Karagoz, literally Black-Eye, is the hero of the Turkish shadow play or theatre. Uneducated but with plenty of native wit, he inevitably gets the better of his gentle friend Hacivad, who is no match for Karagoz despite his education. For centuries the zill-i hayal (imaginary shadow), as the shadow play was called in the past, entertained Turkish audiences. It is believed by some that the play was first performed for the Ottoman Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) in Egypt following his conquest of the Mamelukes. According to the 17th century Turkish chronicler Evliya Celebi, however, Karagoz was first performed at the Ottoman palace during the reign of Bayezid I (1389-1402). Shadow play is known to have been widely performed for the public and in private houses between the 17th and 19th centuries, particularly during the month of Ramazan, when there were nightly performances (except on the 27th night of Ramazan, the most sacred night of the year for Moslems) in the coffee houses. Legend attributes the character of Karagoz to a real person who lived during the reign of Orhan Bey (1324-1360).

Karagoz derives its name from its principal player. The story is that a mosque was being built in the then Ottoman capital of Bursa, and among the labourers were Karagoz and Hacivad, who kept distracting the others from their work with their humorous repartee. As a result, construction of the mosque took longer than expected, and when the angry sultan heard about their antics he had them both executed. However, the pair of comedians were so sorely missed by the townsfolk that a man named Seyh Kusteri made images of Karagoz and Hacivad from camel hide and began to give puppet shows. Karagoz came to represent the ordinary man in the street forthright and trustworthy. He is virtually illiterate, usually unemployed, and embarks on money earning ventures which never work. He is nosy, tactless, often deceitful and inclined to lewd talk. Like his European counterpart Punch, he frequently resorts to violence, beating Hacivad and other characters in the play. Shadow play puppets are coloured and semi-transparent, with jointed limbs. Light from a lamp behind the stage reflects their images onto a muslin curtain, around which is a border of floral material. This curtain is known as the ayna (mirror) and the light as a sem'a (candle). The latter consists of an oil lamp with a wick of cotton or string soaked in beeswax. The puppets are made from camel or water buffalo hide. Worked until it is semi-transparent, the hide is cut into the desired shape with a special knife and painted with vegetable pigments. The joints are made by threading strings of gut through perforations made with a needle. Some of the puppets have many joints, and are usually 35-40 centimeters high.

Karagoz plays consist of four parts, the mukaddime, muhavere, fasil and bitis. The mukaddime or introduction always begins with Hacivad's entry, the puppet moving to the rhythm of the tambourine. He sings a song known as the semai, which is different at each performance. After reciting a prayer he declares that he is searching for a friend, and noisily calls Karagoz to the stage with a speech which always ends with the words: "Oh, for some amusement". Karagoz enters on the opposite side and the story begins. There is always a fight at some point in the play. The other characters are the drunkard Tuzsuz Deli Bekir carrying a wine bottle, Uzun Efe with his long neck, Kanbur Tiryaki the opium addict with his pipe, Alti Karis Beberuhi the eccentric dwarf, the half-witted Denyo, the spendthrift Civan, and Nigar, who spends her time chasing men. The cast of some plays may also include dancers, djins, witches, and monsters, as well as nameless characters such as the Arab (a sweet-seller or beggar who knows no Turkish), a black servant woman, a Circasian servant girl, an Albanian watchman (who is noisy and insolent), a Greek (usually a doctor), an Armenian (a footman or money changer), a Jew (a goldsmith or scrap dealer), a Laz (a boatman) and a Persian (who recites poetry with an Azeri accent).

There is just one puppeteer, known variously as Karagozcu, Hayali or Hayalbaz, assisted by an apprentice, who installs the curtain and brings the puppets in order of appearance. The apprentice learns the craft from his master, and eventually sets up on his own. In the past, the apprentice was assisted by the sandikkar, responsible for the chest or sandik holding the equipment. The songs were sung by another member of the team, known as the yardak, and the tambourine was played by the dairezen. Before the advent of cinema and radio the Karagoz shadow play was one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Turkey. The conclusion of each play is short and customarily consists of an argument between Karagoz and Hacivad, the latter finally shouting. "You have brought the curtain down, you have ruined it!" -to which Karagoz replies, "May my transgressions be forgiven".

Reference: Newspot/BYEGM

You can visit TCF's online database "Who's Who in Turkish Culture and Art" to see Turkish Karagöz puppet makers and performers' profiles.

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