Virtual museum retraces the lost art of Arab puppetry
The Arab Puppetry Museum, birthed by the Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation (APTF) has no ornate objects displayed in glass vitrines, no exhibition halls or artworks that adorn its walls.
The Gerda Henkel Stiftung-funded museum is a virtual space and cultural sanctuary that houses antiquated objects – mainly puppets that collectively narrate the hitherto unknown history of Arab puppetry.
“In no venue or book has the history of Arab puppetry been faithfully represented,” museum founder and APTF director, Mahmoud Hourani told The New Arab from Florence, Italy, emphasising the need to “jigsaw together with the surviving fragments,” a task performed by his colleagues in London and Ramallah.
"By digitising these objects, the end goal is to stimulate story-telling and knowledge"
Hourani believes that digitising and displaying never-before-seen antique marionettes – glove puppets, shadow puppets, and rod puppets (among other paraphernalia) – could throw new light on the origins of puppeteering, as well as the political and historical events that inspired Arab theatre productions.
“Theatre is by default a storytelling device. It opens up an alternate universe for audiences interested in stories from the ground,” Hourani said.
The endeavour is to tell authentic stories which has resulted in fruitful collaborations between the museum and local researchers, traversing their respective cities for buried clues about puppetry forgotten past.
In Iraq, Palestine, Egypt, and Tunisia, researchers have been trawling through national archives and rooting around the musty basements of theatre houses. They have also been introduced to private collections preserved by the families of celebrated puppeteers no longer with us.
Hournai spoke of his delight at the efforts of private collectors for having safeguarded inherited puppetry-themed objects as treasured family heirlooms. Each encapsulates the maker’s past and that of his respective nation.
By digitising these objects, the end goal is to stimulate story-telling and knowledge, and as Hourani emphasised in conversion with The New Arab, the treasure-hunt-process was never about procuring other people’s puppets.
The museum’s remote archivisation approach arrives at an important compromise, preserving the sentimentality of objects while empowering duty-bound archivists to recover the past and decipher the provenance of objects.
Rare photographs, VHS recordings, and even scraps of paper onto which stage lines were scribbled decades ago will also be displayed in video installations at forthcoming collections.
“Collectors have been more than accommodating,” Hourani said, commenting on the generosity shown by individuals and also established cultural institutions, such as the National Theatre in Tunisia, that have opened up their prized collections to Hourani and his team.
“Tunisia has an immensely wealthy past and, as far back as the reign of Habib Bourguiba, has had a voracious appetite for puppetry,” he said.
“Another objective is to promote conservation treatment for age-old puppets,” the puppet enthusiast told The New Arab.
"Theatre is by default a storytelling device. It opens up an alternate universe for audiences interested in stories from the ground"
Hourani’s brows furrowed as he recounted the poor storage conditions that surviving puppets and props had endured.
“Over the years we’ve witnessed absolute calamities… the stench of damp emanating from basements, boiler rooms and, believe it or not, even tank containers,” where puppets had been stored and forgotten about Hourani described. “Some were suffocated inside greasy suitcases and unventilated plastic bags … [we saw] garments covered in mildew stains, and dolls whose features have been eroded [by tropical weather conditions].
“These puppets are priceless artefacts,” Hourani stressed, the oldest of which date back to the 30s and 40s, and damages incurred over time are not easy to reverse.”
A remedial solution, starting in the Spring of 2022, is to open up art residences tailored for local conservators.
“They will be invited to participate in workshops focusing on basic repairs and specialist care for extensively handled and ageing puppets.”
The surgical precision required can be as intricate as fixing broken pottery but Hourani believes that with time running out fast, conservation is the only way forward. “This way we can avert future calamities, without jetting out to the region every time a need for conservation arises.”
Before the advent of cinematic arts that presently dominate the visual entertainment industry, puppet theatre was a herculean artform, whose exoticism was unparalleled.
It was during a 12th-century Ottoman rule that the footprint of Puppetry arts grew. While it is remembered as a high-society, court-based ritual, it became a permanent fixture of daily life performed on the streets and piazzas, attracting lay audiences.
Known by multiple names – Masrah al-Duma, arayes, aragoz, karaqoz – theatre puppetry is a blend of classical theatre, and the Arabic-hakawati storytelling tradition and social criticism.
Plays graced the region's oldest capitals — Baghdad, Jerusalem and Cairo — thousands of years ago, and despite the noticeably ribald content of some plays, their signature strength as a venue for criticism against power and patronage, has endured.
Hourani described how puppets were among the first protesters to show up in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the 2011 uprising.
In this context, the revival of puppetry in the streets and online was set in motion in Egypt and elsewhere in the region. More remarkable was the commercial success of puppetry artists on television and digital platforms, delivering scathingly satirical content — much of which was ubiquitously political.
There was Egypt’s Netflix commissioned Abla Fahima, Iraq’s puppet-style show, Kesh Watan, Puppets of the Arab Maghreb in Tunisia, the Algerian studio talk show Weekend Story (whose guests included life-size marionettes of present-day leaders) and not least, Syria’s finger puppet show, Top Goon. Each, bitingly critical, rebuked political leaders and the injustices they had inflicted.
"Plays graced the region's oldest capitals — Baghdad, Jerusalem and Cairo — thousands of years ago, and despite the noticeably ribald content of some plays, their signature strength as a venue for criticism against power and patronage, has endured"
The ability to produce content with virality-potential is key to puppetry’s survival, Hourani said “but I hope that we can still enjoy the unadulterated magic of a live, on-stage, performance. I was always attracted to theatre’s ability to speak in metaphors and stimulate the imagination — its only close rival is the novel,” Hourani said, commenting on the allure and charm of it all.
His fascination led him to London, where he studied at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, and after graduating in 2008, he founded the APTF, and teamed up with UNICEF in Lebanon, touring refugee camps to perform plays for displaced children.
His latest initiative — the Puppetry Museum — set to launch later in 2022, hopes to not only feed people’s curiosity and imagination but also to entertain, “but not in the traditional sense” Hourani caveated.
Museum-goers, albeit online, will travel back in time to learn about indigenous, Arabic folk puppetry, graced by its enduring regality, charm, and fanciful flights of imagination.
The museum’s longer-term goal — Hourani teased — is to set up a touring exhibition across Europe, adding that the physical display of items will restore the tactility of objects lost to web-browsing, allowing audiences to touch and see with their naked eye artefacts of an art form that is fast fading.
Nazli Tarzi is an independent journalist, whose writings and films focus on Iraq's ancient history and contemporary political scene