Ayhan Hulagu Finds His Voice through Puppets (Smithsonian Folk Life)

Author Credit: Isabel Spiegel

Ayhan Hulagu took a bow after his final performance at acting school in Istanbul, Turkey. One by one, each graduating student was called up on stage for their end-of-term review.

“The teacher told me in front of the rest of the class that I was talented, but I would only get minor roles because of my Kurdish accent,” recalls Hulagu, now thirty-four years old, wearing round wire-frame glasses and a dangling lizard pendant earring.

Instead of letting these words discourage him, Hulagu decided to give himself Turkish elocution lessons à la My Fair Lady. Every day for a year after graduation, he would sit alone in his room with a wine cork between his teeth, forcing himself to clearly enunciate phrases in the national language. Other times he read novels out loud (he particularly loved Dostoyevsky) or recorded and re-recorded himself speaking Turkish until his accent was almost imperceptible.

Learning a New Language

As a recent immigrant to the United States, the former actor and arts journalist is going through a similarly painstaking process to learn English. His goal? To perform Karagöz, the 700-year-old art of Anatolian shadow puppetry for a Western audience.

“In Karagöz, language is everything,” Hulagu says. “Knowing English isn’t enough. You must master the language as an artist.”

The earliest record of Karagöz—meaning “black eye” in Turkish, a reference to the namesake dark-eyed puppet protagonist—dates back to the fourteenth century. Anatolian shadow puppetry developed during the early days of the Ottoman Empire, long before the Republic of Turkey was established in 1922.

Karagöz is performed with two-dimensional puppets cut out of polished and painted animal hide. The puppeteer stands behind a white, translucent cloth screen and manipulates the figures using wooden rods. A light (once an oil lamp, now an electric bulb) illuminates the figures for the audience from behind the screen, casting their shadows in full color, while the puppeteer switches out characters and voices, shakes his tambourine, blows his kazoo, and sometimes uses the shadow of his own hand as part of the show.

Before launching his puppetry career in the United States, Hulagu’s first job as a new immigrant to Virginia was at a fast-food pizza joint. He remembers standing behind the counter struggling to understand customers. Eventually, he quit the pizza gig, relying on the hospitality of friends, who encouraged him to pursue puppetry full time. He applied for the “Einstein Visa,” or EB-1 reserved for experts in a particular field of study or arts practice. With the help of a lawyer friend, he spent months compiling a dossier of almost 900 pages, which attested to his excellence in Karagöz back in Turkey. He was approved to stay in the United States.

Karagöz Theatre Company characters

Even for a Turkish-speaking audience, traditional Karagöz plays must be translated in order to be understandable. The original texts were written in the Perso-Arabic alphabet of the Ottoman Empire, not modern Turkish. Hulagu writes his own scripts, loosely based on traditional Karagöz storylines, but many times he deviates from them completely. When performing for American and international audiences, he writes in Turkish and has a friend translate the scripts into English.

Like England’s Punch and Judy and other world puppetry traditions, Karagöz puppeteers have always had many opportunities for improvisation within the scripted material. When Hulagu performs in English, however, creating dialogue on the spot poses a challenge.

Ayhan Hulagu, Karagöz Theatre Company

“The jokes come into your head, but the words don’t,” he says. “You can’t stop the rhythm of the show by trying to think of a word, so you just have to keep going.”

The plays can sometimes have a “cast” of up to twenty characters, each with their own distinctive voice and personality that the puppeteer must transition into effortlessly.

“It’s like you have a theater company in a suitcase,” Hulagu says. “You have to paint, write the script, direct your own show, and perform all the characters, but you’re only one artist.”

Hulagu’s ability to transform into multiple characters predates his puppetry career. It all began at Pamukkale University in Denizli, Turkey, where eighteen-year-old Hulagu and another student started the school’s first theater club. During one show, he played a colonel, a dentist, a guard, and a female sex worker.

He recalls coming on stage wearing full makeup and a blond wig, speaking in a high, effeminate voice—when he locked eyes with his father sitting in the front row of an 800-person audience. His father, an imam (Islamic prayer leader), had just returned from Hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca.

“My dad just put his forehead in his hands, like this,” Hulagu pantomimes with a burst of laughter.

Karagöz and the Art of Disappearing

“The best puppeteers know how to disappear,” Hulagu explains as he holds up one of his puppets. The sun illuminates the transparent buffalo hide cutout of Shahmaran, the Persian mythological character who is half woman, half-snake.

“The more you can make the audience believe that you don’t exist, the more successful you are. Doing puppetry isn’t about your ego—it’s about the art form.”

He picks up the star of Anatolian shadow puppetry, Karagöz, who speaks in a voice reminiscent of Cookie Monster. Hulagu manipulates Karagöz, using the two wooden rods to make him bow.

Hulagu became a certified Karagöz puppeteer when Istanbul’s branch of UNIMA (Union Internationale de la Marionette) started a training program in 2011. The workshop was created two years after Karagöz was added to UNESCO’s list of the intangible cultural heritage of Turkey, in an attempt to bring masters and apprentices together to preserve the tradition. Hulagu studied with Karagöz masters, learning the history of the art form, how to craft the puppets, the repertoire of traditional plays, and the voices of the main characters. Soon after, he began performing professionally in Istanbul and started his own company, the Karagöz Theatre Company.

