The Cabaret Crusades
Curated by AGYU Director Philip Monk
The West knows the Crusades through its own history, and lore that has suffused our culture, but here the story is told from the Arab point of view, which spoke of the Crusades, beginning in 1096 and lasting two centuries, as “the Frankish invasions.” The series is based on the book The Crusades through Arab Eyes, by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, amongst other sources. Not only told from the Arab point of view (in Arabic with English subtitles), the story is performed by puppets. One soon realizes that a violent history actually can be told effectively and movingly through puppets and even be given the Hollywood treatment—in HD and surround sound.
The two films abbreviate the history of the Crusades to a number of key episodes. The Horror Show File starts with Pope Urban II’s advocacy of the Crusades in 1095 at the Council of Clermont, in response to an appeal by Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos, and ends with the fall of Jerusalem in 1099. Along the way we are witness to massacres and betrayals as the Crusaders ransack and conquer their way to Jerusalem.
The Path to Cairo opens with the Crusaders in control of Jerusalem and continues through a fifty-year period of continuing strife until the first counter Arab victory by Zangi at Edessa in 1144 and his murder in 1146. All through this confusing period, where the action passes between Damascus, Baghdad, Tripoli, Antioch, Aleppo, Homs, and Edessa, we witness internecine conflict between various Arab rulers (assassinations or refusal of assistance) and strange alliances between Franks and Arabs. (The city names listed here betoken the relevance of this story of the Crusades to present day Middle Eastern politics.)
The Horror Show File (31:49) was made in Italy using a collection of hundreds of antique wooden marionettes that were 200-years old. The Path to Cairo (60:00) was made in Provence and involved the making of original ceramic marionettes. Sets here also more complex, based on Arab and Persian medieval miniatures, and music and song play a strong role, in part discriminating the Shia and Sunni characters.
Wael Shawky, born 1971 in Alexandria, lived in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, until he moved with his family back to Egypt when he was fourteen. He received his BFA from the Faculty of Fine Arts, Alexandria University in 1994 and his MFA from the Graduate School of Fine Arts, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 2001. He is a veteran of many international biennials including most recently Sharjah Biennial 11. Recent exhibitions include Al Araba Al Madfuna at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin (2012). Upcoming exhibitions include the Serpentine Gallery, London, and MoMA PS1, New York. In 2010, he established MASS Alexandria, an academy for young artists.