The beloved puppet character “Aragoz” has always been a part of Egyptian culture, a national weapon to detect lies and symbol for the people against the authorities. I wanted to make this statement before anything else, to prove that the Aragoz was never looked down upon in the minds of the Egyptians, even if he was a source of laughter, and he was always loved even if when he was highlighting their shortcomings. He has always been with them and has never abandoned them.
The term Aragoz has been used a lot recently, some used it to describe the satirist Bassem Youssef as a way to humiliate him. Meanwhile, he used it to describe himself with the aim of protecting himself against criticism and attacks, stating that “nobody takes what the Aragoz says seriously.” Today I am writing about the Aragoz as it is downtrodden by both parties; those who used the term for humiliation and those who try to hide behind it.
The orientalists of the French Campaign in Egypt described it as follows: “We saw in the streets of Cairo many times, men who were delivering puppet shows, attracting crowds. The audience of the show is extremely small, to an extent that one person is able to easily hold it. The actor will stand in the wooden cube from which he can secretly see the viewers from special windows, while he introduces puppets from side doors.”
The puppet show wasn’t a tool for entertainment and leisure, it was a direct platform to criticize the social situation and showcase current issues. Egyptians saw their daily life presented in a nice comic show featuring wooden puppets, this eased their pain and helped them see their mistakes with a small twist of criticism. So the Aragoz was an authentic component of Egyptian cultural heritage, carrying for decades the message of rejecting and criticizing society and all forms of authority.
Nurturing a culture of opposition
Throughout the years, the Aragoz contributed to nurturing a culture of opposition. The Aragoz always concluded the show by striking his opponents and kicking them out of the community by saying “go out,” which was always the last sentence he would use at the end of the show.
The Aragoz is one of the components of the collective memory of Egyptians; he was seeking change for the best while encouraging others to peacefully seek change by alienating the bad elements of society.
There are many theories about the source of the word, while some refer to a Pharaohnic source of the word “oro goz,” which means the story maker, others refer it to the Turkish “karagoz,” which means black eye. Others say that it refers to “Karakoush, Baha’addine Karakoush,” an Egyptian ruler during the Ottoman era. They say that the Egyptians created this character to express their attitude towards Karakoush. No matter which of these sources is right, and no matter how inaccurate they might be, Aragoz has always been seen positively by Egyptians.
Welcome to the show
A typical show consists of 14 puppets of different forms, with the Aragoz character at the center of every show. The show is presented by a puppet mover, hidden from the eyes of the public, moving a number of puppets. He is assisted by “malagy” who stands in front of the public and plays the role of facilitator. He is in charge of playing music, talking to the puppets and engaging the audience. The show is presented live, without any written text, relying on his strong memory. The Aragoz has a remarkable voice thanks to a special instrument he puts in his mouth. It has a strange name “al-amana,” which might be considered a pledge of faithfulness and a sign for commitment and preserving the values of his community, even when he’s criticizing them ruthlessly.
Aragoz has always been a weapon in the hands of the people, not a dagger in their backsAbdel Latif el-Menawy
The Aragoz has always been a weapon in the hands of the people, not a dagger in their backs. He painted their dreams while criticizing their negative aspects, he faced with them the tyranny of the rules and mocked them, he did all this without using bad words or being impolite, his style didn’t include any sexual connotations or immoral jokes. He respected the values of the community and their dreams.
There are many stories about the reactions of the people – or the public opinion as we call it today – when the Aragoz said a bad word or ridiculed the dreams of the people, or went against the public mood. The reactions ranged from refusing him to hitting him. This is the sanction for those who challenge the people’s culture and dreams.
I believe that he who aspires to be like Aragoz should think seriously about it so he will not be banned, or discarded, if he challenges the people’s will or offends their dreams.
This article was first published in al-Masry al-Yawm on Oct. 31, 2013.
Abdel Latif el-Menawy is an author, columnist and multimedia journalist who has covered conflicts around the world. He is the author of “Tahrir: the last 18 days of Mubarak,” a book he wrote as an eyewitness to events during the 18 days before the stepping down of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Menawy’s most recent public position was head of Egypt’s News Center. He is a member of the National Union of Journalists in the United Kingdom, and the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate. He can be found on Twitter @ALMenawy