There is something about the very term "shadow puppets" that is mysterious—indeed, shadowy. How much more true must this have been before film and television outshone this lantern-lit fore-beat of screen entertainment.
There was a time in Cairo, some 600 to 700 years ago, when shadow plays, called khayal al-zill, were a much-loved form of entertainment. Long or short, simple or elaborate, serious or farcical, the plays were performed in palaces and mud-brick homes alike on such celebratory occasions as weddings and circumcisions—and especially on the nights of the holy month of Ramadan, when Cairenes roused themselves from the day-long fast. Seen in the dark night of a city without neon signs, the dimly illuminated, artfully colored, often hilariously expressive figures with no apparent substance held audiences spellbound.
The name khayal al-zill was an intentionally metaphorical term whose meaning is best translated as "shadows of the imagination" or "shadows of fancy," with implications that reinforced the allegorical nature of the stories. The white screen on which the shadows were projected created an easy-to-understand, physical division between the flesh-and-blood world and the imagination, and the name helped remind viewers that what they were seeing was indeed fanciful, and not intended to be real—an understanding that allowed the authorities of the day to grant greater license to the play's producers than would otherwise have been the case. In addition, the light cast on the screen—essential to the "life" of the characters—was a metaphor for the illuminating and creative power of God, a simple but far-reaching allegory that reinforced the Islamic view of human dependence on Him.
Shadow-theater performances are thought to have begun as early as the founding of Cairo in the 10th century, and the medium's popularity peaked in the 13th and 14th centuries, when the "shadows" were performed extensively throughout the Nile Delta. The idea was not original: Shadow theater is known in many lands, and it was popular in China, Southeast Asia, Indonesia and India before it came to Egypt, Turkey and the Levant. In Turkey—perhaps the most famous tradition in the region—it is called karagöz oyunu, after the name of its main character, Karagöz, and although the plays there resemble Egyptian ones, they generally involved a uniquely Turkish cast of characters. Egyptian khayal al-zill used different characters, and their stories tended to be more allegorical, and often more distinctly Islamic.
Although popular year-round, the "shadows of fancy" were never more sought after than during Ramadan. Once the sun went down, the main streets and midans, or squares, filled with crowds out for iftar, the fast-breaking meal, supplied by fleets of pushcart vendors. After eating, entertainment was the norm, and there were tumblers, gymnasts, magicians and storytellers to while away the hours. But few of those commanded attention as powerfully as the "shadows," and neighborhood practitioners offered a different show for each Ramadan night. Some plays were earthy and witty, even mildly bawdy; others passed on traditional fables and histories; and still others satirized the latest political scandals. Many were serial tales, designed to keep an audience coming back night after night.
The plays were performed on portable stages of wood and canvas that could be adapted to cafés, tents or the larger rooms of a house. The shadow figures were generally about 30 centimeters (12") tall and made of stiff, thin-stretched translucent camel-hide. They were mounted on long wooden rods in such a way that their arms, hands and legs could be animated from behind by manipulating the sticks. A strong lantern behind the characters (but in front of the puppeteers) cast the shadows of the moving figures onto the cloth screen, on the other side of which sat the audience.
Each company had its rais al-khayal, or "shadow-master," who deftly manipulated good and evil characters alike, made them turn somersaults or fight furiously, all according to the script. Every shadow-master worth his lantern wick knew at least 28 plays—one for each night of Ramadan. The more he could add song, poetry, emotional expression and the diverse, animated voices of men, women and children—and even of animals and birds—the more popular he would become. Sometimes he enlisted help, especially boys to do the female voices. He would perform the script from memory while jerking, sliding and subtly manipulating his characters, often to the accompaniment of drums, tambourines and flutes. Also at his command were "special effects"—smoke, fire, thunder, rattles, squeaks, thumps and whatever else might elicit a laugh or a shudder from his audience.
However diverse the subjects, all the shadow plays followed a similar structure. They began with a dance and always ended with either a joyful song or a free-for-all battle. There was a two-part prologue that first praised God, the Prophet Muhammad and his descendants and then presented the play's credits, naming the shadow-master himself, those who made and painted the figures, those who played the music and any other significant contributors, just as a film does today. Finally, the shadow-master always praised and thanked the audience for coming, and thanked God for giving him strength to perform.
