In fact, I shared my first Lebanese lunch with half of Lebanon’s puppeteer fraternity, during which Tamara Keldany of Asdikaa al Duma invited me to witness some of their performances and workshops in and beyond Beirut.
That is how I found myself in schools, surrounded by dozens of curious and excited eyes, smiling and blinking, honing my non-verbal communication skills, trying in vain, to understand the plays in Arabic. I eventually also learnt how to help mounting and dismounting the mobile puppet theatre.
It was en route to the Beka’a that I memorised my first Arabic word: talesh (snow). In Baalbeck, in February, the eyes and cheeks of the children huddled together on a carpet, eagerly watching “The Green Gold”, radiated far more than did the little Snoubia oven in the middle of what was the teachers’ room. From the Beka’a to Mount Lebanon and the South, I experienced puppet magic and parallel to that incredible Lebanese hospitality – teachers would always offer us coffee or tea and some even took us for lunch – as well as gain first insights into often public schools, regional specialities and the significance of food and eating in Lebanon.
Asdikaa al Duma always made time to stop to either show me the magnificent Ruins of Baalbeck or wander with me through Sidon’s Souks, showcasing their local heritage, which incidentally is being celebrated through their plays.
Way back in 1984, undeterred by the raging Civil War, 10 young, idealistic puppeteers started performing puppet plays to young audiences, going to any town and village they could safely access. The idea, then already, was to encourage intercultural dialogue and bring joy to children. Over the years, Asdikaa al Duma have travelled all over Lebanon (and sometimes even beyond to Qatar, Germany and Austria), performing in theatres, schools, libraries, camps and open air, bringing joy, invaluable lessons and fun educational activities to over 200 000 children and teenagers.
Plays are written and produced by Asdikaa al Duma and have sometimes been adapted from well-known books. Audiences experience (wo)man and nature through the stories of the hakawati (storyteller) with plays featuring key protagonists Ayouk and the witch, but also the King, the Water Sprite and many more. Key messages validate cultural diversity, sustainability, the significance of heritage and the respect for nature. These come through in subtle ways and often through song, which especially the little ones find stimulating and enjoy greatly. Environmental messages not only open the eyes of the children but of their parents.
The troupe’s diverse composition is in line with the first play: various puppets, each from different regions of Lebanon, joined forces to assist the country bumpkin protagonist puppet, new to Beirut. Part of Asdikaa al Duma since inception, Tamara has short of a 10 year break, been in charge of the organisation’s commercial and administrative responsibilities. She furthermore designs and manipulates the puppets and still does what she does with passion. Fadia Tannir, an actor and passionate puppeteer, who directs the plays and acts in them, assists Tamara. Fadia has a huge fan base of children all over Lebanon. While she does not perform anymore, Tatiana Borcharova still crafts the puppets, designs our beautiful sets and illustrates all publications.
In recent years, a younger generation has moved up and discovered not only puppetry but also Lebanon through their work with Asdikaa al Duma: these are Mohammad Bazzi, Suha Nader and Dina Kobrosly. Ibrahim Mantoufeh has been contributing great designs for events.
While Asdikaa al Duma certainly aims to entertain, it generally aims to raise awareness about a pertinent issue, the work done with students, teachers or librarians aims to add value and to empower, where necessary. Hence the troupe is currently working in libraries in Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Centers across Lebanon, to teach librarians how to literally pull a book from a shelf and with very limited means, put together a puppet play. In various schools around the country, Asdikaa al Duma has been working on plays touching on the significance of women in rural areas. Through role-plays and re-enactments of authentic stories, the students get exposed to new ways of looking at their reality and are empowered to write their own endings.
During the 2013/2014 winter months right into spring, Asdikaa al Duma has performed “Chasing Water” to about 7000 Syrian children living in refugee camps across the Beka’a. The children also got to draw and make a simple stick puppet.
On 25 May 2014, Asdikaa al Duma celebrated its 30th anniversary... And the journey is likely to continue for quite some time.