16 - 22 December 1999
Issue No. 460
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
No fanfare necessaryProfile by Tarek Atia
His shadow dreams have all become brass realities
Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Debate Focus Profile Living Travel Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
At an old coffee shop on Mohamed Ali Street, a man sits waiting for work. Small and practically toothless, he is 67, and has a terrible cough. But despite the constant wheezing and the noisy phlegm, he still smokes four or five shishas per day.
Although many would be quick to disparage such dedication to a destructive habit, it is a reflection of this man's personality. For Hassan Khannoufa is a survivor. A puppeteer by trade, Hassan is one of the last Egyptians who knows how to perform the ages-old art of Khayal Al-Zhill, or shadow puppeteering.
Hassan knows that no one is very interested in his craft any more, that cinema and TV have literally replaced the shadow puppets of yore.
Literally, because the shadow puppet show, with its full-colour, moving images of light on a screen, its wonderful tales that take you to a parallel world, its commentaries on life and reflections of society's joys and pains, is in many ways one of the main roots of modern cinema.
But what good is it to be the root of an art that has been replaced, that has now become folklore in a world of Technicolour and multi-plex?
Hassan was born in Darb Al-Ahmar, and lived all his life on Mohamed Ali Street. He started going to moulids at age 10, and that's where he learned the craft. Unlike most moulid performers, who inherited their trade, no one in his family did this before him. His stage name, "Khannoufa", is also the reason why he was chosen to learn the trade, since he is akhnaf (his voice, in fact, is almost a caricature of nasality). He was perfect to play the seller of clay water pots.
With the pride of repetition, he lists the masters he worked with and who taught him what he knows: Ni'matallah El-Agami from Bulaq, Ibrahim Habashi, Mohamed Abul-Rouss. Ali Mahmoud Ali Saleh, who taught the famous puppeteer Shukoukou. Rayes Said Ibn Foula. Rayes Ouf. "There's no one like the people I worked with, and there will never be anyone like them again."
Hassan Ibrahim Hassan. Al-Shuhra (known as) Hassan Khannoufa. That's right, he can rightly join these now long-gone masters, mainly since he is the only one left.
"When they look for Khayal Al-Zhill anywhere in the country -- Tanta, Zaqaziq, anywhere -- they tell them there's only one person, one person in all of Egypt, named Hassan, who does this now."
Hassan will talk your ear off about Khayal Al-Zhill, but is sketchy about the details of his personal life. All he'll say is that he lives with his sister, and that he was once married, to his cousin, but that it didn't work out.
What goes without saying, though, is that the years have gone by quickly, and much has changed. Hassan's life has been turned upside down by technology, but somehow he has managed to adapt. When it became clear that Khayal Al-Zhill was quickly becoming extinct, he picked up a new trade, and for years now he has been playing in Firqat Hassaballah.
The red-suited brass band whose name has become synonymous with a comic routine made famous in an old Abdel-Halim Hafez movie, Hassan explains, actually harks back to an old musical booking agent named Hassaballah, of Mohamed Ali Street, whom King Farouk made into a bey. Hassaballah's troupes were expensive, and only rented out to parties for the upper crust. When Abdel-Salam Al-Nabulsi made fun of them in a movie, the real Hassaballah Bey got upset. Eventually, the family dropped the business, but the name has stuck. There are nearly 30 troupes today and, Hassan says, people still want them to perform for weddings, for the bridal procession or the "furniture procession", in which the married couple's new possessions are displayed. Ironically, the bulk of the work comes from movie and TV: producers look for Hassaballah troupes to perform in any play, TV show, movie, sketch, video clip or ad that needs that authentic, nostalgic, slightly comical, and very jubilant feel that is the essence of Firqat Hassaballah.
One day, a few minutes after I leave Hassan at the coffee shop, I pass by Midan Talaat Harb to find a huge crowd of people gathered around a big pick-up truck filled with brand new furniture. There are four men in red suits with their drums and brass instruments standing in the truck, playing the standard tune: "Berrerit dit derrererrit det det, de rerdere ree..."
As it turns out, they are part of an episode of Tarek Allam's Kalam min Dahab that is being filmed in the square. The person who answers Allam's trick question correctly will get a bedroom set as a gift, and the Hassaballah troupe will play a victory song. Sure enough, Hassan's friend Ezzat, the drummer, is one of the crew.
Watching the surreal scene, I am reminded of a story my father told me about the hidden wiles of Hassaballah: "A rich man would ask for a Hassaballah troupe composed of 12 or more players. The booking agent would only have six performers available, but plenty of broken, but shiny instruments, and uniforms. He'd get anyone from the street to put on the uniform and pretend to be playing. My grandfather told me that he would go to the performances and watch carefully, all the while trying to pinpoint who the real performers were, and who the stand-ins, or impostors, were."
Which brings us, quite neatly, to the parallel form of survival practiced by Hassan Khannoufa, the shadow puppeteer, in post-modern 1999 Egypt.
