Syria’s last shadow pup­peteer hopes to save his art


The last shadow pup­peteer in Da­m­as­cus lost most of his equip­ment to war and en­dured life as a refugee in Le­banon, but he now be­lieves the old Syr­ian art form might sur­vive af­ter the United Na­tions said it needed to be saved.

Tra­di­tional shadow the­atre was his­tor­i­cally a sta­ple of Da­m­as­cus cafe life, as story tell­ers used dyed an­i­mal-skin pup­pets to en­ter­tain their au­di­ence with tall tales, satire, songs and verse.

Last week the UN’s cul­tural agency Un­esco added Syr­ian shadow pup­petry to its list of in­tan­gi­ble her­itage in ur­gent need of sav­ing, not­ing its long de­cline in the face of mod­ern forms of en­ter­tain­ment and the dis­place­ment caused by war.

“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 the­atre set and 23 other hand-made char­ac­ters in east­ern Ghouta, just out­side Da­m­as­cus, as the con­flict flared.

He fled the fight­ing, cross­ing the bor­der into Le­banon, where he worked for two years as a labourer.

While there he some­times per­formed for Syr­ian school chil­dren and it was dur­ing such a show that Un­esco of­fi­cials first no­ticed him.

Now back in Da­m­as­cus, he will start teach­ing a group of prospec­tive pup­peteers in about six months to en­sure the art sur­vives, said Rasha Barhoum, a Syr­ian cul­tural of­fi­cial.

“I can imag­ine how happy peo­ple will be to see this art sur­vive and not dis­ap­pear be­cause it is part of our her­itage and our cul­ture,” Hal­laq said.

Shadi al-Hal­laq, a pup­peteer, holds two pup­pets dur­ing a per­for­mance in Da­m­as­cus.

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