The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (Unesco) registered the hand puppet known as al-Aragoz as Egypt’s Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.
The decision, made unanimously in the 13th round of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, revived interest in traditional Egyptian puppetry.
While having been popular with children and adults alike as a major form of entertainment across the country, the origin and history of the wooden figure with the signature conical cap and black moustache remained somehow a mystery.
According to the Unesco statement, Aragoz shows were traditionally performed by travelling artists who, through touring different parts of Egypt with their portable stages, made the puppet the most popular part of any carnival or folk event.
However, when many of those artists settled in Cairo, performances dwindled and the tradition was threatened with extinction.
Other factors, the statement noted, added to the threat: “The viability of the practice is threatened by the changing social, political, legal and cultural circumstances of its enactment, such as laws concerning public gatherings, the rise of religious radicalism, an overall decrease in interest among younger generations, and the advanced age of its active practitioners.”
Professor of theatre Nabil Bahgat, who drafted the file submitted to the Unesco by the Egyptian Society for Folk Tradition, played a major role in promoting the Aragoz culture, which he worked on the reviving for the past 18 years.
“The first time I saw an Aragoz performance was in my home town when I was four years old,” he said. “When I grew up and went to theatres I realized that those theatres are designed for the West where it’s cold and the audience need a warm place to watch performances.”
For Bahgat, the authentic Egyptian theatre is the one on which Aragoz shows were performed, in the open air. “Our theatre is an outdoor one—in marketplaces, fields, deserts, places where people normally gather.” Bahgat’s interest in the Aragoz tradition took him to neighborhoods and carnivals in Cairo where performers worked and started learning the secrets of the profession from them.
“They taught me how to make the puppets and set the stage then I held the first workshop in which professional performers taught several of my students and a few artists the fundamentals of the Aragoz tradition,” he added. Shortly after, Bahgat founded the group called Wamda, Arabic for “spark,” to revive Aragoz performances.
“Then came the time of documentation and this is when I started recording all the performances that started in Egypt then gained regional and international recognition,” he said. “Then in 2011, my journey to have the Aragoz registered as a Unesco intangible heritage started.”
Journalist Menna Farouk said that Aragoz shows are also performed in both Turkey and Greece under the names “Karagoz” and “Karagiozis,” respectively. While in Turkey and Greece the performance belonged more to the shadow play genre, debates over which of the three countries owns the tradition had been ongoing for years.
“While some claim the shadow play came from Central Asia, others say it was brought to the Ottoman Empire when Sultan Selim II captured Egypt in 1517,” Farouk wrote.
“Greece also claims that Karagiozis, the main character of the Greek shadow play, is part of its own cultural heritage; although the shadow play came from the Ottomans, it has acquired its own particular Greek flavor and was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to mock Ottoman rule.”
The Unesco decision, she added, determined the roots of the Aragoz to be Egyptian. According to many theories, Farouk noted, the Aragoz can be traced back to ancient Egypt and the name comes from “ara,” which meant “to do,” and “goz,” which meant “words.”
Other theories trace it back to a more recent era, namely the 12th century when this type of performance started to criticize the vizier of Saladin, then Sultan of Egypt. “Aragoz, the protagonist in this mobile puppet theater, was a perfect vehicle for criticism and mockery of the government, politics and the social status quo during the vizier's time and beyond.”
The Aragoz has always been distinguished from other forms of performances in Egypt with the role of the audience. The puppet always asked the audience to comment on stories it told.
In fact, the success and popularity of the show depended to a great extent on the audience’s interaction. The Aragoz performance also involved several characters other than the main figure although only one artist performed.
The Aragoz is the third of Egyptian arts to be registered as Unesco intangible heritage. The first was in 2008: the epic of al-Sirah al-Hilaliyya, a poem that formed an integral part of Egypt’s oral tradition. The epic tells the story of a Bedouin tribe called Bani Hilal, their migration from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa, and their rivalry with the Fatimid Dynasty.
The epic is always recited to music played on a string instrument called the rababa by a performer commonly known as “the storyteller.” In 2016, the stick game known in Arabic as Tahteeb was registered by Unesco.
Originally a martial art said to have started in ancient Egypt, Tahteeb involves two male players fighting with canes and has for years been a major part of several festivals, especially in Upper Egypt.