Karagöz: the 19th International Istanbul Puppet Festival

Karagöz: the 19th International Istanbul Puppet Festival

Joshua Bruce Allen
October 18, 2016

The 19th International Istanbul Puppet Festival is hosting puppet shows from Austria, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Hungary, Romania, Singapore, Greece, and Turkey at various locations around the city from October 15-30. The festival is the brainchild of shadow puppet master Cengiz Özek, who designed his first puppet in 1978 and has since held exhibitions across the world, winning multiple prizes for his performances. In the Ottoman era, the shadow puppeteer was called hayali, meaning "illusionist"; The Guide Istanbul took a look behind the screen of illusion by talking to hayali Özek at the uncannily puppet-filled Istanbul Karagöz Puppet Foundation in Taksim.

Perhaps the first question to ask is, "What is Karagöz, and where does it come from?" The literal translation of karagöz is "black eye," which is also the name of the play's main character, a folk archetype who dominates the plays in the same way as the English Punch and Judy or the Italian Pulcinella. The comedy duo is completed by Karagöz's counterpart Hacivat, as Özek explains. “Hacivat has an enlightened character; he went to a certain class of school, he has opinions on many topics, he knows how to converse with people and he says what they want to hear," says Özek. "Karagöz on the other hand represents the ordinary people, having never been to school; he is quickly angered, but he always acts with honest intentions and eventually finds the right path.” Audiences are still familiar with these archetypal characters in the comedy duos of the big screen and television, from Laurel and Hardy to Jerry Seinfeld and George Costanza or Simon Pegg and Nick Frost.

As with many aspects of Turkish culture, the Karagöz tradition is a seamless blend of Far Eastern, Middle Eastern, and European influences. “The history of Karagöz puppets goes back around 500 years, at least in terms of written evidence," says Özek. "In 1517 there was a war between the Mamluk state of Egypt and the Ottomans. The Ottomans won and the Mamluk sultan was executed by hanging. The records state that a Mamluk shadow puppeteer performed these events for Sultan Selim I, who enjoyed the performance and brought more puppeteers to Istanbul. This document tells us that the Mamluks had a strong culture of shadow plays, and puppets from this era are now found in many German museums thanks to the researcher Paul Kahle. It’s likely that Mamluk shadow plays were influenced by the Mongols, who in turn were influenced by Chinese shadow theater. All of these roots fed into Turkish shadow plays, which then spread across the whole Ottoman Empire: the Balkans, Hungary, Romania, Greece, Cyprus, North Africa, and the Middle East.” Indeed, Özek uses the same materials - dried and painted camel skin on a wooden frame - to make his puppets, continuing a technique that has been passed down for hundreds of years. 

Despite the ancient roots of Karagöz, Özek also recognizes the art's natural need to adapt itself to the modern age. “The problem with Karagöz in Turkey is that the art died out during the late Ottoman and early Republican eras. There were almost no puppeteers, and the art didn’t move forward for about 70 years. So we have to think about how to take something from a century ago and bring it into the world of today. I mean, if Karagöz had been performed over those 70 years, it would have evolved anyway; when we look at the Topkapı Palace collection, we see the development of flying balloons, planes, and complex buildings, so I don’t feel that I’ve done anything brand new in developing the Karagöz form.”

As well as bringing a wealth of puppet entertainment to Istanbul, one aim of the puppet festival is to better understand what separates Karagöz from other puppet traditions. “Of course the European countries are culturally closer to us, but Hong Kong for example is very different. This meeting point of different puppet styles allows us to perceive the particularities of our own culture and to compare these with foreign styles," says Özek. "It’s like that for our audiences too; Turkish people don’t call Karagöz “puppet theater,” they call it “Karagöz.” “So what is Karagöz?” you ask them. “It’s Karagöz,” they say. Really it’s a kind of shadow puppetry, but it’s hard to explain that without a comparison with other cultures.”

In any case, modern Karagöz should not be seen as a historical artifact but rather as the latest generation in a long family of puppet plays. Özek stresses the high level of skill required by the puppeteer, who may use around 40 puppets in a single performance, controlling them with both hands and sometimes his stomach. At the same time, the puppeteer creates the characters' distinctive voices and makes sound effects with a kazoo or homemade instruments. The combination of colorful movement and amusing sound appeals to both adults and children. “For children, the puppet becomes a vehicle for the expression of their inner dreams and emotions. Adults on the other hand respond more to voices and the conversation between characters,” Özek explains.

Cengiz Özek, Istanbul International Puppet Festival; photo by Elif Savari Kızıl