Per­haps you have heard about Karagöz?

Or seen some of its char­ac­ters, or heard their quips?…

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Did you know Karagöz and his friends have been speak­ing French for fif­teen years and are still keep­ing alive this tra­di­tion­al Turk­ish the­ater of the six­teenth century?

Since the six­teenth cen­tu­ry, Karagöz has been one of the major art forms of tra­di­tion­al  Turk­ish the­ater. And since 2009 it is list­ed on UNESCO’s imma­te­r­i­al cul­tur­al her­itage of humanity.

kedistan-urusan-yildiz-7Ürüsan (or Rûsen) Yildiz is Ana­to­lian, the son of a fam­i­ly that migrat­ed to France when he was only two years old… His meet­ing with Karagöz dur­ing a per­for­mance in1995 in Stras­burg was a defin­ing moment in his life. From this ren­dez-vous onward, Ürüsan became total­ly immersed in the uni­verse of Karagöz. He read, researched, and adopt­ed its spir­it and tech­niques, and took his place in the “con­ti­nu­ity” of an oral tra­di­tion,  at once polit­i­cal, poet­ic and popular.

Self-taught as a shad­ow pup­peteer, he acquired the required know-how for this pop­u­lar art-form and put all his artis­tic tal­ent at the ser­vice of Karagöz. Shad­ow the­ater is an all-round tra­di­tion, the artist must excel in sev­er­al branch­es, per­form­ing in turn as author, arti­san, painter, dec­o­ra­tor, tech­ni­cian, manip­u­la­tor, stage man­ag­er, singer and actor with mul­ti­ple voices…Ürüsan fol­lows paths left unex­plored by tra­di­tion­al Karagöz, intro­duc­ing con­tem­po­rary ele­ments of lan­guage, acces­sories and themes. Com­bin­ing the time­less crit­i­cal men­tal­i­ty and inci­sive lan­guage of tra­di­tion­al Karagöz with con­tem­po­rary world top­ics makes his the­ater par­tic­u­lar­ly time­ly and explosive.

Ürüsan’s char­ac­ters have been set­ting the set ablaze since 2001.

Since then, he has toured on numer­ous occa­sions, writ­ten, orga­nized work­shops, often in col­lab­o­ra­tion with his daugh­ter Yay­la (a tru­ly rare and poet­ic name,  with which we at Kedis­tan are lit­er­aly enam­ored.) For music, an essen­tial fea­ture in Karagöz, he works with Gilles Andrieux, a mul­ti-instru­men­tal­ist (saz, tan­bur, setar, def, ney, oud, rou­mi kemençe…)

For a look at clas­si­cal Karagöz, Ürüsan’s web­site is a must: Abdal Hay­ali. Well doc­u­ment­ed, the web­site pro­vides a warm intro­duc­tion to  tra­di­tion­al Karagöz as well as to Ürüsan’s work.

The characters

Emi­nent­ly pop­u­lar and urban, Karagöz is a the­ater with­in a the­ater: that of the mul­ti­cul­tur­al soci­ety of the Ottoman Empire. With its char­ac­ters’ per­son­al­i­ties, the sit­u­a­tions it depicts, the social class­es in con­fronta­tion, the diver­si­ty of the Istanbul/Constantinople pop­u­la­tion, with its minori­ties, their cos­tumes, their accents and dialects, their trades, Karagöz sets the scene for sev­er­al cen­turies of history.

Tra­di­tion­al Turk­ish shad­ow the­ater con­sists of 47 clas­si­cal plays. They are set in an imag­i­nary neigh­bor­hood in which all the com­mu­ni­ties live togeth­er. It con­tains a long gallery of stereo­typ­i­cal char­ac­ters, based on reli­gious, eth­nic and provin­cial fig­ures of Ottoman soci­ety, those that were most fre­quent in Istan­bul between the six­teenth and the nine­teenth century.

In all the sto­ries, on sees the two heros, KARAGÖZ: the man of the peo­ple gruff and hon­est; and HACIVAT: his wily side­kick. They are accom­pa­nied by town dwellers, provin­cials and immi­grants. Each is reconiz­able by his cos­tume and his accent. Oth­er ani­mals, plants or dec­o­ra­tive items appear, depend­ing on the play. The show is always accom­pa­nied by songs and two musi­cal instru­ments, the kazoo and the tambourine.

The spirit

Karagöz, a the­ater for adults, is dom­i­nat­ed by quid pro quo com­e­dy born of metaphores, neol­o­gisms and sauci­ness that can reach into social and polit­i­cal satire. Con­trary to oth­er tra­di­tions (Indi­an, Indone­sian, etc…) it is not inspired by reli­gion. Main­ly, it served as a safe­ty valve in Ottoman society.

