Puppetry in Lebanon

Puppetry in Lebanon reflects the country's varied cultural landscape. With such a large diaspora frequently travelling to and from Lebanon, there is a continual pollination of culture, especially throughout the capital Beirut, known for being a centre of art and sophistication.

Last year and the year before, I designed puppets for a company called The BIM Project which tours Lebanon performing in site-specific locations. When I returned and shared my experiences with people, I was surprised by the similar reactions and questions that they had for me about the arts there. A frequent response I had was 'There’s puppetry in Lebanon? I guess I only imagine rubble and fighting' – which is unfortunately the only representation one sees in the news. In response to this I thought it would be important to write about some of the country's incredible, contemporary puppetry, and to this end I went to see several performances by puppet companies, also interviewing their artists and founders.

One of the artists I spoke to, Karim Dakroub, is the founder of the Lebanese Puppet Theatre. He describes the history of the artform in the country: 'In Lebanon we had an interesting tradition related to the Karagöz shadow theatre, imported in the 18th and 19th Century with the rule of the Ottomans. During the 19th and early 20th Century we had in the main cities, Saida and Tripoli, puppeteers and/or families who were working in this field during Ramadan.'

Eric Deniaud, of the Collectif Kahraba, further illuminates: 'It was happening in cafés at night, totally satirical, commenting on and illustrating everything from the events of daily life to politics, so you had all the figures like the Ottomans, the British, the poor Lebanese guy, and the new ruling power, the French.'

Deniaud also described another tradition related to puppetry that was present at approximately the same time called ‘Sandouk el Ferjeh’. This is an image box which is viewed by the spectator through a peep hole and looks similar to paper theatre. These image boxes were taken around from village to village, in a manner similar to the travelling, Hakawati tradition of Lebanese storytelling.

Changes came in the 20th Century. Dakroub describes: 'After the First World War, the Ottomans went out from Lebanon. We had the Protectoria (French army). When the French army came into power here, they tried to cancel all traditions related to Turkish culture. That is why the shadow tradition of puppet theatre disappeared. The last of it was seen in the 1930s and early 1940s.

After that, there was nothing for a while in puppet theatre except in French schools where they used puppets to try to teach the French language. In the 1960s, the first Lebanese form of puppet theatre was at the beginning of the Lebanese TV station, with an artist called Joseph FaKhoury. He made some small plays on TV with hand puppets, mostly educational and for children’s entertainment.'

Lebanon's Civil War began around 1975. The war was fought between many different religious and political parties and militias. Soon it became a larger regional conflict, with Syrian intervention in 1976 and an Israeli invasion in 1982. The Civil War lasted until 1990.

'During the Civil War here in 1975 we had some interesting experiences in puppet theatre made by some artists who wanted to express their political points of view through puppets,' says Dakroub. 'It was still for children, but more developed than the work of Joseph FaKhoury. During the war, fighting for Lebanese identity was a common theme that centered around the question – “are we Arab or not?”. The first time in my life I saw puppet theatre was from a company called Assanabel. They tried to communicate the Arab identity to children – that we are Arabs, we have our identity. I was 14 years old, I was participating in the war, and it was by chance that I switched my activity from the war to the puppet theatre. We played for children in the bomb shelters. When I started it was with this background.'

Dakroub continued this work through the war and afterwards received a scholarship to study in Moscow and Saint Petersburg (1986-1992). When he returned from Russia, he founded the Lebanese Puppet Theatre. The company has since expanded to become Khayal Association for Arts and Education, which organises activities and festivals – not only limited to puppet theatre, but also in education, social arts, and psychosocial support/therapy through drama and puppets (especially for people traumatised by the war).

