Inside the coffe house, it was almost pitch-black. The Tunisian night air is quiet, expectant. Patrons who would ordinarily be laughing and chatting over a cup of thick, dark coffee sit silently on wooden benches and chairs ranged around the room.
Suddenly a small screen at one end of the room is brightly lighted. There are shouts of delight, followed by the strains of a sentimental song. The youngsters in the first few rows of benches sit up, their eyes wide and excited. The theater is about to begin! Everyone concentrates on the white screen.
They have been waiting a whole year, for this is no everyday spectacle. This is Karagoz, the famous shadow puppet theater of the Middle East and one of the oldest folk traditions of the Muslim world. It is Ramadan, and for 28 nights they will see a different play each evening.
As the plaintive melody ends, Hacivad makes his appearance—Hacivad, the pseudo-intellectual man-of-the-world who introduces the play and acts as foil for the boisterous, comic Karagoz, a witty rascal who falls into wild adventures. Some even consider Karagoz a gypsy because in Turkish his name means "black eye."
"This is the performance of shadows," Hacivad begins, and the audience settles down to an evening of hilarity at the expense of the foolish, the pompous and the pretentious.
Shadow puppets are found all over the world. Karagoz, the roguish hero of the East, is the brother of England's Punch, France's Guignol, Germany's Kasperl, America's Lafleur, Italy's Pulcinella and Russia's Petrushka. He bears the same relationship to the heroes of the shadow drama of India, China, Siam, Japan, Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies. Yet Karagoz is older than any of these forms, with the exception of India, where the shadow-theater tradition is recorded as far back as twenty centuries ago.
Karagoz was invented somewhere in Asia, and early allusions to it are found in Arabic writings of the eleventh century. Its spread probably followed the route of Turkish expansion in the Orient, Middle East and North Africa, for initial mentions of it coincide with the era of Turkish influence in the Muslim world. This does not mean that Karagoz is necessarily a Turkish invention, but the Turks, originally from Central Asia, were intimately acquainted with the shadow puppet theater and probably spread it through their nomadic wanderings. Initially it was a form of entertainment enjoyed by the masses, for to them it represented life as they observed it. Later, Karagoz became popular in court and aristocratic circles.
Legend has it that although the shadow-theater form came into being earlier, the two protagonists—Karagoz and Hacivad—date to the fourteenth-century reign of Sultan Orhan. A mason and a blacksmith by those names were supposed to have lived at that time. Commissioned to work on a mosque being constructed by order of the Sultan, the two wisecracking cronies kept their colleagues in constant laughter. The Sultan, wondering why the construction proceeded at a snail's pace, had them done away with when he learned of their distracting antics. A man named Seyh Kusteri, wishing to console the Sultan when he was overcome with remorse for his impulsive harshness, erected a screen in a corner of the palace and showed silhouettes of Hacivad and Karagoz up to their most amusing tricks.
At this time, the plays were primarily humorous. Slapstick was the core of action. Whenever Karagoz wearied of Hacivad's tedious recitations of poetry and philosophy, a few well-aimed blows served to terminate them. Through the centuries, Hacivad has always represented the pretentious man of "culture," who injects learned words into his own language to demonstrate a false elegance, much as some twentieth-century counterparts pepper their conversations with foreign phrases. Karagoz, on the other hand, has always been portrayed as the down-to-earth, common-sense embodiment of the people.
As the plays became rowdier, religious and secular leaders acted to discourage their performance. In 1451, Sultan Jakmak of Egypt forbade Karagoz and ordered that all sets and props be burned. In the sixteenth century, however, Karagoz had a revival and became established as a respectable form of theater. It was then that it developed some of its satirical overtones.
This was an era when the people had fewer outlets for grievances. Since they could not express their dissatisfaction openly, the puppets did it for them. After all, puppets could not be held responsible for their words or deeds! Historical events paved the way for satire of this type and, since officials could not be overtly depicted, the puppet characters became stereotypes and the plays a triumph of good over evil.
Karagoz puppets are brightly colored, two-dimensional figures made of thin camel skin. Their limbs are hinged so that they can perform amazing feats of derring-do, leap out of windows, fight and dance with utter realism. Somewhere in their mid-section is a small hole into which a long thin rod is inserted. The puppets are then pressed tightly against the linen or greased-paper screen and are moved by means of this rod, which is held at an angle so that the audience cannot see it.
Most of the plays are presented by one man, who must simultaneously speak all the roles in varying voices, provide his own sound effects, sing, recite and manipulate all the puppets. The most difficult task he faces, however, is pleasing an audience that usually knows the plays as well as the puppeteer, for the framework of each play has been handed down from generation to generation.
He must satisfy the children with Hacivad's eloquent flights of rhetoric, interrupted by Karagoz' fisticuffs, and he must amuse the adults by cleverly inserting topical references to neighborhood doings. All this he must do while remaining strictly within the established structure of the play. At least 28 different plays must be in each puppeteer's repertoire.
The plays that comprise the Karagoz repertoire often seem to the Westerner, unfamiliar with the tradition, to be a series of disconnected episodes. Actually, the plays are separate and distinct pictures of such topics as family life, marriage, and the coffee house. Each is a commentary on a facet of daily life in the Middle East.
Like the Punch and Judy puppet shows, Karagoz is far more than merely a form of juvenile entertainment. It is broad social comedy, meant to bring laughter to the average man and provide him with a few minutes' relief from his workaday problems.
Today, performances of the shadow puppets are not nearly as common as they once were. In most Middle East countries they have all but disappeared, and when they are seen, they are likely to be part of a special revival of an old folk art. But on the rare occasions when Hacivad and Karagoz come to life on the linen screen, that screen once again becomes a mirror of society which reflects what the people think of themselves, their world and their time.