While controlling her marionette puppets from above, Rania Refaat not only entertains the public, but also helps to change her society for the better.
Originally a lawyer, Refaat combines law with art to explain Egyptian law and raise awareness of various issues, including human rights and women's rights. She uses marionettes as her tool by which she can express her own views.
“Every artist has his ideas, and he searches for the best tools by which he can deliver these ideas. I chose puppets as my tool because they are popular and many people — of different ages — like them," Refaat told Al-Monitor.
The young artist said, "Young children love to watch the puppets and like the music in the play, while older people understand the deep meaning and receive the message I’m delivering.”
Puppetry is an ancient art that once was widely practiced in Egypt. The most famous puppet in Egypt is the aragouz (a wooden puppet with red clothes), which was used in street shows that tackled political or social issues in a comedic way. The Egyptian aragouz dates back several centuries. Many scholars argue that the contemporary Egyptian aragouz is the same as the Turkish karagoz shadow puppet play that was first introduced to Egypt with Sultan Selim I, the conqueror of Egypt, and of the Mamluks, who ruled Egypt in 1517. However, practicing the art of puppetry notably decreased and became less popular in Egypt in the 1970s-1990s due to a sharp decline in the number of skilled and experienced puppeteers.
With her mobile theater and a number of colorful marionettes, Refaat revives this dying art with a modern twist. She founded El Pergola Puppet Theater in 2011. Since then, she tours Egypt's streets and cities, mainly poor areas, to present different shows that feature current political and social problems.
“I started El Pergola Puppet Theater after I became proficient with all the tools of a puppet theater like writing the plays, directing and even designing and making the puppets," she said.
El Pergola Puppet Theater is divided into three sections: social or political shows, which are about 50 minutes long and tackle current issues in a dramatic way; the legal shows, which explain Egyptian law in a simple way for the public; and the interactive theater, which allows people from poor areas to use puppets themselves and create their own show. Refaat’s shows are free, and she tries to produce about four shows every month in different places.
“In the interactive theater, we make a workshop with residents of a poor area. The workshop includes writing, controlling puppets and acting, and we let the ordinary people perform their own play, which reflects their own problems. Like what we did in the settlement of garbage collectors [located in Manshiyat Naser, a slum in Cairo]. We let them create a puppet show titled ‘Zabal Laken mn Haki’ [‘A Garbage Collector, But I Have Rights, too’],” explained the artist.
Refaat’s first show was titled “Fatah Einak Takol Malban” (colloquial Arabic that can be translated to “Open Your Eyes to theTruth”). It was performed in June 2011 at a bus stop in Shubra, one of Cairo’s districts, just a few months after the revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. The show was a political one celebrating the revolution but at the same time urging people to continue working on their targets.
“My message through this performance was that after cutting the head of the ‘snake’ or removing the president, we have to cut also the 'tail' or remove the regime. It was a comedy show and it gained great success, which pushed me to continue,” she said.
Refaat said that she loves being a lawyer, but what is most important for her is that ordinary people understand the law that governs them.
“Law should govern the nation, and because of this, we must understand it. We must understand what is the meaning of ‘remand’ or pre-trial detention, what is the flagrante delicto [being caught in the act of a crime] and to also understand if it is legal for any policeman to ask a citizen any time to show his ID. We must be aware of all these because it really affects our security and makes people feel uncomfortable,” she said.
Refaat cannot perform whenever or wherever she wants without prior permission from the government, which is not easily obtained.
“Sometimes it is hard to get permission to perform in the street, especially when your shows are political or may criticize the government. I started to arrange with the people residing in different areas and we — me and my troupe — perform to them in backstreets," said the artist, whose troupe consists of 15 members who she trained.
Refaat said that she is not keen on getting a permit because she believes that arts should not be controlled by governments. However, sometimes if she is performing as part of big campaigns organized by initiatives like HarassMap (a volunteer-based initiative founded in late 2010), they get permission for her. According to Refaat, the government only asks about the topic in general but it doesn’t require a copy of her transcript.
In her recent show titled “Ana mosh Ayza Atgawez” ("I Don’t Want to Get Married"), which was performed in Cairo during the Children's Day celebrations on Nov. 20, Refaat discussed child marriage, a major issue in Egypt.
The play is set in what seems to be a village. A teenage girl cries after her father insists that she marry a 60-year-old man with an illegal contract because the girl is underage.
“Egypt is an inspiring country for any artist, and there are many topics that I’d like to raise awareness about through my art, like violence against women, corruption, the relation between people and the government, relation between people and the environment and even the way people raise their children,” she said.
Refaat started El Pergola Puppet Theater as a self-funded project. Today, after many successful performances in different places, some international institutions began to support it.
"Our work is 80% voluntary. Only recently we succeeded in getting some grants from the British Council, Goethe Institute and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture," she said.
Last year, Refaat received the Sitat Award, which is an award for the most influential woman in Egypt given by the Cairo Center for Development.
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