Another puppet and theatre artist I spoke to, Najla Khoury, describes what it was like to work as a puppeteer during the Civil War. With a group of mostly teachers and educators, she founded the troupe Sandouk el Ferjeh, named after the traditional image box earlier described. The troupe worked from 1978-1999. Their work was largely a response to the difficult times that ensued during the war. 'Everybody hid and we were trying to do something with the kids because space was so small and restrained,' says Khoury. They travelled around to perform puppetry combined with acting in very poor areas such as small villages and the Palestinian camps. 'The interesting thing about our troupe,' says Khoury, 'which was different from the others, was we were always trying to change and adapt the shows with the people attending them. For example, if a character is punished for doing something bad, the audience might cheer for the character to have a second chance.'

Most of the plays were created from popular stories and tales taken directly from the oral traditions of the people, stories that were not written at all. These stories are very different from European stories and the well-known stories of the 1001 Nights. For example, one story that Sandouk el Ferjeh chose to tell was based on a hero called Djoha, a famous character all over the Mediterranean from Egypt, Algeria, Greece, and Turkey. He represents an ambiguous character because he can often be stupid and naive, but is also clever and can do tricks.

Using shadow puppets, the company adapted a story where Djoha puts his son on the back of a donkey. All the people of the town laugh and whisper that this son is so cruel to sit on the donkey and make his poor, old father walk. So both of them walk – but then all the people of the town whisper at how stupid they are. Then they both ride on the donkey, and all the people say, Oh, what a poor mistreated donkey. So finally the father and son decide to carry the donkey together on their back – at which point in the story the company switched from shadow puppets to actors with a 3D, two-metre long donkey puppet that two performers carried on their back.

One exceptional moment Khoury spoke about was a performance created in honour of the main actor of her troupe, Camille Barake, who was kidnapped and killed during the war. One year later, they created a beautiful tribute using colour shadows and called the performance Box of Stories. Two painters who were part of the troupe, Samir Khadag and Marc Morani, made a realistic, life-size puppet in the shape of Barake which welcomed the audience as they were coming in.

During the war, there were 22 other performance troupes doing theatre for children, many incorporating puppets. There was the work of architect, composer and puppeteer Gazhi Mekdeshi (under the company Assanabel) who made video-cassettes of children’s plays and songs (often using puppets). This was significant because the cassette tapes were able to travel to isolated, rural villages that the war would keep puppet troupes from reaching. At one point all the troupes attempted to create a guild, but it was not successful because of the strain of the war. However, in the 80s they were able to organise two big festivals in public gardens.

'It was very interesting to take it to public spaces in the street,' says Khoury. 'During the war, this was very new. With the lack of electricity sometimes one could not even see cinema. So this was special and rare. All the troupes worked together. They were a mixture of all religions.' She points out that during the Civil War this was particularly meaningful. Although the outdoor festival was not able to mix between East and West Beirut, the main dividing line during the war, it was still of particular significance that there was such a diverse group performing – Khoury a Christian; another performer, Samir Khadag, a Sunni; and there were also Maronites and Druze participating.

Khoury has already published a collection of traditional lullabies and rhymes, and is now working on a collection to write down some of the oral story traditions that she gathered during her time working as a puppeteer. After twenty years, the company did their last show in 1999. They hope that the younger generation will continue to carry on the tradition.

Looking around today, it seems the younger generation has indeed continued to carry on the art of puppetry. There are several puppet companies currently making work in Beirut.

One such, The Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation (APTF) was founded in 2008 by Mahmoud Al Hourani, currently its artistic director, with the mission to 'encourage puppetry practices in the Arab world and widen their scope'. When I spoke to Al Hourani he explained: 'We have the appetite to learn and get teachers. In a simple way, we dream to have a college of puppetry here in the Arab world, where you can come from Morocco, and Mauritania, and that will welcome Arab puppeteers and trainers from all over.

In '2010 the APTF hosted its first residency, which brought applications from all over the Arab world. Lasting three weeks, the residency brought trainers and puppet artists from the UK and Lebanon to teach a variety of puppet styles – shadow puppetry, glove puppets, and parade puppets.