Karagöz Theatre Company characters

Today in Turkey, Karagöz is primarily a form of entertainment for children, so to prepare for his new American audience, Ayhan read over 200 children’s books at the local library in Fairfax, Virginia.

“I wanted to see what kind of stories were being told to children and in what way they were expressed—how they built a narrative, everything about their style and content. It both improved my English and fed my puppetry.”

Hulagu performed his first U.S. show at that same library, the Fairfax Regional Branch. It was a majority Turkish audience who came with their children to experience a cultural treasure that many of them had never had the opportunity to see. Even in Turkey, there are very few puppeteers who practice the art of Karagöz, and many people will never witness a live show. Hulagu performed in Turkish, the words flowing with ease, his jokes eliciting laughter from the children and smiles from the parents.

Karagöz features a diverse cast of characters, but the stars of the show are two friends who share an adversarial relationship: Karagöz, the coarse commoner, and Hacivat, the refined, pseudo-intellectual. It’s not clear who first created the characters, although Hulagu favors the origin story that Karagöz and Hacivat were construction workers living in Bursa in the fourteenth century, executed by the sultan for making too many jokes on the job. Whether truth or popular myth, the tale alludes to the fundamental irreverence of Karagöz, which always pokes fun at authority.

Karagöz Theatre Company characters

For hundreds of years, plays were performed for the common people of all ages and genders in public squares and coffeehouses. They were bawdy and satirical, yet many times made an appearance during the holy month of Ramadan for iftar (evening meal). Throughout the centuries and depending on the political climate, the content of the scripts was sometimes censored or diluted. Although he loves performing for children and audiences of all ages, Hulagu wants to revitalize Karagöz as a tool for social commentary.

“In Turkey, I felt like an outsider. In the United States, both as an immigrant and in the art community, I’m an outsider. I believe that many of the world’s problems would be solved if there was a dialogue with the ‘other.’”

The Karagöz tradition has historical roots beyond Turkey, including northern Syria, Armenia, and Greece. These plays reflect the diverse linguistic and cultural heritage of the Ottoman Empire and provide a space where various ethnic groups may interact. Characters include Kurds, Jews, Armenians, Persians, and Greeks, as well as stock types, such as Tiryaki, the opium addict, or Çelebi, the aristocratic dandy who is constantly falling in love.

Ayhan Hulagu and family

Hulagu feels he can use Karagöz as a tool for intercultural understanding instead of promoting ethnic stereotypes. He believes that “art’s moral duty is to unite society.” Eventually, he wants to use the diverse cast of Karagöz to represent multicultural America—a country made of immigrants.

“I have plans to make Mexican characters who came to the U.S. across the border. I need to find the right moment for an inclusive story that would represent all the different characters in the American cultural landscape. But I need to first have a deeper understanding of the culture. Some puppeteers don’t care, but because of my Kurdish background, I’m very careful about how I represent minority groups.”

Until then, Hulagu has found ways to allude to his own immigrant experience in his plays. For example, in Hamlet’s Dream, his own adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the story of the two protagonists parallels Hulagu’s own. The duo comes to the United States with the intent of starting a theater company, but Karagöz doesn’t speak English well and is constantly mispronouncing his lines, all while wearing a pair of painted-on tights. They eventually found the Karagöz Theatre Company, because Karagöz reasons that since he’s older than William Shakespeare, the company should be named after him.

“Karagöz needs to be living art. In that regard, I believe Karagöz should incorporate elements of the society in which he lives.” In order to make this art form relevant to a Western audience, Hulagu says he needs to include iconic characters that a global audience can recognize. Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and even Charlie Chaplin all make appearances in Hulagu’s plays, alongside mythological and traditional characters.

Karagöz Theatre Company characters

Hulagu wants to bring the art of Karagöz to everyone. He’s been doing presentations at elementary schools, universities, puppet theaters, and retirement homes. He has participated in panels, taught workshops for all ages, and performed at various venues throughout the United States and internationally, including La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, Symphony Space in New York City, the Baltimore Theatre Project, and Black Cherry Puppet Theater in Baltimore to name a few.

Hulagu even has plans to take Karagöz to Hollywood, where Karagöz and Hacivat will meet Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio—the puppet versions. They might even star in a Karagöz-style Hitchcock film, perhaps a version of The Birds or Psycho.

The Traveling Puppets

One year ago, a scholar from California contacted Hulagu on behalf of an Armenian American woman who had discovered a collection of 150-year-old Karagöz puppets that belonged to her great-great-grandfather. Her family immigrated to Aleppo, Syria, after World War I. She wanted Hulagu’s help to restore the puppets and put on a play with the Ottoman-era relics at Harvard University.

“I got very emotional when I first touched them,” Hulagu says, recalling the experience of holding the century-old puppets in his hands. “As a child, I had to migrate to another city. This woman’s family was also forced to migrate. I couldn’t believe that at only thirty-three years old, I got a chance to perform with these puppets that survived so many calamities.”

Karagöz Theatre Company
Ayhan Hulagu, 2020, United States of America

Hulagu hopes that one day he will be able to train Americans in the art of Karagöz to continue the tradition outside of Turkey. When asked if he feels that some of the authenticity of Karagöz will be lost in translation, Hulagu is quick to respond: “There’s no rule that Karagöz can only be conducted by Turkish or Anatolian people. With art, I believe that language, religion, ethnicity, can disappear.”

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