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Karagoz: Turkey’s Puppet Theater

by Sister Francis Maria Cassidy, S.C.

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For centuries throughout the Near and Middle East, indeed from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Orient, one of the most popular entertainments was shadow theater. Brightly colored puppets were the performers in this lively theatrical art form which is now almost lost. In many ways a distinctive expression of Islamic culture, shadow theater took various forms as it developed in different countries. One of the most outstanding of these forms is Karagoz, the shadow theater of Muslim Turkey.

During Ramadan, the holy month of Islam, Karagoz was performed in town and village each evening as part of the traditional respite after a day of fast and penance. Yet Ramadan was not the only occasion for the merriment of Karagoz, nor were the crowds in local coffee houses and public squares the only enthusiastic audiences. In the homes of the wealthy, in the palace of the Sultan, at wedding feasts, circumcision ceremonies and other joyful events, Karagoz was the favorite diversion. It peaked in the mid-seventeenth century in the Ottoman Empire, but experienced periods of censorship and repression because of its political satire and often salacious content. It declined toward the end of the last century and the beginning of the present one, but comes to life today as part of the revival of traditional Turkish theatrical art.

Karagoz (Black-Eye) takes its name from one of the two characters who feature in every performance. The other is Hacivat, with whom Karagoz engages in lively banter. Their exchange includes verbal somersaults, absurd responses to absurd rhetoric, comic and often coarse gestures, violent physical and verbal abuse, biting satire against social and political conditions, and for those who have ears to hear, deep mystical reflections upon truth.

Karagoz is easily identified by his large, elaborate headgear, slightly turnedup nose, short, rounded beard, and enlarged, movable forearm. He is crude, humorous, cross, disarmingly witty and naive by turn, and given to misinterpretation of Hacivat’s pompous utterances. He is the illiterate teacher who teaches from the heart, and he is often nearer to the homely truth than is his verbose companion.

Hacivat wears a pointed hat and pointed beard. His tunic has turned-back sleeves and from his waist hangs a tobacco pouch. Though Hacivat is by no means a sophisticate, he sometimes tries to imitate the speech of the well-born and the educated, seeking a willing ear for his philosophical, political and social commentary. His clumsy and hilarious attempts at urbanity are satiric barbs aimed at the pretentious and self-important.

In addition to these two principals, a variety of stock characters populate Karagoz. Each one is distinguished by a standard mode of dress, speech and behavior.

The Karagoz puppet makes no pretense of reality. It is a two-dimensional, ten- or twelve-inch figure of thinly stretched leather, usually camel hide, roughly but skillfully stitched together with heavy, visible gut. It is colored with bright vegetable dyes and baked in the sun to dry. Then, to further destroy any semblance of real man, bird or beast, a prominent hole or two is made in the figure to accommodate the sticks of the puppeteer. These too are carefully reinforced with supporting hide and gut stitching.

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Tags: Middle East Cultural Identity Turkey Islam Art