CAIRO, Egypt (AFP) — In an era of on-screen entertainment, a simple glove puppet named Aragoz still lures Egyptian audiences with comic sketches showing how wits and skill can defeat the thuggish and corrupt.
Recounting stories with a thought-provoking moral in their tale, puppeteers evoke peels of laughter from spectators, mainly children, as they enact Aragoz's exploits, some of which date back centuries to Ottoman times.
"I fell in love with Aragoz as I grew up. Everyone loves it actually," said Sabry Metawly, one of a diminishing band of veteran puppeteers still putting on performances of Egypt's most adored folk figure.
"It has clicked with the people because it represents them. It succeeds where they cannot by challenging and winning against rivals."
The squeaky-voiced puppet, with a wooden head, red conical hat, thin painted mustache and a bright red cloth cloak, was recognized by UNESCO in 2018 as part of the planet's intangible cultural heritage.
"Aragoz humorously criticises the actions of the powerful and resists the corrupt during the plays," said Nabil Bahgat, founder of the Wamda troupe, of which Metawly is also a member.
"But it does not target specific figures of current politics or leaders."
Outspoken, mocking, stubborn and often vulgar, the Aragoz character has long been viewed as a reflection of popular Egyptian society.
The troupe — which comprises only six members — has been drawing weekly audiences for more than a decade at the Ottoman-era Beit al-Sehimi building in Cairo.
But it has not faced any censorship despite the ongoing crackdown on freedom of expression since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in 2014.
"Performers usually deal within the allowed limits of freedom," Bahgat stressed.
Tales as old as time
Like his father before him, Metawly performs from behind a portable box-like booth moving two puppets, one on each hand.
He has been working as a puppeteer for more than 50 years, following in his father's footsteps.
He learned the stories — which are passed down orally — by watching his father perform in the streets and at rural festivals and Muslim celebrations.
By 2003 when Bahgat formed Wamda he had managed to collect 19 plays orally and commit them to paper.
All the Aragoz sketches, still performed today, are part of the country's cultural heritage, passed down from one generation of performers to the next, without being properly documented, he said.
"All plays are authorless," Bahgat added.
"Practitioners were in the habit of learning them by heart from their predecessors and passing them on to the new generations," he said.