Wael Shawky at the Chapelle des Pénitents Noirs, a chapel in Aubagne, France, where he filmed Cabaret Crusades: The Path To Cairo, in January and February 2012. Photo Florent Calvet. 

Wael Shawky's one-hour video Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo (2012) features intermittent close-ups of taut strings quivering in a fire-lit night. They are red-black and thick, as if caked in dried blood, and their trembling is ominous, like that of a terrified person. The camera slowly pans down to reveal that the strings are attached to marionettes, grotesque yet oddly beautiful. Shawky created 110 such marionettes for this, the second part of his three-part adaptation of Amin Maalouf's historical study The Crusades through Arab Eyes (1984). The marionettes' limbs and heads are, unusually, modeled of ceramic, imbuing them with an uncanny motility; and the figures often resemble animals, for example with the long neck and alarming teeth of a camel, or the pointy ears and cleft muzzle of a cat. Their eyes open and close, and due to their reflectiveness can look as though brimming with tears. The puppets are, in short, highly expressive, so much so that one instantly suspends disbelief and becomes immersed in the tragic history at hand, distant in time but not effect. The dialogue is in Arabic, uttered by the marionettes with accompanying poignant gestures. (There are subtitles, and, amusingly, as in a documentary, the many characters are labeled by name when they first appear.) Every so often the marionettes burst into song, or into a sung story line that can sound a bit like weeping.

In the "Cabaret Crusades," the truth is difficult to grasp and the course of violence relentless. The enemy is not merely the franj, the Christian crusaders, though their actions are breathtakingly cruel throughout. Maalouf, a Lebanese historian who drew upon Arabic texts to provide an alternative to the conventional Western narrative, relates intricate internecine plotting and intrigue, in which the assassination of one Arab ruler by another via stabbing or poisoning is de rigueur. Shawky uses not only Maalouf but other sources—La Chanson de Roland, for example, which Alice, princess of Antioch, sings compellingly from a tower—to fashion a fresh version of events. Through the truly extraordinary sung portions of the score, Shawky embeds a message as much about the present as the past.

Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo narrates episodes between the First and Second Crusades (1099-1145). Shawky's first installment, Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File (2010), ends with the fall of Jerusalem in 1099; the third, which is not yet made, will deal both with Saladin's reconquest of most of the lands seized by the Christians, and with the history of the Sunni/Shia schism centuries earlier. (It is tentatively scheduled for screening at Shawky's one-person exhibition at MoMA PS1 in New York in 2014.) For his first installment, Shawky used antique wooden marionettes from a collection in Italy. They have a very different look—more delicate if a bit stiff—from the ceramic marionettes, which he created in collaboration with puppeteers and ceramists from Italy and France. In the first installment, the landscapes are somewhat realistic battlefields; in the second, Shawky copied vignettes from Arab and Persian medieval miniatures, creating schematic cities in delicate painted paper that is often burned at the hands of the enemy.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1971, Shawky spent his early childhood in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. His family returned to Egypt when he was 13. His father, an engineer, encouraged his career; Shawky attended art school in Alexandria, graduating in 1994, then went to Philadelphia, where he received an MFA at the University of Pennsylvania in 2000. He lives in Alexandria, where he founded the art school MASS Alexandria in 2010, inviting students to attend seminars and workshops and also sending them abroad.

Shawky was the recipient of the Ernst Schering Foundation Art Award in 2011, which included a solo exhibition at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin the following year. That exhibition included Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo, along with the puppets themselves and several other video installations. Among these was the new work Al Araba Al Madfuna (2012), created for the show. Here Shawky installed a sand floor and stone seats to mimic what the viewer saw in the video projected on the back wall. Lip-synching the voices of grown men, a group of young boys dressed in robes and turbans, seated in a circle, relate a story by the Egyptian writer Mohamed Mustagab (1938-2006). In the parable, the inhabitants of an Upper Egyptian village, blindly following their leader, import a sequence of different animals to the town, becoming obsessed with the creatures. Meanwhile, as the boys tell their story, a hole not unlike a grave is being dug in the room—a detail related to a separate story of a 1990s shaman in the Upper Egyptian village of Al Araba Al Madfuna, who, prophesying that an earlier culture and untold treasure would be unearthed there, developed a cultlike following.

