Syria’s shadow puppeteer basks in UN limelight

The war-battered shadow theatre secured a coveted place on the United Nations’ list of world treasures.
Friday 07/12/2018
Syrian shadow puppeteer Shadi al-Hallaq poses with his puppets before a presentation in Damascus, on December 3. (AFP)
Syrian shadow puppeteer Shadi al-Hallaq poses with his puppets before a presentation in Damascus, on December 3. (AFP)

DAMASCUS - In a crowded, dark room, Syria’s last shadow puppeteer crouches on stage, holding two intricate figures against a brightly lit silkscreen and voicing their animated chatter.

Hiding in his booth and moving the silhouettes around on sticks, Shadi al-Hallaq gave a proud performance on the night of December 3 after his disappearing art received international recognition.

At the end of November, Syrians received news that their war-battered country’s shadow theatre has secured a coveted place on the United Nations’ list of world treasures.

“When they rang to congratulate me, it was like a daydream,” said the puppeteer, a slim 43-year-old wearing a dark grey suit and beige scarf.

His two-star characters — the naive but charming Karakoz and clever friend Eiwaz — were finally receiving the limelight they deserved, he said.

“There’s no one in Syria who masters the art except me,” said Hallaq, who said he learned it from his late father, a famed storyteller who performed in one of Damascus’s oldest coffee shops.

“There are no regular shows anymore, though I have given performances in a few places over the past years,” said the puppeteer, who previously worked as a taxi driver.

The advent of digital entertainment, as well as mass displacement due to conflict, have contributed to the decline of the art in Syria, the United Nations said. Only a few such performers were in the country before the war broke out in 2011 and a leading shadow puppeteer has since gone missing.

Traditionally, shadow plays were performed in coffee shops. A bright light would project the silhouettes of the puppets on a silk screen, usually accompanied by dialogue and music.

Often including humorous social commentary, they would star Karakoz and Eiwaz, as well as female characters and talking animals.

Hallaq’s characters are crafted from cow leather, their clothes cut out with decorative patterns and painted with watercolours “so the light can shine through.”

Karakoz is short and dons a large red hat, while Eiwaz sports an elegant moustache.

As they move around before an arched alleyway, their witty banter entertains all generations. “My audience are old and young — from 3 years old to old men in coffee shops,” Hallaq said.

The art form is said to be centuries old, long before the war that has killed more than 360,000 people and displaced millions from their homes.

Some say Karakoz and Eiwaz are typical Syrians from Damascus; others say they are originally Turkish.

Since the UN cultural agency UNESCO classified his art as “in need of urgent safeguarding,” Hallaq said things are looking up for puppeteering and its two stars.

“I thought I would have to bury them” away, he said, but now “a bright future awaits them in Syria. I will tour with them all over the country.”

(AFP)