Whatever the topic, the plays had in common one stock principal character: the muqaddim, who was a kind of presenter or narrator, like the character who opens and closes many of Shakespeare's plays. He always appeared wielding a stick, as if to command the players. To get everyone's attention, he would begin with a dance, and then he introduced the characters, usually with muttered asides that foreshadowed plot twists or hilariously slandered the other characters. (Turkish shadow plays had a parallel tradition, for Karagöz carried out a similar function, and could be scurrilous.) At the end of every performance, by long-established tradition, the rais al-khayal would admonish the audience, "Come back tomorrow, for there is more to see!"
Behind the curtain of Cairo's "shadows of fancy" were the talents of a cosmopolitan city. By the early 14th century, Cairo had been experiencing a lavish building boom for more than four centuries. Homes, mosques, colleges and public buildings all required masons, plumbers, carpenters and craftsmen of many kinds. It was thanks to these artisan classes that the shadow plays evolved in their distinctive fashion, for a successful performance required workers in wood, rope and leather; it enlisted tinsmiths, lantern-makers, candle-makers and tinkerers, the "makers of mechanical devices." Scenes could be wildly elaborate: ships in heavy seas; a whole navy complete with sailors rowing; animals prancing, birds flying, fish swimming and, of course, battles—to the point that khayal al-zill at times resembled a 14th-century equivalent of modern action films. Individual shadow-masters developed unique repertoires and styles based on the artisanal support they were able to muster. It is interesting to note that in Upper Egypt, along the reaches of the Nile south of Cairo where such craft skills were not as abundant, khayal al-zill did not exist.
The man who actually made the puppet characters was called the qassas ("cutter"), a term that also connoted "storyteller." Using special knives and scissors, the qassas cut and stitched camel leather—and sometimes fish skin—so that the character would both behave properly and project well onto the curtain.
No less skilled was the megariz, who pierced each puppet and attached the manipulating rods. His trick was to insert them so that the character could move the right way, while minimizing intrusion from the rods or the arms of the puppeteer, who stood behind the puppet. Sometimes this required only one hole—in exactly the right place—and other times it required more. For example, a figure that would have to dance might have one hole in the chest and another in the legs, arms or head.
The actual performers of the shadow plays belonged to a respected class of public entertainers, some of whom became famous and wealthy. One shadow-master of the middle ages, Daoud al-Manawy, explained in a prologue to a play that has survived in only fragmentary form that his thespian work had taken him happily away from the spice trade, which he refers to as drudgery. Yet we know that that business was among the most lucrative of the time.
One of Cairo's most successful shadow playwrights was Ibn Daniyal, who was an eye doctor born in Mosul, Iraq. At 19, he had just completed his medical studies when he fled to Cairo ahead of the Mongol invasion. He was also a poet, and in his spare time he delighted in writing and performing original shadow plays. Three of his texts still exist, all labeled tayf al-khayal ("phantoms of the shadows"), and they are the only complete examples of Arabic drama from the Middle Ages that have survived to the present day.
Written in rhymed prose in classical Arabic, the plays are dialogues among characters that are rich with references to the social life of Cairo. In one, Ibn Daniyal lightheartedly satirizes events of the reign of the Mamluk sultan al-Zahir Baybars. His play begins with the usual praise to "the Lord God Almighty, the majestic, exalted, above all the world," and goes on to "bless the Prophet and his family," and prays for "a long life for our Sultan, who alone preserves us from evil." This Sultan Baybars had certainly done, for it was in 1260 that he and his Mamluk armies had dealt the Mongols a historic defeat, saving Cairo from the devastation that had befallen Baghdad and Damascus. Yet Ibn Daniyal's comment a moment later that a recent order of the sultan had "put Satan's army to flight" appears to refer not to the Mongols but to drug peddlers who had recently been expelled from the city.
One of Ibn Daniyal's evil characters, Amir Wisal, boasts:
I am sharper than a lancet,
I croak better than a frog.
I can break in like a passkey
And I'm rougher than a cob.
I am brighter than the brightest star,
More crooked than a spiral.
My capacity is endless
And I'm dangerous and dire.