I met Shawky in November 2012 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where he was screening Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo.


FAYE HIRSCH Tell me about the marionettes, which are different in the two "Cabaret Crusades."

WAEL SHAWKY For the first "Cabaret Crusades" [The Horror Show File], I was invited by Michelangelo Pistoletto to Cittadellarte, his place in Biella, Italy. He was fascinated by my idea [to create a film about the Crusades using marionettes], so I had support from his institution from the start. I went to see various marionette collections, and found a 200-year-old group belonging to a family called Luppi. It was in a basement, and the puppets were about to disappear from the rotting and humidity. Still, it was the most beautiful collection I'd seen. I went to the Pistoletto Foundation, and they managed to convince the Luppi Collection to lend us over 120 marionettes.

HIRSCH Did you have your characters already formulated?

SHAWKY Not really. Because of my very different purpose, I had in mind that I would have to change all the costumes, and the hair, and sometimes add makeup. And sometimes we needed to repair them, because they are so old that many of them didn't work well.

HIRSCH Were the heads of those marionettes ceramic?

SHAWKY No, the heads in the first part were wood, which is the original way to make marionettes. The ceramic heads came later, as a challenge. After I finished the first part I wanted to do something different. I decided I needed to make my own design and figures. And I found that the only way to make the characters exactly as I wanted them was in clay. I was invited to produce something for [the year-long festival] Marseille-Provence 2013. They support films, installations—all kinds of big productions—and I started work in Aubagne, Provence, at the École de Céramique, where I had a residency from October 2011 to April 2012. Aubagne is a center that produces santons, the small statues that show the Christian Holy Family—the Nativity figures—with little houses. When I went there I decided it was a great way to work, because in addition to a ceramics school, the town has a museum for ceramics and a film school. And I needed a lot of people to complete this project—I could not do it alone.

It was a challenge to create everything from ceramic, even the small parts. Making a marionette is completely different from making a statue, since it has a mechanism. I invited a marionette specialist from Italy to be one of the team. And a ceramics specialist from the school, and others. It was very difficult, for example, to make the eyes move—and the eyes themselves were all made out of ceramics. But after a lot of attempts, it worked.

HIRSCH In Berlin, I saw your live-action video and installation Al Araba Al Madfuna, and I was particularly struck by all the transformations that take place in the story the children tell. I saw Path to Cairo afterward, and it seemed to me that there was an animal/human component that connected the two works.

SHAWKY Yes. You see a lot of different animal types that are mixed with humans in those marionettes.

HIRSCH Is that why you were drawn to the tale in Al Araba Al Madfuna? That feeling of hybridity of all sorts is so important in the video. Here are little boys dressed like 1930s film characters, with mustaches and turbans, taking on another identity, with grown men's voices coming out of their mouths. And then they tell their story of the human and animal.

SHAWKY Yes—it was a strong connection. I knew that I would be showing "Cabaret Crusades" at Documenta, but at the same time I would have the opening at KW in Berlin. What was the point of showing just the "Cabaret Crusades" in Berlin? We found a real connection in Al Araba Al Madfuna. Their whole life is changing because of the animals, and even their physical appearance is becoming like them—their necks becoming longer and their eyes bigger.

HIRSCH In "Cabaret Crusades" there is the European enemy, of course, but the Arabs from all these different cities are fighting amongst themselves. I find it to be an utterly devastating presentation, in so many ways. You use the vocabulary of puppeteering, a kind of childlike thing, to tell a momentous and tragic story.

SHAWKY It develops out of a vocabulary I have been using for a while. Before this series I made another called "The Telematch Project" [2007-09]. Each film in the series has a different subtitle: Telematch Market, Telematch Shelter, Telematch Sadat and so forth. It's based on a 1970s and '80s German TV game show called "Telematch," in which two towns competed in different kinds of contests. Usually they had a clichéd look of European medieval times—knights, forts, castles.

