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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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Karagoz: Turkey’s Puppet Theater

For centuries, Muslims in Turkey have used shadow puppet theater as part of their celebrations.

For centuries throughout the Near and Middle East, indeed from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Orient, one of the most popular entertainments was shadow theater. Brightly colored puppets were the performers in this lively theatrical art form which is now almost lost. In many ways a distinctive expression of Islamic culture, shadow theater took various forms as it developed in different countries. One of the most outstanding of these forms is Karagoz, the shadow theater of Muslim Turkey.

During Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, Karagoz was performed in town and village each evening as part of the traditional respite after a day of fast and penance. Yet Ramadan was not the only occasion for the merriment of Karagoz, nor were the crowds in local coffee houses and public squares the only enthusiastic audiences. In the homes of the wealthy, in the palace of the Sultan, at wedding feasts, circumcision ceremonies and other joyful events, Karagoz was the favorite diversion. It peaked in the mid-seventeenth century in the Ottoman Empire, but experienced periods of censorship and repression because of its political satire and often salacious content. It declined toward the end of the last century and the beginning of the present one, but comes to life today as part of the revival of traditional Turkish theatrical art.

Karagoz (Black-Eye) takes its name from one of the two characters who feature in every performance. The other is Hacivat, with whom Karagoz engages in lively banter. Their exchange includes verbal somersaults, absurd responses to absurd rhetoric, comic and often coarse gestures, violent physical and verbal abuse, biting satire against social and political conditions, and for those who have ears to hear, deep mystical reflections upon truth.

Karagoz is easily identified by his large, elaborate headgear, slightly turnedup nose, short, rounded beard, and enlarged, movable forearm. He is crude, humorous, cross, disarmingly witty and naive by turn, and given to misinterpretation of Hacivat’s pompous utterances. He is the illiterate teacher who teaches from the heart, and he is often nearer to the homely truth than is his verbose companion.

Hacivat wears a pointed hat and pointed beard. His tunic has turned-back sleeves and from his waist hangs a tobacco pouch. Though Hacivat is by no means a sophisticate, he sometimes tries to imitate the speech of the well-born and the educated, seeking a willing ear for his philosophical, political and social commentary. His clumsy and hilarious attempts at urbanity are satiric barbs aimed at the pretentious and self-important.

In addition to these two principals, a variety of stock characters populate Karagoz. Each one is distinguished by a standard mode of dress, speech and behavior.

The Karagoz puppet makes no pretense of reality. It is a two-dimensional, ten- or twelve-inch figure of thinly stretched leather, usually camel hide, roughly but skillfully stitched together with heavy, visible gut. It is colored with bright vegetable dyes and baked in the sun to dry. Then, to further destroy any semblance of real man, bird or beast, a prominent hole or two is made in the figure to accommodate the sticks of the puppeteer. These too are carefully reinforced with supporting hide and gut stitching.

The puppet master, or hayali, works behind a small white screen made of tightly stretched linen, or sometimes only of greased paper. It is framed by a curtain of bright carpets hung to conceal “backstage” and to prevent light spill. His props are few: a small table to hold his figures; the sticks-about fifteen inches long-with which he manipulates them; and two lights positioned to the left and right between the puppeteer and the screen.

The hayali must know the scenario of the play by heart. (Puppet masters of old knew at least 28 plays, a different one for each night of Ramadan.) He must also improvise dialogue as the climate and taste of his audience warrant; voice every role of the play: male and female, young and old, native and foreigner; and express all the emotions of the characters. He must sing a variety of songs, recite poetry, speak in different accents and spar verbally with himself. All the while, he is jerking, sliding, and collapsing the figures pressed close against the screen so that the illusion of continuous smooth action and believable speech or song is all that filters through to the eyes and ears of his audience.

Though shadow theater is a medium of comic entertainment, its mystical element is equally important: it is a vehicle which conveys the Islamic view of the world and its relation to God. Orthodox Islam forbade the making of images which might suggest in any way the creative power reserved to God. But the puppets of shadow theater, in their two-dimensional and sometimes grotesque unreality, could never be mistaken for an image of the real. Besides, what the audience views is merely a reflection, a shadow of the unreal.

Other elements of shadow theater also lend themselves readily to analogies of the God-Man-World relationship. The hands and the sticks of the puppeteer become symbolically the hands of the creator. Nothing exists which has not been fashioned by those hands; no life, no motion, no speech, no destiny except as willed by the Master. The light which casts the shadows is the Light of God, shining in limitless space; the screen is both the stage upon which man’s life is played out and, at the same time, the veil that separates us in this life from the face-to-face experience of God. And when the performance comes to its conclusion and even the shadows disappear, man may reflect upon the transitory nature of earthly life and of all things created.

Though much of the mystical symbolism of Karagoz never filtered through to the common viewer, becoming in later times almost lost, the traditional “Poem of the Curtain,” spoken by Hacivat at the opening of each shadow performance, is both a vestige and a reminder of what Karagoz’s mystical tradition signifies:

Regard now what is this that lingers not
Before thine eye and in a moment fades.
All thou beholdest is the act of one
In solitude, but closely veiled is he.
Let him but lift the screen, no doubt remains:
The forms are vanished, he alone is all:
And thou, illumined, knowest that by his light
Thou find’st his actions in the senses’night.

(translated by R.A. Nicholson)

Sister Francis Maria Cassidy holds an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in drama from Catholic University and teaches at the College of St. Elizabeth, Convent Station, New Jersey.

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