In 2011 the APTF created a second residency, hosting Palestinian refugees from Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Occupied Palestine. On the last day of this residency, the participants created a piece called Refugees Imaginary that was performed in Al-Madina theatre. As Al Hourani describes in the booklet Palestinian Refugee Camps in Art Residency: Expertise and Techniques in Puppet Theatre: 'The performance dealt with everyday Palestinian stories, depicting situations and mobility restrictions, Media domination, health administration, absurdity and authority defiance, through the powerfully symbolic and humorous attributes of puppetry.' Al Hourani hopes that these actions will be the first step toward the creation of The Palestinian School for Puppet Theatre, and the APTF plan to host another residency in 2012.

Two other artists I spoke to, Tamara Keldany and Fadia Tannir of Les Amis Des Marionettes, participated in Al Hourani’s residency as trainers. 'We tell stories about man and nature,' Keldani explains. 'We wanted to use a mix of European traditions. We decided that we wanted to stay traditional, because it is something that is missing. Everyone is always trying to do new things and reinvent things, but traditions are also nice.' Their signature character, Ayuk, who makes an appearance in every show, is based on a traditional glove puppet similar to Punch, while another character they frequently use to open and close a show is a marionette of a Hakawati, a traditional Lebanese storyteller.

Les Amis Des Marionettes tour around the country to schools and libraries. Alongside their performances, they try to make things that the children can take home with them that explain the information in the show, so that it goes beyond the children and gets into the home and to the parents. For example, in one show they gave out leaflets about climate and the water cycle; in another, a card game about the different kinds of trees they have in Lebanon.

Lastly, I spoke to Aurélien Zouki and Eric Deniaud of the French-Lebanese company Collectif Kahraba. What I find most exciting about their work, as a puppeteer, is the way their aesthetic is a direct response to the environment in Beirut. The cityscape of Lebanon is peppered with abandoned lots and dilapidated old French colonial architecture that is being quickly replaced by modern Dubai-style skyscrapers. Puppeteer and designer Eric Deniaud incorporates the objects and ‘rubble’ found in these landscapes beautifully into his work – as in the show Ken Fi Asfour a Chajra (There was a Bird on a Tree).

Ken Fi Asfour a Chajra's simple set is made from old Beiruti window-shudders and found objects. There is a sleeping puppet of Teita (Granny) Onboz, who often sleeps in her basket, suspended by a laundry cord. It is a common thing in Lebanon to see a basket being raised and lowered from balconies to collect small objects from below, even in today’s high tech world. They incorporate this everyday image as a theatrical device in the show by lowering the Granny puppet in her basket. After being lowered, she gets out to plant strange grains, which create flowers that have little pieces of paper with Middle Eastern proverbs written on them. She asks the audience to read these proverbs out loud so that they are literally reborn on the lips of the audience.

In another part of the performance, an old man floats away to the clouds in a Turkish coffee cup. They do not want to impose ideas about death, but ask the children to interpret the story. 'We reach our goals when the audience can interpret or read it in many ways,' says Deniaud.

Their mission is to bring people together from all walks of life. Zouki: 'I learn a lot from performing with the people in the villages. They are very sincere and very authentic in their relation [to us as performers]. It is a challenge, at the same time, to try to make your work accessible to cultivated people.'

Last summer they began an annual festival in August, called Nehna Wel Amar Wel Jiran (Us, the Moon, and the Neighbours), which they host outside on the steps in front of their apartment. As Deniaud puts it: 'The festival is meant to create artistic evenings, gathering different disciplines as a way to make families share artistic moments together – togetherness through different generations, and togetherness with people from different backgrounds through performance in free public space.'


All images courtesy of Randy Ginsburg. Randy Ginsburg interviewed Karim Dakroub 28 November 2011, Eric Deniaud and Aurélian Zouki 23 November 2011, Najla Khoury 15 February 2012, Mahmoud Al Hourani 30 November 2011, and Tamara Keldany and Fadia Tannir 1 December 2011.


Additional Info


Lebanese Puppet Theatre: 

The Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation: 

Les Amis des Marionettes: 

Collectif Kahraba: 

The BIM Project: