From Yarmouk camp to Prague: The political puppet theatre of Husam Abed

Sandra Abdelbaki and Arshu John –

Husam Abed does not want to be known as the refugee who works with refugees. With good reason: Abed is a versatile artist, he is a musician, a filmmaker, a performer, and what is he most known for—a puppeteer. He is also a Palestinian Jordanian, born and raised in the Baqa’a camp in Jordan—the largest refugee camp for Palestinians in the country—who has lived in Prague since 2010. While his work is influenced by his background, it is not motivated by a political aim. Yet, his work is deeply political, and his recent show in Prague is a testament to it.

On 10 March, Abed performed his show, War Maker, at the Alfred ve Dvoře performance art theatre in Prague. War Maker is a forty-minute puppet theatre performance that tells the story of Karim Shaheen, who is displaced from Iraq, Kuwait, then Bosnia, only to be followed by war and devastation wherever he goes. Abed recalled meeting someone at Yarmouk camp—a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria—who was shouting loudly, “I made the war.” Abed continued, “It seemed like he had really lost his mind somehow. But what he said in that moment stayed with me over twenty years, it was really strong, to come to a point where you believe that you are the one who is bringing the war.”

I am interested in bringing new narratives to age-old stories such as war.

Husam Abed

While that memory is what inspired the idea, the show is based on a true story of his friend Karim, whom Abed lived with at Yarmouk camp, who was followed by war wherever he went. The show did not use human puppet figures, but symbolic objects such as matchsticks and salt to depict the narrative. Questions of narratives and identity, primarily, inspire his art. “I am interested in bringing new narratives to age-old stories such as war,” Abed said. “The media always presents these stories in terms of Otherification or good and evil—but these narratives do not tell the complete human picture.”

He insisted, though, that he is “not here to preach or convert anyone.” Abed explained, “It is not a reaction to political refugees in today’s world. I am interested in injustice, and it is just an expression of questions and thoughts that I have. And I like experimenting with objects.”

From a practice in refugee camps in Jordan to a multi-awarded company in the Czech Republic, the Dafa Puppet Theatre was co-founded by Abed and his wife in Prague in 2015. Abed has directed and produced several shows that he has taken across the Arab world and the globe. On being asked what about Prague made him settle here, he said, “One, I love Czech humour, they don’t have any concept of a hero, so they can laugh at things, probably because of their history. And two, they are incredibly talented and great collaborators.” A moment later he added a third, “Also, it can take a while, but once you make a Czech friend, they are a friend for life.”

The article was written in the course Foreign Correspondence under the supervision of doc. PhDr. Alice Němcová Tejkalová

Photo Sandra Abdelbaki

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