The Arab Shadow Play

One of Asia’s oldest forms
of entertainment is the shadow
play — still extremely
popular throughout the Arab
World. Outside a coffee house
or in the market place
the puppet master
and his assistants
manipulate the little leather
figures, throwing their
shadows on a white linen screen.
The dialogue is spoken
over a background of “mood
The plots of the shadow plays are flexible and freely
improvised — sometimes including bits of yesterday’s
neighborhood gossip. Usually they pit Karagöz,
archetype of the rogue, against his foil, the
pseudo-aristocratic Hajivad. They appeal particularly
to the uneducated lower classes who are amused by the
stinging satire, often quite obscene, on the
pretentious rich and the powers that be.
The Arab shadow play is truly international in spirit.
Some of its grotesque and ribald elements
go back to the tradition of Greek mimicry which
the Turkish conquerors preserved from the days of
the Byzantine Empire. There are also traces of influ-
ence from the Chinese shadow play which was brought
to the borders of the Arab World by the Mongols.
As with the Indonesian wayang kulit, the puppet
figures are usually about 12 to 28 inches high. They
are made of brightly colored, partially transparent
leather and are manipulated by sticks inserted in the
chests and limbs. Scenery is suggested by set pieces
such as a ship, a bathhouse, or a brothel.
When movements and words are well synchronized
the puppets become highly convincing. They can mimic
the mannerisms of foreigners, the lurching walk of a
drunkard. Opium-smokers are favorite subjects of amusement,
while miraculous jinn and bellowing dragons especially
delight the children in the audience.


Drawings by JANE SALA