Ellie Violet Bramley

Keeping puppetry alive

he Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation (APTF) was established in 2008 to act as an umbrella organization for puppetry in the Arab world. Their mission is “to encourage puppetry practices in the Arab world and widen their scope. APTF is a platform to revive, continually challenge and rethink the art/form of puppetry in the Arab world.”

Founded and run by Mahmoud al-Hourani, along with some friends, the idea of APTF was born in 2007 while Hourani was studying in London.

He told NOW Extra that “like music, every culture, every house, [and] every people have their own puppetry.”  A linear narrative and geographical plotting seem ill-suited to puppetry’s history, though links can be made between ancient trading routes and the progression of certain types of puppetry.

For instance, Hourani stated that shadow puppetry is a traditional art form in the Middle East. Khayal al-Zill, Arabic for “shadows of the imagination,” was a popular form of puppetry in medieval Cairo and one of the leading figures of shadow puppetry was Iraqi-born playwright Muhammad Ibn Daniyal, who died in 1311.

In one sense, the renaissance that puppetry is currently enjoying in the Arab world is surprising. In this hi-tech age of computer-generated imagery and iPads, puppetry could have become outdated and redundant. Luckily for us, it hasn’t.
For Hourani, puppetry is all the more magical precisely because of its limitations, adding that it is truly remarkable to see an inanimate wooden puppet being manipulated to express a genuine feeling. This is the escapism of TV, but tenfold.

Watching Hourani talk about puppetry, one begins to see the possibility of magic as his puppet-less hand movements hint at something more than mere physicality.

The ethos behind a lot of the foundation’s work is to share and pass on the skills and joy of puppetry, so that the tradition can be continued, progressed, shared around communities and loved.

Previously, families were relied upon to pass down the skill and, in Hourani's view, it was the lack of professional training that was in part responsible for the decline in puppetry that seems now to have been curbed.

“Before, if you wanted a puppeteer, you had to call someone; it was very expensive, and they didn't go everywhere […] It was over like a flash, the community clapped, enjoyed and they never saw puppetry again. We want to see new puppeteers everywhere… A youth worker can have the skill of a puppeteer, not just Mr. Know-It-All.”

Residences began in Lebanon in 2010, with this year’s three-week training taking place between July 1 and July 18. The goal is to formalize the teaching of puppetry in order to ensure a fruitful future.

Participants of past residencies have hailed from Sudan, Yemen, Morocco, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Tunisia and Mauritania. This year’s participants will all be resident in Lebanon and will likely include Palestinians, Syrians and migrant domestic workers.

Next year the foundation will head to Tunisia where the tradition is well-established. However, other countries with less well-rooted traditions and less flourishing cultural scenes are also on the list of places to visit.

These workshops aim to teach “all things puppet,” from making puppets, to the different techniques of puppetry, to which kind of puppetry is most apt for which kind of piece.

For instance, in comedy sketches, hand puppets work best (think the Muppets); Marionettes, or string puppets, are better suited for the silent, musical, movement-based or eerie side of puppetry; shadow puppets are best suited for visual performances.

Hourani explained that the multi-disciplinary nature of puppetry is what makes this field even more fascinating. “When you have a puppet you have to be a painter, a sculptor, a director, a fashion designer. It includes a lot of different elements of art.” 

At the end of each residency, trainees get the chance to show off their newly-acquired skills in performances to friends, family and to the wider public.

Nathalie Rosa Bucher recently joined APTF from the Union Internationale des Marionnettes, South Africa (UNIMA SA), which is the South African chapter of the biggest international puppetry association UNIMA.

For her, shadow puppetry can work beautifully alongside hand puppets – the former providing the kind of wide-perspective you get from a pan-out in cinema, the latter providing the more “physical” action.

Bucher wants those involved in the residencies to “share the love,” a key criterion for those selected to take part in the residencies, aside from an appetite for puppetry or a background in the arts. They want people who intend to use their newly developed skills to the benefit of their whole community. The goal is to create a huge network of puppeteers across the Arab world.

Tamara Keldany of Les Amis des Marionnettes, a mobile puppet theater that has partnered with APTF in the past, attests. “The participants chosen are people with whom it is interesting to work because we feel that the information or the know-how we are sharing with them really serves them and is used by them after they leave.”

For the talented few selected to take part in the residencies, it is a genuinely special experience. For Rasha Khalil from Bourj Al-Barajneh camp located on the outskirts of Beirut, the residency “exceeded all my expectations and aspirations. I cannot forget the feeling I had on stage with 12 brothers and sisters presenting the reality of the Palestinian youth. All of them in the same country of the diaspora, hand-in-hand in thought, revolution and reality through which I felt the warmth of our homeland and the strength of belonging to our land.”

For Syrian Lojain Ismail, who took part in the 2010 residency, “we participated in one show with Arab and foreign trainers and artists. That is what I call culture in its simplest expression. As we say in colloquial Arabic: ‘They gave me a treasure by laughing and playing.’”

Puppetry often brings forth honesty, draws out confidence in shy people and externalizes possibly untold narratives, Hourani stated. However, he added a word of caution after having seen puppets “hijacked,” the theatricality of them forgotten and too much was put on their shoulders by the puppeteer. The lesson: Don’t forget aesthetics, or we will be made to “feel sorry for the puppet.”

Visit the Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation’s website to find out more about the organization, their past projects and their plans for the future, including the 2012 Beirut residency.