jaws. But the crocodile strikes back, capturing everyone who has been trying to save the fisherman. Again the jester comes to the rescue and appeals to the public to fight the crocodile, and that is how everyone is saved.
The jester performed the play described above as well as a secondary show involving a battle against an unseen force, all to the delight of the audience, most of whom were children. At one point the children interacted in the show, cheering the jester and chanting, "We are brothers" to intimidate the crocodile.
Wamda (Flash), the theatre company that staged the show, was founded in 2003 by Nabil Bahgat, a theatre professor at Helwan University and director of the Beit Al-Soheimi. The crocodile piece is only the latest sample of the company's ample repertoire. They have produced another play about the Iraq war called At The Gates. One of their most popular plays is based on the legendary mediaeval hero Ali Al-Zeibaq (his surname means mercury), who through his guile was able to defeat the evil police chief Sonqor Al-Kalbi.
Bahgat has been researching nearly-extinct local traditions for years. His main focus is on shadow theatre, puppets, the storyteller, the kaleidoscope and folk music. He has documented hours of oral history for the puppeteer and shadow theatre and has produced 20 documentaries and a book on the topic. Among his documentary films are interviews with Saber El-Masri, Mohamed Karima and Shiko, all leading puppeteers. Among the puppet plays Baghat has been able to document during his visits to local moulid s (saints' festivals) are: The Puppeteer And His Wife, The Argumentative Strongman, The Bag Thief and The Professor And The Mortician.
Bahgat shot extensive footage of the shadow theatre master Hassan Khannoufa, the last shoot being only three months before the latter's death. He also filmed Khannoufa making puppets and performing babat. Wamda is now working on productions of shadow theatre plays by Khannoufa, who formerlyinstructed the company in the techniques of shadow theatre. Wamda is dedicated to promoting the vocabulary and motifs of folk art as part of a larger quest to develop a distinctively local identity and to promote cultural diversity.
The company performs in public spaces, streets, parks, and low-income neighbourhoods. It has also performed in Tunisia, the United States and Turkey. Wamda founded the Puppets Gathering in Egypt, and also organised the first festival for shadow theatre and puppets. It has held or participated in part in more than 50 workshops on puppets and shadow theatre inside and outside Egypt.