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UNESCO registers Aragoz as Egypt's intangible cultural heritage

Called Aragoz, Karagoz or Karagiozis, the puppet with the red cap and acid tongue has satirized politics and social life for centuries. UNESCO has registered the puppet play as Egypt’s historical heritage.

For centuries, Aragoz, a glove puppet with large eyes and a thin black mustache, has criticized Egyptian governments and mocked social institutions from marriage to parenthood in his metallic voice. This insolent puppet, with a conical cap placed on his wooden head, has given its name to Egypt’s traditional mobile puppet theater.

Though it enjoys a similar name to Turkey’s shadow play of Karagoz and Greece’s Karagiozis, the Aragoz is now registered under Egypt’s intangible heritage, under a Nov. 26 decision made by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to include it in the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding. The decision was taken unanimously during the 13th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which began Nov. 26 and concluded Dec. 1.

UNESCO describes Aragoz as “an old form of Egyptian theatre using traditional hand puppetry.”

“Performances are highly popular events during which puppeteers remain hidden inside a small portable stage while an assistant interacts with the puppets and crowd,” UNESCO says on its official website.

The UN agency’s site notes, “Al-Aragoz takes its name from the main puppet, whose distinctive voice is created with a voice modifier. … The art used to be presented by groups of travelling performers, who moved from one folk celebration to another across Egypt.”

There are many theories on the roots of Aragoz. Some historians trace its beginnings to the Pharaonic era on the basis of the name's etymology — “ara” meant “to do” and “goz” meant “words.” Others believe Aragoz came to being in the 12th century as a parody of one of the viziers of Salahuddin al-Ayubi (Saladin). The vizier, Qaraqosha, was known for his harshness and bad judgment. Aragoz, the protagonist in this mobile puppet theater, was a perfect vehicle for criticism and mockery of the government, politics and the social status quo during the vizier's time and beyond.

Whatever its origins, the character of Aragoz often popped up in Egyptian literature, art and cinema. In a scene in Salah Abuseif’s movie "The Second Wife" (1967), the film’s heroine, Fatima, watches an Aragoz performance through her window and, seeing how Aragoz fights injustice, finds the strength to rebel against the village’s corrupt mayor.

Aragoz’s clothing style, with its red dress and conical cap, was also adopted by actors in the 1950s such as Mahmoud Shokoku, who used the same clothes and the satirical style in his films and performances.

Egypt’s intellectuals and artists have lauded the UNESCO decision, saying that it not only preserves the country’s heritage but also sends a political message to countries such as Turkey that El-Aragoz belongs to Egypt's heritage.

In Turkey, Karagoz is the main character of the country’s traditional shadow play, which was also registered on UNESCO’s intangible heritage list in 2009 as a “shadow play.” Just as in Egypt, there is a debate over Karagoz's roots in Turkey. While some claim the shadow play came from Central Asia, others say it was brought to the Ottoman Empire when Sultan Selim II captured Egypt in 1517. Greece also claims that Karagiozis, the main character of the Greek shadow play, is part of its own cultural heritage; although the shadow play came from the Ottomans, it has acquired its own particular Greek flavor and was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to mock Ottoman rule.

“It is now internationally recognized that Aragoz is an Egyptian form of art and not Turkish or belonging to any other country,” Tarek el-Shenawy, an art critic, told Al-Monitor.

Shenawy added that Egypt has been trying to protect its intangible heritage in order to preserve its national identity as well as benefit from this in boosting culture and tourism and therefore the national economy.

“It would have been great if the Ministry of Culture had celebrated the registration of Aragoz in the UNESCO list during the closing ceremony of Cairo International Film Festival, which was held during the time of the UNESCO announcement,” Shenawy said.

Hanan Shoman, another art critic and writer, said that the registration of Aragoz in the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage now needs to be used to promote the puppet theater and “generate revenues” for the country.

“The government should promote Aragoz, organize festivals for it and hold Aragoz performances across the country,” Shoman told Al-Monitor. The art critic also suggested that an international Aragoz festival be organized every year in Egypt in order to promote the art and attract foreigners to visit Egypt and watch the Aragoz performances.

According to the state news agency MENA, Egyptian Ambassador to France and permanent representative to UNESCO Ehab Badawy said Egypt had earlier succeeded in registering its Al-Sira al-Hilaliyyah epic and tahteeb, an ancient stick game, on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage lists.

In November 2016, tahteeb was added to the UNESCO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Tahteeb is usually performed before an audience and involves a brief, nonviolent interchange between two adversaries. Performed today amid clarinet music and the banging of drums, tahteeb involves two players wielding long sticks in a friendly joust mainly taking place on social occasions and festivals in the villages and cities of Upper Egypt. Tahteeb is also performed before tourists at Luxor and Aswan tourist attractions in order to give people more of an idea about ancient Egyptian heritage.

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