JERUSALEM — Knowledge of woodwork, love of theater, fascination with puppets and the determination to save puppet theater from extinction made Jerusalemite artist Abdel Salam Abdo one of the leading figures in Middle Eastern puppet theater.
Today, Abdo, 53, is pulling the strings to ensure that puppet shows will not be a dying art. He organizes workshops for young artists in Tunisia, Morocco, United Arab Emirates and Egypt. The former director of the Jerusalem International Puppet Festival from 2000 to 2012, Abdo is also trying to get the Arab Theater Institute in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, to organize an annual forum for Arab puppeteers and puppet-makers, as well as workshops.
In his 27 years as a puppeteer, Abdo created memorable shows and characters that tell the story of the region. In his “Jerusalem and the Little Prince” show, he told the story of a Palestinian boy’s dream of living in Jerusalem. Through 20 different scenes, the Little Prince takes the audience through the Jerusalem monuments of the divine religions. Other memorable plays include “The Sneeze of a Magician,” which shows how people’s actions may backfire.
“Puppets give the director a more comfortable way to express ideas,” he told Al-Monitor. “Unlike in other forms of theater, there is not a direct contact with the audience because there is the puppet as the separator and [this distance] provides a wider scope of freedom. Yet this form of theater is also interactive and very often relies on improvisation, depending on the situation, and on involving the public in what passes on the puppets’ stage, which makes it more amusing, particularly for children.”
Two puppeteers perform at the Palestinian National Theater in Jerusalem in this undated photo. (photo by The Palestinian National Theater)
Abdo started a career in carpentry right after high school, but a change of career came quickly. When the El-Hakawati theater, also known as the Palestinian National Theater, was inaugurated in Jerusalem in 1984, Abdo started a theatrical troupe called Mukaber for Art and Theater and joined the theater as an actor in 1985. He made his theatrical acting debut with Palestinian artist Radi Shehadeh in a play called “Taghrib al-Abid” (“Forced Migration for Slavery”), which shed light on the suffering of workers in Jerusalem.
However, Abdo’s love of woodworking exceeded his love for acting. He found a way to combine the two when Shehadeh put the first Palestinian-made puppet show “Yoya” on stage in 1988.
Inspired by the puppet theater, Abdo started working in puppet-making with Italian puppeteer Otello Sarzi in 1989, who came to Jerusalem to give puppetry training. Through the Jerusalem International Puppet Festival, he met puppetry delegations from the Americas, Asia, Africa and Europe. Abdo took advantage of the workshops he attended and garnered information. A year later, he embarked on puppet-making.
Abdo took part in the First World Puppet Carnival in Jerusalem, along with Acre resident artist Nisreen Bikai and Jerusalemite puppeteer Yaacoub Arafa, as well as others who volunteered to organize it. He made his puppet-making debut in “Coco Rico” and “Hadidoun and the Female Ghoul” shows. In addition to puppet-making, he assumed a role in scenic design and puppeteering.
Puppets at the Palestinian National Theater in Jerusalem in this undated photo. (photo by The Palestinian National Theater)
His career evolved from 1998 to 2013, when he became the director of the children’s division at the Palestinian National Theater. During those years, he directed several shows, most notably “The Sneeze of a Magician,” “The Mermaid,” “The River,” “The Boy and The Wolf,” “Ghandoura and Friends,” “Just Laugh,” “Colors Toy Story,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and “The Magical Turnip” for children with special needs. As the director of the International Puppet Festival in Jerusalem from 2000 to 2012, he fully explored the variety in the word of puppets and used different types of puppets, such as string puppets (marionettes), shadow puppets, rod puppets, hand puppets and light curtain puppets.
He also took Jerusalem puppet shows abroad. Abdo met French puppeteer Alain Lecucq while attending a paper theater workshop that Lecucq conducted in 1999. Abdo received an invitation from Lecucq to attend the Paper Theater Festival held in France in the same year. When he returned to Jerusalem, he created “Jerusalem and the Little Prince” with 77 people participating in the 3-D, 20-scene show, through which Abdo added new means to switch scenes. When Lecucq saw the progress made, he told Abdo that he added something unprecedented to puppetry.
“Jerusalem and the Little Prince” was featured in international festivals from 2000 to 2009, including France’s First and Second Paper Theater Festival, the festival at the University of Lyon, France, and the Small Business Festival in the United States. “The Sneeze of a Magician,” which shows how people’s actions can backfire on them, was featured at festivals in France, Greece, the Netherlands and in Tunisia.
Abdo has never stopped improving his art. Along with some Palestinian puppetry artists, he invented a form of puppetry that uses gestures for children with hearing loss.
“Art in general reflects the culture in a particular community. Theater in particular, regardless of its forms, mirrors the situation in the local street, given that [theater] is closely correlated to the people. The street is the main source of a theatrical show,” Abdo said.
Abdo is currently disseminating the culture of puppetry among artists and young people. He is concerned that following the second intifada in 2000, interest in this form of art has declined. Also, puppet-makers and artists themselves have not introduced this art to the next generation. Many confined it to themselves and their children, which caused its degeneration. He wants to reverse this by working with some puppetry artists who will be the future of puppetry in the Arab world. He suggested that the Arab Theater Institute in Sharjah organize an annual forum for Arab puppeteers and puppet-makers, as well as workshops for youth to learn this art.
In addition to the classes Abdo organized in Tunisia, Morocco, Sharjah and Egypt, this year, a course will be held in Jordan. Abdo is willing to continue the same path spreading the art of puppetry in the Arab world and joining international and Arab forums.