Thanks to people like Hassan El-Giritli and Alfred Mikhail, two of the self-appointed "folklore saviours" who have miraculously given people like Hassan Khannoufa a second chance, for a while now, Khannoufa, along with the dozens of other performers who have traditionally entertained the masses at moulids, weddings and circumcisions across the country, have found themselves playing at culture centres here in Egypt and all around the world, their simple art suddenly transformed into a curio for urban elites who most likely didn't get to experience this kind of thing while growing up.
This Ramadan, Khannoufa will play at Beit Al-Harawi. The historic old house is only a few metres away from the kharabas (vacant lots) Hassan is used to playing in. "We like this better," Hassan says about his new venue. "Before, we would perform in any garbage dump, we'd perform anywhere, at every moulid. Now, at moulids, no one wants to see us anymore. This generation doesn't understand. None of them want to learn."
For Hassan and his colleagues, the cultural centre audiences, the TV and theatre people, the foreigners, are much better to perform for. "They appreciate us, and they're clean. No one is going to yell out during the performance. They're quiet and just listen."
Hassan is fully cognisant of his role as the pallbearer of folklore. He knows that he is probably being gawked at by people who don't have a long and rich history like Egypt's, who sometimes "take our heritage and use it for their benefit", he mutters.
Even so, Hassan seems most proud of the fact that he gets a monthly salary from Hassan El-Giritli for being a part of Al-Warsha's troupe of old time performers. He also frequently mentions that several years ago, in 1993, with the help of Alfred Mikhail, who has a doctorate in puppeteering and once directed a documentary featuring Hassan, he got the chance to perform at an international competition in Germany. There, he met and traded notes with shadow puppeteers from all over the world. Places like India, China, Indonesia and Thailand. "They're good," Hassan says, "but we had the greatest success."
As everything changes, though, even Hassan has been forced to compromise a little. "They all had leather puppets like ours, but today," he laments, "there's not enough work to support the making of leather puppets. That's why we make them out of cardboard. I don't let anyone else make them, I make them myself."
The advantage of leather over cardboard is that leather's semi-opaque quality actually allows the colours painted onto the puppets to show through from behind the screen. Thus the ancient audiences were actually watching what for us would be the equivalent of colour films.
Even back then, the entertainment business was a healthy market-place. Mikhail tells of a time when the shadow puppet show was "free". At least it started that way, but then the puppeteer would suddenly halt the show at a cliffhanger moment, and make the audience pay before he went on.
The way Hassan tells it, 40 years ago, the show used to cost 1 piastre per person. It actually cost nine millims, but in a precursor to the common "no change" phenomenon at kiosks in Cairo, you paid a piastre and got a candy back as change.
In Ramadan and during moulids, the standard aragoz (hand puppet) would perform in the morning, but the last show at night, the one everyone waited for, was always Khayal Al-Zhill.
Usually there would be three or more people behind the screen, including a drummer, and before electricity was invented, they would hang a lantern from the ceiling. "That type of light is much better for watching the puppets," Hassan says.
Not much of the old tales that became standard shadow puppet routines remain. Hassan knows three by heart.
The first, Al-Bay'a, or The Sale, involves a Syrian character named Taadir who falls in love with a Christian girl named Alam. Her brother Boulos tries to stop the match, but eventually Alam converts to Islam. The show features a caustic routine where Taadeer tries to get Boulos to say Wa Alaykum Al-Salaam in response to his greeting Al-Salaamu Alaykum.
The second story is a madcap romp that was originally meant to be the story of Mohamed Ali Pasha's exploration of the Sudan, but has become a mere excuse for Ismail Yassin-style jokes and stunts featuring quarreling conscripts.
The third story is a cynical take on the relationship between the government and the people, involving a fisherman who is approached by another man claiming that he is the guardian of the lake and is thus entitled to part of the catch.
Although puppets are now mostly considered a children's domain, this is most certainly entertainment for adults, and as Mikhail puts it, "the more the shows became Sha'bi and improvisational in nature, the less the government liked them."
In the Alam-Taadir story, the Makanat Al-Abaha, or Insult Machine, is pulled onto the stage and made to spew out a whole string of epithets, which stop only when one of the characters hits it on the derriere.
"There's nothing meant by it," Hassan says, when I ask him about the strange, often complex nature of some of these stories his shadow puppets tell. It's hard to tell whether he's just playing dumb, or using the same logic cinema people use when people start trying to read too much into film. "It's all innocent fun," Hassan shrugs, "just something for people to watch."
Just like he is now. The first time I met Hassan, he thought we were trying to hire him to put on a full-fledged puppet show. "LE1,000," he said optimistically.
He soon found out that it was just another attempt to appropriate his story and image, but was astute enough to know it might also land him more work.
"Stand up Hassan, sit down Hassan, do this Hassan, do that Hassan..."
For hours, the photographer prods the puppeteer in order to get the perfect shot, as the reporter grills him with questions. No problem. As usual, Hassan is a willing puppet. He doesn't mind helping to boost the quaint, down-home feeling you might find yourself lacking.
Small, humble and patient, he represents Egyptian "folk". He wears his red cap, gets paid, goes home, and lives to work another day.
photo: Sherif Sonbol