HIRSCH Role-playing games?

SHAWKY Something like that. I watched it when I was a kid in Saudi Arabia, where it was very popular. It was interesting for me: how can you set up a fake contest between two parties in order to entertain a third? The third party is the audience watching this competition. So in my case, I would make a film and the third party would become the art audience. But what was that art audience?

In Telematch Suburb, for example, I invited a heavy-metal band to a very rural village in Egypt. I made a stage for them and had them play a concert. The whole village was invited. They came with their animals and everything, and watched this weird thing—that's it, really. Both the musicians and the villagers knew that I was filming them, but they didn't know the purpose behind it—which was basically to question the idea of an art audience. No one liked the event, of course—not the villagers, and not the musicians. I told them that they had to play even if the people didn't respond—and they played for hours.

I have also worked with kids a lot. Theirs is a more neutral society—in gender roles, for instance. And they don't have clichés for history, so if I want them to play something that translates a historical event, they don't have any preconceptions. They don't know how they're supposed to act. For example, in Telematch Sadat, which is about the assassination of [the Egyptian president Anwar Al] Sadat, they played the whole assassination but they didn't know who Sadat was. I told them go from here, jump from this car, do this or that, and they just followed what I was saying.

When I read the speech by Pope Urban II [that initiated the Crusades in 1095], I could see so clearly that it was really about manipulation. You need to be an extremely strong speaker to convince people to walk for four years [laughs]. How can you do this? Half the crusaders died on this trip—but they believed in something. It was a religious cause, of course—but you need to have someone very, very persuasive to convince you to do such a thing. So I had the idea of using marionettes, which connected to the idea of the kids. When you work with a marionette you do not depend on acting skills. These are not the priority. The priority is the value of the event. The horror itself is the topic, not the beauty of the acting.

HIRSCH Certainly they're not acting but you feel that they're acting. What is that little bit of magic?

SHAWKY It's incredible. When I watch movies, even if I like an actor very much, after a while, I don't know why, the attraction wanes. But this does not happen with marionettes. When you have an actor who is trying to impose himself, you lose something after a while. With marionettes you just project yourself on their characters, so it always stays alive.

HIRSCH Could you talk about the music in The Path to Cairo? That's another difference from the first part of "Cabaret Crusades," correct?

SHAWKY Yes. That was another big challenge. It may seem like a small thing, the music, but it was not.

I need to backtrack a little. This film is in a very heavy Classical Arabic. Yet nobody working on the film spoke Arabic, except me. They were all working from their hearts to make everything correct, even the speech of each marionette. They felt they understood it, and of course I translated everything. But even the team began to feel the Arabic word, after a while, let's say by the fifth day of filming. That was one of the challenges. There were so many layers in the film, and so many different cities portrayed, but in the end it had to unfold smoothly, without any problems.And then there was the music. I went to Bahrain because they have a specific type of music called fidjeri, created by the pearl fishers of the Gulf Region over 800 years ago. The first time you hear it in the film, when the hashahin [assassin] is singing, it sounds like he's screaming—but he's not. He's basically singing our script, which I took to the singers in Bahrain. I did workshops with them for a month, so that in the end they would be able to sing the script in their way. And this is extremely difficult even for them, because they don't sing in Classical Arabic. They speak a form of Arabic, but Classical Arabic requires a certain kind of education. So it took some time for them to be able to pronounce everything correctly.

HIRSCH And did they devise the music itself?

SHAWKY It's a mix. It's their music completely, but, for example, they demonstrated different things to me.And I would respond, for this scene we need this or that type of music. Some of it was quite complicated. For example, if you listen, you will find a complex rhythm, achieved by clapping, like this [claps]. You need to combine clapping and a kind of deep humming [hums]. It's very precise. When they sing, they sit with like 40 persons together, and it's all synched in a way you can't imagine. It's like breathing. For me it's more of a nomad type of music—a bit dry, even though it comes from the sea.

HIRSCH How did they feel, singing that particular text?

