Eugénie Baccot

Documentary Photographer

Dr. Nabil's Puppets

Created in the 10th century as a means of expression and protest, shadow puppet theatre, a popular art, nearly disappeared from the Egyptian stage. The disappearance of the last puppeteer masters only made a dismal fact all that heavier, the Egyptian traditional folk theater traditions first influenced by the arrival of Persian nomads in the Middle Ages are lost swiftly by the new whims of foreign influence. To prevent the inevitable death of this art, Nabil Bahgat, professor of Dramatic Arts at Helwan University in Cairo founded the troop Wambda (Light in the Dark Desert) and made the stories of the people, not those of the Pharaohs, his personal battle.

Wambda presents its plays in every corner of the Mediterranean, from Greece to Spain, but she does not forget that the fight for the rebirth of this millennial art must begin at the roots, in the popular districts of Cairo, where the tales were born. Thus since 2007, every Friday Dr. Nabil, accompanied by his troop of players at the Suheymi House, performs in the popular district of Gamaliyya. The shows are free and preceded by shadow puppet creation workshops.

Leather puppets dating back 1500 years for some, the actors, and the Egyptian puppet Aragoz, a vagabond who manages to get out of thorny situations through his cunningness and wit, all the while laughing at the absurd powers that be, find themselves all together on same stage. Behind the puppet is the uncle Saber, the last of Aragoz's sheathed performers in Cairo. He is 79 years old, and despite his age and blindness, performs all of Wamda's shows. With his hands slipped tightly into two of the puppets, he briskly activates his tongue, the very membrane that gives Aragoz that strident voice, and brings it to life.

Each puppeteer has his character and voice. Together Mustafa, Ali and Mahmoud recount the story of a boy fishing with his father when a huge crocodile comes along and devours him. Desperate, the son goes to look for his uncle, a learned magician, who in turn too is swallowed alive. In this shadow ballet, the hero then searches for "the father of muscles", a boaster with inflated biceps. But he too succumbs to the jaws of the beast...

It is 6pm, and all Cairo’s children fascinated by fantastical stories and the clowning of puppets bang impatiently at the doors long before the show is to begin.