“homous homous in a certain sing-song tone around most Egyptians and you may find that it evokes spontaneous singing and chortling, followed, quite possibly, by comic movements and dance.
The reason for this is “El-Leila El-Kebira (The Big Night), poet Salah Jahin’s famous puppet operetta, which introduces us to the magical Egyptian moulid with the calls of the stallholders selling homous and taameya, among other things.
Once a regular feature in children’s (and parents’) lives, Jahin’s 1960s production and its music (composed by Sayed Mekkawi) is slowly fading from the Egyptian cultural scene. A 12-person team of puppeteers, led by General Manager Mohamed Nour El-Din, are trying to keep those memories alive and create new ones with their Ramadan shows at the Amir Taz Palace and the Cervantes Spanish Cultural Center.
The show caters to an audience as diverse as its marionettes. Viewers of all ages and classes enjoy the show’s beautiful aesthetic composition, humorous sound effects, and playful lyrics.
Visually, the show is a happy wonderland. Set on the last and most important night of the moulid, or festival, the show takes you from ahwas and food stands to a circus and mosque in a series of disparate vignettes. What all scenes share is vibrancy, good humor, and a strong sense of being particularly Egyptian. Nour El-Din says this sense of authentic local culture is one of the show’s great virtues, rare in other performances.
Also varied are the marionettes, which, by and large, are the original nearly 50 dolls used in the 60s shows. Rather than finely painted and uniform puppets, the show includes dolls of all sizes, colors, and materials. Jahin is showing us the common Egyptian people here, in all their roles, and one can’t help but feel each personality induced through the character created.
Of course, half the character is in the movement. The puppeteers skillfully man the strings to create bouncy children and pets, provocative belly dancers, and seemingly drunk ahwa men. Nour El-Din explains that puppeteers take between six months to a year’s worth of training at the Cairo Puppet Theater before performing.
Jahin lives on in the collective Egyptian memory as a talented colloquial poet, cartoonist, scriptwriter and journalist. For decades, scenes and songs from “El-Leila El-Kebira were regularly shown and played. More recently, it has been revived as a live performance at The Opera House.
Outside Egypt, too, the show is requested for both festivals and private showings. Nour El-Din believes the show will be creating new memories for years to come.
Not everything can go well for everyone at the moulid though. The hapless lion-tamer, naïve omda, and searching mother can attest to that. Mostly, it is a good night, for moulid-goers and audience alike.
The next performance of The Big Night will take place at the Cervantes Spanish Cultural Center on Oct. 2.