Karagöz (also known as Zıl-ı Hayal or Hayal Oyunu) is a type of shadow puppetry that has been practiced throughout Anatolia and the Mediterranean regions of Turkey, as well as other parts of the world, for six centuries. There is evidence that the art actually originated in the Mediterranean area of modern-day Turkey.
According to legend, Karagoz (above right) and Hacivat (left), two workers on Orhan Mosque in Bursa, were delaying the building of the mosque by constantly distracting the workers with their jokes. As a result, Sultan Orhan had the two jokers executed. The Sultan later regretted this decision, and had his adviser Şey Küşteri make figures of Karagoz and Hacitvat to show on a screen and thereby bring them back from the dead. The result is astonishing and delightful.
Shadow plays always revolve around the jokes, fights, misunderstandings, and various misadventures of the two heroes and friends, and also their interactions with the other characters in the cast of caricatures. Because of course, all cast members in Karagoz plays are stock figures based on real societal stereotypes. For instance, Karagoz is a representation of the down-to-earth, uneducated Turkic man-on-the-street while Hacitvat is the arabized medrese-educated intellectual.
Although a delightful art in itself, shadow theater has great interest for the historian because in its time it was used as an acceptable means of political criticism. Thus it is perhaps the only record we have of the daily lives and opinions of common folk during the 14-16th centuries.
The puppets are made of flat translucent leather colored with natural dyes, and they may have various jointed appendages and accessories which add expressiveness to the characters. These delightful figurines are then attached to sticks and projected against a screen by means of a light lit behind the screen.
There was no public performance of Karagoz scheduled on the day that we were in Bursa, but we were treated to something even better–an intimate performance, held in a small antique shop near the silk market by Metin Özlen, who is an accomplished and renowned puppeteer famous for reviving and preserving the art. I can tell you that there is nothing quite like this type of play.
The shadow play struck me as a proto-animation, initally reminding me of the cartooning and stylization of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis film, but that’s just the closest analogue I could think of. All of the characters are operated and voiced by one performer behind the screen. The performance is also accompanied by instruments such as tamborine and a funny-sounding whistle (sorry, my descriptive powers are failing to convey the greatness of this art form).
It was absolutely delightful, a tradition Turkey is rightfully proud to maintain. I purchased a small karagoz puppet so that I can demonstrate how it works to my friends back home. In the meantime, you can read more about it here. And (with many thanks to the awesome efforts of the Turkish Cultural Foundation) you can even purchase a shiny box set of filmed karagoz plays as a birthday present for Cassie for your own pleasure.