SHAWKY They loved it. I mean, I was fascinated by this experience. I always wanted to make something with fidjeri. For the Venice Biennale in 2003, I just put that music, as it is, in one of my videos. This time I wanted to actually make something with it. To have those Bahraini musicians sing that script was incredible.

And there's something else. In our film we are dealing with [a history involving] both the Shia and the Sunnah [Sunni]. When the characters are Sunnah, you usually hear the fidjeri music. But then you have the character Ibn al-Khashshab [of Aleppo], who was an extremely important Shia leader. Now, the Shia have a special reciter, the radood, who tells a religious story that is very important to them. So I found a very famous radood, Ali Hammadi, to provide this particular voice.

A big part of the praying and crying in Shia involves that specific story, which took place in Karbala, in Iraq. The fourth successor of the Prophet Muhammed, named Ali, was the cousin and husband of the prophet's daughter Fatimah. Assassins killed Ali; then his two sons Hasan and Hussein, considered the grandsons of the prophet, were also murdered. Hussein had refused to pledge allegiance to the Sunnah Ummayad caliph. As a consequence, Hussein moved from his home town, Medina, to Mecca, and then headed for Kufa, after the people there sent messages to him. On the way, his caravan was intercepted and he was killed, in the Battle of Karbala, on Oct. 13, 680. The Shia are always crying about the killing of Hussein and claim that the Sunnah were responsible, but the Sunnah maintain that they did not kill Hussein.

HIRSCH The rift seems key to many of the power struggles and intrigues in "Cabaret Crusades."

SHAWKY The third part of "Cabaret Crusades" will be called The Secrets of Karbala. In it I will try to combine what happened long before the Crusades with what happened in the Arab world because of this religious division. Many Arab historians believe that it is the main reason for the weakening of the Arab region during the Crusades, and still today.

In the second part of "Cabaret Crusades," Egypt is still Shia. In the third part, the character Saladin will go to Egypt and turn Egypt Sunnah, and from this point the Muslims will begin to succeed. I'm sorry I went through all this—but I was trying to explain about the reciter, who, crying, tells the story of Hussein. His voice is amazingly beautiful. The idea is that the singing of the Shia radood is very different from the fidjeri type of music.

HIRSCH The marionettes are such an unexpected way to address matters that remain pressing.

SHAWKY You know, when I started this whole thing back in 2010, it was before the revolution in Egypt.

HIRSCH You did those two films that quickly?

SHAWKY We were working day and night, night and day. The first part was made before the Arab Spring. But the circumstances around the second part are so weird. A curator from Marseille-Provence 2013 came to see me in Egypt [in January 2011], and said, "We would like to produce something for you." I proposed the second part of "Cabaret Crusades," and she said, "Okay, I will go back to France. We will discuss it, since it's a big budget, and then get back to you." Two days afterward, the revolution began. Of course, everyone was busy—we were in the streets; nothing was important anymore except the revolution. And then a month later the French came back to me. They said, "Of course we agree. Let's do it." [laughs]

HIRSCH Just one other question I want to ask you. The Horror Show File seemed more scenic than The Path to Cairo.

SHAWKY Yes.

HIRSCH In The Path to Cairo you created those little villages that were more schematic, as if they came straight out of medieval manuscripts.

SHAWKY I wanted to go back to the original maps of the cities. I found this brilliant Serbian mathematician and geographer, Matrakçi Nasu, to help create the scenography. I wanted it to look sort of like a pop-up book. I was trying to create a mix between the 3D of the marionettes and the 2D of the background, which was taken from Muslim manuscripts, in which the paintings are flat, with no perspective.

HIRSCH You travel so often for your work. Do you wish you were in Egypt more?

SHAWKY Yes. In October 2010, just a few months before the revolution, I established an academy for young artists, called MASS Alexandria. It's really doing great but at the same time I feel that I never have enough time with my students.


CURRENTLY ON VIEW Wael Shawky's video installation Al Araba Al Madfuna on view at the Sharjah Biennial through May 13; the first two installments of "Cabaret Crusades" at the MAC | The McKinney Avenue Contemporary, Dallas, through May 11; Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo at the 26th Images Festival, Toronto, April 11-20.