In 1855, an observ­er said: “In a coun­try where pow­er is absolute, Karagöz rep­re­sents unlim­it­ed free­dom. It is vaude­ville devoid of cau­tion or stamp of approval. Apart from the Sul­tan, whose per­son is sacred and whose actions are unas­sail­able, not a sin­gle char­ac­ter in the Empire escapes its satire. It puts the Great Vizir on tri­al, con­demns him and has him locked up in the cas­tle with the admi­rals of the Black Sea and the Crimean gen­er­als. The peo­ple applaud, and the gov­ern­ment tolerates.”

The technique

The pup­pets and sets in Karagöz are made of trans­par­ent skin (don­key, camel or cow). Once cut out, they are paint­ed in see-through plant-based paints. From the rear, an oil lamp lights a white linen cur­tain set in a dark frame.  The fig­urines are manip­u­lat­ed with wood­en sticks held hor­i­zon­tal­ly and insert­ed in a hole designed for that pur­pose. The HAYALI (shad­ow manip­u­la­tor) moves the fig­urines up against the screen and the light projects them on the cur­tain. One can clear­ly dis­tin­guish the col­ors and the cos­tumes, the move­ments includ­ing the slight­est ges­ture, thus cre­at­ing an “illu­sion of reality”.


Karagöz pro­ceeds in an orga­nized fash­ion through four phas­es. The audi­ence sits in front the cur­tain dis­play­ing an intro­duc­to­ry sym­bol (GÔSTERMELIK) stim­u­lat­ing the pub­lic’s curios­i­ty and imag­i­na­tion. A sound announces the begin­ning of the show.

PROLOGUE (MUKADDIME): Haci­vat enters singing a pop­u­lar poet­ry (SEMAI) and recites the “Ode to the Cur­tain” (PERDE GAZELI) cel­e­brat­ing the art of shad­ows, and calls on his friend Karagöz who deliv­ers a par­o­dy of his poem. This last enters stage right and ends up cuff­ing his comrade.

DIALOGUE (MUHAVERE): the two heros enter into a word con­test indi­rect­ly relat­ed to the intrigue and Karagöz hav­ing chased Haci­vat, retires.

PLAY (FASIL): the intrigue,  which is often mea­ger, pro­vides the title for the show and oth­er char­ac­ters appear along with the sets.

EPILOGUE (BITIS): the two heros return for a chat and apol­o­gize to the pub­lic in case they dis­ap­point­ed or shocked any­one, and announce the upcom­ing show.

Here is a small inter­view for Kedis­tan read­ers. But, this time, we will put our ques­tions to Karagöz rather than to Ürüsan:

Karagöz, can you tell us how you met Ürüsan?

It was in 1995 in Stras­burg. Some­one was manip­u­lat­ing me and mak­ing me act. As soon as the light came on behind the “mir­ror” (cur­tain), I felt a spe­cial pres­ence in the packed audi­ence. Some­one was star­ing at me out of his black, inno­cence-filled eyes. At around mid-point in the show, I felt his pres­ence behind the scene. My manip­u­la­tor was not pleased, but I was!

Have things changed a bit for you since that meet­ing? Are you dif­fer­ent in any way?

Yes! Ürüsan freed me from the dusty muse­ums in which nation­al­ist con­ser­v­a­tive bour­geois had tak­en me hostage! He brought me back out on the street, in the peo­ple’s heart. Since then, my life has changed com­plete­ly. I feel young again, I’ve recov­ered my ini­tial being. For me, it is like a rebirth!

What do you think of the world in which we live? What upsets you the most? What top­ics are the clos­est to your heart?

Noth­ing has changed because all is human. Dom­i­na­tion and exploita­tion of man by man, the hypocrisy, the injustice…Of course, the top­ics are the same but with a con­tem­po­rary flavor.

We thank Karagöz and his life­long friends, espe­cial­ly Hacivat…

And we give Ürüsan a warm hand­shake for bring­ing to life to our joys and our rages. But not only…If the fab­ric on which Karagöz reflects its col­ors is called “hay­al perde­si”, mean­ing “the cur­tain of dreams,” it is not for nothing.

Thanks to the shad­ow manip­u­la­tor for giv­ing life to our adult utopias of a bet­ter world, but also to the child­ish dreams we have man­aged to saved in the inner­most recess­es of our hearts.

Translation by Renée Lucie Bourges
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Naz Oke
REDACTION | Journaliste 
Chat de gout­tière sans fron­tières. Jour­nal­isme à l’U­ni­ver­sité de Mar­mara. Archi­tec­ture à l’U­ni­ver­sité de Mimar Sinan, Istanbul.