The slow decline of Cairo's shadow plays, and their eventual complete demise, was not, as some would have us believe, entirely due to the rise of the theater and, later, film and television, some khayal characters were adapted to stage and screen.
Beginning with World War I, it was other technological changes that eclipsed the shadow artisans, who for generations had worked primarily in wood, tin and leather. As plastics began to displace wood, the woodworkers' labors came to appear slow and costly. This brought on a change in the very thought process of craft: As the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy wrote, "A man cutting and shaping a stone block speaks to the stone. But a man pouring cement no longer has any conversation with what he is doing." After World War II, the closely knit groups of craftsmen who had produced the shadows no longer lived together in the same Cairo districts, and their children, instead of learning the old stories, sought work in more modern professions. With the loss of the shadow-masters, the characters were lost too, many of which had never, in hundreds of years, existed in written form.
But during the 1980's, Alfred Mikhail of Cairo began carrying out research on the shadows for his dissertation at the Sorbonne. He scoured all of Egypt for "the shadows of fancy," and he found a number of fragments of actual plays. In Port Said he discovered a collection of centuries-old puppet characters, each with its name carefully written on the back. In Cairo he tracked down three of the old puppeteers—Ahmed El Khoumy, Hassan Khanoufa and Hassan El Farran. With their cooperation, he went on to produce actual shadow plays, which were performed at the German and Italian cultural centers in Cairo.
One of the people who attended these performances was Hassan El Geretly, founder and director of the Cairo-based folkloric thespian troupe El Warsha ("the workshop").
"What was it, I wondered, that suddenly linked me to an ancient art form I had never known?" asked El Geretly. "Gradually, I began to understand I had touched upon a deep feeling that had infused this ancient art."
El Warsha is a group of young people who have begun to gather Cairo's traditional street entertainers, magicians and storytellers to keep the old tales and folklore alive. Until their deaths in 1996 and 1998 respectively, El Farran and El Khoumy passed on their skills; Khanoufa, who was trained as a technical assistant by an older shadow-master, now assists El Warsha.
"At first we had almost forgotten the old plays," El Khoumy said a few months before he died, "but we sat down and pieced them together, Hassan El Farran and I, reminding each other until, praise God, we had done it."
Of the group, only El Khoumy was a true rais al-khayal. Puppets were his life: "By day I played the hand-puppets," he said. "But when it got dark, it was time for 'the shadows.'"
Khanoufa, now nearing his mid-70's, looks a bit like a small puppet himself. "It's all I know how to do, the music and the shadows," he says. He began working in the shadow plays as a boy, playing women's voices. He always dreamed of "one day being in front of the screen, rather than forever hidden behind it, so that I could be seen."
El Farran, who was the last qassas, or "cutter," was grateful for El Warsha's work. If not for the troupe, he said, "we'd probably have lost even the memory of [the shadow plays] these days. But now—praise be to God!—even my mind's more active, and I find myself making up jokes, just like in the old days."
One of El Farran's gifts to El Warsha was to make one last set of characters, this one for a production of El Timsah (The Crocodile), which El Warsha has now performed at several locations in Cairo and in Paris and Bursa, Turkey. Since childhood, El Farran said, he had been passionate about "the shadows of fancy." As a boy, he would tie a sheet between bedposts and, using a candle, create shadows on his makeshift screen. One night his bed caught fire, and his father wrathfully forbade any more shadow-playing. But the family name, El Farran, means "baker," and that was his father's trade. Thus while his father was away during the night making the next day's bread, Hassan, with the clandestine support of his mother, carried on his bedtime shadow plays.
"The old Egyptian shadow play was never theater as we know it today," says El Geretly. "It was more naïve and down-to-earth. We are trying to preserve its original simplicity."
But Dr. Hoda Issa, a member of El Warsha and a lecturer at Cairo University who studied the "shadows of fancy" for her dissertation, says that "it is one thing to research and gather together fragments of old shadow plays, but a museum cannot keep an art alive. If people don't see the plays, they die."
Free-lance writer and photographer John Feeney has contributed numerous articles to Aramco World over more than 25 years, working from his base in Cairo. He dedicates this article to the memory of rais al-khayal Ahmed El Khoumy (ca. 1915-1998).