Karagöz Oyunları, or the particularly Turkish art form of shadow puppetry, is famous for heightening stereotypes and truths about the nature of people, places and things in the way that only puppets can.
Technically, Karagöz shadow puppets, known as tasvirs, are constructed from the hides of oxen or camels and are held on dowels in front of a lighted sheet in order to create shadows. Each play usually begins with a dancing lady – or some other character who ‘sets the stage’ for the story to unfold involving shrieking stereotypes, singing within tambourine shakes, poetry, myth-repetition, tongue-twisting and general merriment.
Emanating from the city of Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire circa 1326, Karagöz puppets have delighted children and adults alike for centuries. Said to be a tribute to Karagöz and Hacivad, two spirited men that loved to co-recite stories to their co-workers while taking breaks from the construction of Bursa’s stunning Ulu Cami (Ulu Mosque), the puppets are the living memory of those men who were executed for slowing the process of the mosque’s construction.
Karagöz is a word that refers both to an individual puppet character from the Ottoman Empire era AND to the entire troupe of Karagöz shadow puppets that surround him. I have described this band of puppets in brief, here. And I have also introduced them as they introduced themselves to me, in their hometown of Bursa.
Kara, meaning black is linked with göz, meaning eye. Presumably, this name refers to the puppet with the big, black eye – not from a punch in the face – just a big black eye. While you have heard lots and lots about Karagöz’s favorite approaches to life – namely – twisting, turning, jumping, cartwheeling, flipping and being generally flippant in the most rhyming manner possible, I haven’t told you much more about him than the ways that he tends to act as the shadow puppet personification of the outlier voice in my head, the proverbial agent provocateur. He is the puppet that nags at me, questions me in the most cruel ways, makes me question myself (and sometimes my sanity) and always gets a fight going. He is the nay-sayer that drives me nuts in my head. The problem is, there is always a grain of truth in his antics, it is always in there somewhere.
One of the best English-language websites I have found on the Karagöz puppet tradition in Turkey, http://www.karagoz.net/english/shadowplay.htm , talks a bit about this fellow, saying “I have touched in passing on Karagöz and Hacivat, the two cronies who are the leading characters of the Turkish shadow theatre Karagöz, but the main character is Karagöz . Karagöz is uneducated but honest.” As M. tells it, the Karagöz of his childhood is more than honest – he is brutally honest, calling a spade a spade, as well say, regardless of the context, the company or the consequences. The author of this super website continues on to describe Karagöz in contrast to the ever-present Hacivad (or Hacivat) , saying:
“It is always doubtful whether Karagöz and Hacivat ever really existed and, as we have already seen, there are many legends about this. Karagöz was supposed by some to be a gypsy and there are many allusions and much evidence in the plays to support this theory. Karagöz has a round face, his eye is boldly designed with a large black pupil, hence his name –Black Eye-. He has a pug nose and around thick curly black beard. His head, completely bald, sports an enormous turban which, when knocked off, suddenly expose his bald head which always provokes laughter. In all dialogue between Karagöz and Hacivat, we find Hacivat always uses flowing language full of prose rime while Karagöz uses the language of the common people. His promptness with repartee procured for him his fame and reputation. This contrasts artificiality with simplicity and is the first satire to attain these differences. This contrasting language is also noticeable in Hacivat,s erudition. He can recite famou s poems, has a vast knowledge of music, is conversant with the names of various rare spices, the terminology of gardening, many varied encyclopedic extracts, and with the etiquette of the aristocracy. This however is superficial and gives him only a scholastic type of making a living for himself and his family. Because he has no trade, he is usually unemployed and fails to provide for his family, and has enough sense to realize that to rectify this, he does not need Hacivat’s superficial knowledge. Though he is stupid and easily taken in, he is constantly able to deceive Hacivat and others.”
While I have taken some liberties in my interpretations of the puppets based on my own artisitic license, this is where they started. Even though I cannot understand the majority of Karagözi dialogue in live or video performances of this shadow puppetry, these puppets have fascinated me since I first saw them in 2004. I have loved hearing M.’s stories about them – and about the stock character types they represent – straight out of the Ottoman Empire and into my current reality of my mind…a mind that has been swamped in the echoes of childhood fairy tales for decades…