A Handbook – Middle East Monitor

Li Guo’s Arabic Shadow Theatre 1300-1900: A Handbook is a sweeping survey and interesting introduction to all things shadowy and theatrical. It is rare to say that an academic study is a joy to read, but this book certainly proved to be the case. Shadow theatre is rooted deeply in the history of the Middle East and North Africa and its study can tell us a great deal about social, political, religious and cultural tensions, challenges and issues as well as how people spent their leisure time in different eras. The art form was so popular that it penetrated all levels of society from laymen to scholars. “Al-Ghazali (d. 111), the philosopher and theologian, famously illustrated Aristotle’s concept of the Prime Mover by using the example of a puppet master working behind the screen,” writes Li Guo. “Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), the great poet of Muslim Spain, likened life in the world to a shadow play, on account of its temporality.”

What this book offers is a comprehensive guide including outlines of the history of shadow theatre in the Arab world, the history of people studying it, and annotated notes about different plays on offer during different periods of Middle Eastern history. The majority of plays examined are from the Ottoman period onwards, as only a handful of shadow plays from pre-Ottoman times have survived in manuscript form to the present day.

Spectators watch Egypt's Aragoz shadow puppets show in Beit al-Sehemi, in Cairo's Gamaliya district, on November 15, 2019 [MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images]

Spectators watch Egypt’s Aragoz shadow puppets show in Beit al-Sehemi, in Cairo’s Gamaliya district, on November 15, 2019 [MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP via Getty Images]

However, this does not mean that the delights of pre-Ottoman plays are not there for both scholars and those with a general interest to enjoy. Indeed, there are six Egyptian Mamluk-era manuscripts with shadow plays by Ibn Daniyal. These manuscripts not only include the plays themselves because, “The performers [of his plays] were given some sort of stage direction in the script.” This means that we know not only what was performed, but also how it should be performed. His plays “depict the mores of Mamluk Cairo, with an outrageous comic flavour, featuring naive storylines, caricatured characters, and foul language.” One of his most important plays, The Phantom, touches on a sensitive political topic through a somewhat comical plot about a soldier and his sidekick who tries to give up the vices of his past and find a woman to settle down with. Matchmaking attempts fail, though, and the sidekick reminds the soldier continuously about his old ways. “The historical background, as set forth by the protagonist, is the campaign against vice in Cairo undertaken by the sultan Baybars (r. 1260-77).”

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The Ottoman-era plays offer fascinating insights into society and important regional differences emerge. Lovers of Amasia, a Damascene play, follows the fortunes of a Christian woman who is involved in a clumsy romance and never gets to be with her beloved. The play depicts the woman sympathetically; she is seen as free-spirited, virtuous and sincerely devoted to love. This stands in contrast to a contemporary Egypt play, Alam and Loretta, in which the female Coptic Christian character is depicted as cunning and manipulative. Both plays offer insight into religious and sexual tensions of their day.

The largest collection of Ottoman-era plays in this book is from Egypt; Egyptians plays were unique according to Li Guo. “The Egyptian repertoire distinguished itself in a remarkable and significant way, with the continuity of the genuine Arab legacy… Elsewhere, in Greater Syria and Maghreb, the Turkish import of the Karagoz (In Arabic, Karakuz) monopolised the content and format of shadow theatre.” Karagoz were Ottoman plays aimed at mass audiences, which typically focus on two contrasting characters, the first an illiterate peasant and the second an educated elitist type, who are thrown into various situations together. This formula came to dominate shadow theatres throughout the Ottoman world, with Egypt being a notable exception.

The scope of Li Guo’s book is comprehensive and it works on a number of levels, including offering insights into what is archived, how different historians have studied the subject and snippets and introductions for various plays. I would like to have seen more of the original scripts included in the volume, to allow the reader to get to grips with the plays themselves. It is, of course, an academic text and not aimed at a wider reading public, but despite this it is well worth engaging with and will stimulate discussions about theatre and shadow theatre beyond the Arab world.

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