SyriA’s puppeteer hopes to sAve his Art
DAMASCUS: The last shadow puppeteer in Damascus lost most of his equipment to war and endured life as a refugee in Lebanon, but now believes the old Syrian art form might survive after the United Nations said it needed to be saved.
Last week the UN’s cultural agency UNESCO added Syrian shadow puppetry to its list of intangible heritage in urgent need of saving. “Until three or five days ago, it was an art that didn’t provide bread. Now we are thinking of buying bread and eating bread... I hope for the better,” said Shadi al-Hallaq, the last puppeteer. When he took it up in his late teens in 1993, traditional shadow puppetry was already all but forgotten and his family worried he could never make it his living. He revived the art from old stories and history books, and made the puppets himself. They are crafted from camel, cow or donkey hide and each character represents a particular social trait. At a recent performance, Hallaq used a translucent screen, painted to resemble an alleyway in the Old City of Damascus, to tell a story about unscrupulous traders using the traditional two main characters—naive Karakoz and the wise, wily Aywaz. These two puppets, controlled with sticks and pressed against the back of the screen with the light behind them, so that their shadows are projected upon it, are the only ones he has left.
Early in the war, Hallaq lost his mobile theater set and 23 other hand-made characters in eastern Ghouta, just outside Damascus, as the conflict flared.