The performances start minutes after arrival. It is January 1, a holiday here in Shatila Camp, South Beirut, just like all over the world, and at first the workshop room for One Hand Puppet holds just three student-artists and their mentors, Maryam and Abed. Then others arrive, and with them, the donning of all-black performing attire, and the air shifts from one of childhood animation to that of performative concentration. As we sit around the large workshop table where these young artists craft both larger-than-life-size and sock puppets, a series of performances unfolds. The children disappear behind and disappear into the characters laboriously and eloquently created through both materiality and word. With nuanced movement of the puppet’s face and body, these young puppeteers act out quotidian stories of angst and challenge layered with visual metaphor and symbolism. At crucial moments in storytelling, the puppeteers break out from their hiding place and talk to their characters, pushing her or him to engage the world and the difficulties within. The effect is magic. Such is the power of art.
Over the course of the afternoon practice session, I learn how each student-artist, in creating his or her large puppet, has developed its form and symbolism through multiple drafts. Maryam has been their teacher and guide, pushing them into new visual territory and allowing their imaginations to flower. The results are highly individualized puppets that rise to the fullness of personages—three-dimensional and symbolic characters—who can support both the hardness of stories from a Syrian and Palestinian camp and the inspired imagination of children reaching toward new futures. With sock puppets, under the tutelage of Abed, the students experiment with improvisation, pushed to reach higher levels of articulation in gesture and speech. These are children—laughing—but the professionalism of these young artists as they respond, adjust, rehearse, and watch each other intently resonates within the room. Because of their professionalism—during the summers, these are working puppeteers giving performances and workshops in their communities—I, a foreigner, feel boundaries drop away. It suddenly doesn’t matter that I do not speak Arabic, that I do neither come from the camp nor are Lebanese. Cultural divides are lowered, and I feel welcomed into a space wherein the young people of a vibrant, layered community show all they can give each other and the world.
I thank the children and the mentors of One Hand Puppet for allowing me the opportunity to witness the creativity and artistry to be found in Shatila.