As Sawy's Puppet Theater Marks 10th Anniversary, Founder Aims To Preserve Heritage

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Thu, 18 Aug 2016 - 06:25 GMT

Mohamed El Sawy, founder of Sawy Culture Wheel, revisits the history behind the Puppet Theater as it celebrates its 10th anniversary - and talks about the puppets closest to his heart.

by Farah El-Akkad

As a young boy, Mohamed El-Sawy’s first encounter with puppets was in third prep when one of his teachers announced the opening of a puppet theater. “Many students joined, and at the end only 10 remained and we established a team. It was the first time for me to ever hold a puppet. In the first year, we started practicing glove puppets - which are not easier, but just different than marionettes,” Sawy says. “We were doing a play called Hassan El-Kaslan (Lazy Hassan) by Alfred Mikheil and we were looking for someone to write songs. We contacted a writer who said he wanted LE 500 for each song, which was a huge sum of money back in 1974. I went home and found myself writing the songs.”

The team liked his work and Sawy went on to write several songs and school plays. “My lifetime goal is to deliver entertainment that has value and meaning,” says Sawy, who believes that those blessed with a talent should make it useful for people.

For the past decade, audiences have been coming to watch Sawy bring puppets to life. The most popular shows are the Om Kolthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez renditions, performed every Thursday since 2006. “I thought about putting on the ‘Om Kolthoum Is Back’ series for a long time, but I told myself 'don’t be crazy, Om Kolthoum is an Egyptian icon.' As someone passionate about puppets and equally in love with Om Kolthoum, I always wondered what it would be like to put on an Om Kolthoum puppet show with her whole orchestra, but I was not sure how people would react,” Sawy says.

[caption id="attachment_522429" align="alignnone" width="620"]Mohamed El Sawy, founder of Sawy Culture Wheel. Mohamed El Sawy, founder of Sawy Culture Wheel.[/caption]

The show became a hit, taking place on the first Thursday of every month, just like the Leading Lady of Song’s real concerts. What’s unique about the monthly performance is that the audience comprises mainly older people who dress formally to attend and watch the younger generation at work, says Sawy, who takes pride in the success the Puppet Theatre has achieved in giving theater-goers a real feel of Om Kolthoum’s glory.

Aware that many Egyptians still believe puppet shows are only for children, Sawy insists that only stories with morals are presented on his stage. El-Leila El-Kebira (The Grand Night, 1961) is one - if not the only - popular puppet operetta in Egypt, written by Salah Jahin and composed by Sayed Mekkawy, says Sawy. “I do not think anyone can be compared to those iconic figures. They are irreplaceable.” Sawy says. Other musical shows played at the Sawy Puppet Theater include performances inspired by the Beatles and ABBA.

In 2005, the Puppet Theater opened at the Sawy Culture Wheel with Mota’asef, Motashaker (Sorry and Thank You). “The story had lived in my mind for 20 years and is about a father who named his children after morals, such as Sorry, Thank you, Excuse me and Please,” recalls Sawy. Mota’asef, Motashaker was followed by another hit, The Big Pipe, which was inspired by Ibrahim, a street kid living right outside the Sawy Wheel in Zamalek. “It addressed the issue of street children, which at the time was still not paid much attention. Even today, most efforts made toward street children comprise helping them dress and eat well. Sort of temporary painkillers, but the result is the same. We are only putting out small fires and not actually fixing anything. This was back in 2006 - today is much worse.”

One of the theater’s latest plays, also written by Sawy, is Mozakerat Batatsaya (Memoirs of a Potato) in which the puppet master encourages people to write their memoirs, emphasizing the importance of learning from history. Another recent play, Rashwan, features Egyptian judoka and Olympics champion Mohamed Rashwan. At the 1984 Olympics, Rashwan lost the finals to Japan’s Yasuhiro Yamashita, who tore a calf muscle in the preliminaries. After the game Rashwan famously said he'd refrained from aiming for Yamashita’s right leg because he did not regard that as fair play.

What many theater-goers might not know is that Sawy can make puppets from A to Z (the first time he ever crafted one was when he was only 15), and that he made the Om Kolthoum puppet and her orchestra entirely on his own. “I think this talent started when I was about 5 years old. My dad used to take me with him to Wekalet El-Ghouri, where I used to play with clay and watch many sculptors working,” Sawy says, adding that puppets are usually made of fabric stuffed with cotton or foam, while the head and face are shaped using clay.

The most important part of the puppet is the wooden cross which controls the head, and the rest of the body parts are controlled through strings. During the theater’s early days, all of the team participated in all duties, making the puppets and working on the sounds and movements of the puppets. As the team grew, each member was assigned a specific job. “I believe that making your own puppet and performing on the opening night of the play is one of the most spectacular feelings in the entire world,” Sawy says. “Puppets have feelings, or should be treated as if they do, because it is all about the character they are playing. Everything is based on the character: the making of the puppet, facial expressions and the movement of the body. The puppeteer must learn how to make certain movements himself before making the puppet do it.”

Sawy is satisfied with the progress of his puppet art over the past decade. “I believe that the real success of the puppet theater is preserving its heritage and doing things the classical way. We still make puppets and move them the old way, manually by strings. When a new member joins the team and suggests bringing a motor, for example, I tell him no. We want to preserve this heritage.

Disneyland is there - we see all kinds of puppets moving in harmony. But it’s a mechanical kind of harmony that lacks real feeling. Why do people still go to live concerts and are over the moon, when they can hear it on Soundcloud? Just the fact that the artist might make a mistake makes it exciting. I am sitting there watching and holding my breath because I am afraid one of the puppeteers will make a mistake.”

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