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Creative Conflict Mediation: Art, Myth, Propaganda, Semitic Cartoons, & Animated Diplomacy

Updated: Dec 14, 2021

“Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth – penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words. Beyond images, beyond that bounding rim of the Buddhist Wheel of Becoming. Mythology pitches the mind beyond that rim, to what can be known but not told.” ― Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth

Abstract: This paper presents how ideologically balanced, representational mythology can mitigate intractable conflict. I describe the influence of storytelling on human psychology. I describe the history of cartoons (broadly defined to encompass caricature, editorial cartoons, comics, graphic novels, illustration, animation, and even puppetry) and their ability to influence and subvert society as well as mediate conflict. I examine meme theory, collective consciousness, and the history of ideology, mythology and caricature as well as the ability of ideologically balanced, representational mythology to mitigate intractable conflict. I synthesize the history of Jewish and MENA region cartoons and their influence. Finally, I apply my theory of change to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict [1] Olive Branch Pictures Inc, a representational, ideologically balanced comics and animation studio for conflict mediation and edutainment.[2] [3] [4] [5]

Keywords: Cultural Diplomacy, Peacebuilding, Cartoon, Narrative, Mythology, Edutainment, Memetics, Semiotics, Conflict Mediation, Propaganda, Public Relations, Comics, Animation, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Israeli, Palestinian, Israel, Palestine, Arab, Jewish, Diaspora, Art History, Anthropology, Comparative Literature, Art History, Storytelling, Cultural Production, Linguistics, Hebrew, Arabic, Semitic, Middle East, Islam, Judaism, Religion, Representation, Social Enterprise, Social Entrepreneurship, Game Theory, Political Science, International Relations


Thank you to Raf Gangat, Daoud Kuttab, Gordon Fellman, Khaled Abousheikh, Ben Ushman, family and friends for their generous feedback and encouragement.

Copyright Disclaimer: I do not own the rights to the media in this essay which are used under Section 107 of the Copyright Act 1976 "fair use" policy for purposes such as news reporting, teaching, scholarship, and research.


Humans are the only species capable of telling stories. Storytelling allows us to form social groups beyond Dunbar’s Number – the number of people who we can form sustainable, meaningful relationship with, approximately 150.[1] These mythologies, religious texts, literature, and historical narratives have formed value and behavior systems and identities across civilization.

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari supports the capacity of myth to unite and civilize societies: “large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation – whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe – is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination.”[2]

From Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights, the Tales of the Brothers Grimm and Harry Potter to Greek Mythology and the sacred text of the Abrahamic, Hindu, and Buddhist dharmas, all stories serve to promote morality, create meaning, and orient society.

There is a middle ground between the secular and the religious, that such stories, such myths, can metaphorically communicate the nature and ideals of the collective humanity, developed over centuries of socialization, to the level of aggregate psychological truth or divine inspiration. In his work, The Concept of the Collective Unconscious, psychologist Carl Jung, asserts that humans inherit a psychic system that manifests as archetypal [7] thoughts and behaviors.[4] Where Jung reveals these unconscious archetypes in the psychoanalysis of dreams, Joseph Campbell finds evidence in the mythology of diverse civilizations, from Osiris, Prometheus, and the Buddha to Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad (peace be upon them). In his seminal work, “The Hero with A Thousand Faces”, Campbell writes, “whether we listen with aloof amusement to the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo, or read with cultivated rapture thin translations from the sonnets of the mystic Lao-tse; now and again crack the hard nutshell of an argument of Aquinas, or catch suddenly the shining meaning of a bizarre Eskimo fairy tale: it will be always the one, shape-shifting yet marvelously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion of more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.” Campbell’s work directly influenced Star Warsand many other modern stories. Such myths and stories that embody the archetypal “Hero’s Journey”, or “Monomyth”, inform people how to mature, overcome obstacles, win allies and mentors, know right from wrong, and find love. Campbell writes, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” [5]

Figure 1. Joseph Campbell, The Hero’s Journey Diagram

In his 1955 work, The Great Mother, Erich Neumann, considered the intellectual heir of Carl Jung, theorized four fundamental stages in women’s psychological development, tracing the genealogy and symbolism of goddess figures in world culture. In the “Matriarchal” stage the ego and the unconscious are fused in psychic unity, symbolized by uroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake both devouring and giving birth to itself.

Figure 2. Ouroboros Illustration

Figure 3. First known representation of the ouroboros on a shrine enclosing the sarcophagus of Tutankhamen

In the second stage, there is spiritual invasion and domination by the Great Father archetype, which is associated with rationalism and monotheism. In the third stage, the woman embodies the masculine a rescuing hero who liberates the young woman from the controlling father but yokes her to conventional marriage under new male authority. Sex roles are polarized, with masculinity and femininity mutually exclusive. Neumann’s fourth and final stage has feminist implications: here the mature woman discovers her authentic self. As she borrows from the masculine, sex roles become blurred.[6], [7]

Figure 4. Diagram of Erich Neumann’s conception of the female psyche

In 1990, Maureen Murdock wrote The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness in response to Campbell’s model. Murdock felt that “the hero’s journey” failed to address the psycho-spiritual journey of contemporary women. She developed a model describing the cyclical nature of the female experience. Campbell’s response to Murdock’s model was, “Women don’t need to make the journey” (…) “In the whole mythological tradition, the woman is there. All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to”.[8] According to Murdock, that may be true mythologically as the hero or heroine seeks illumination, but psychologically, the journey of the contemporary heroine involves different stages. The Heroine’s Journey begins with an initial separation from feminine values, seeking recognition and success in a patriarchal culture, experiencing spiritual death, and turning inward to reclaim the power and spirit of the sacred feminine. The final stages involve an acknowledgement of the union and power of one’s dual nature for the benefit of all humankind. Drawing upon cultural myths, Murdock illustrates an alternative journey model to that of patriarchal hegemony, which has become a template for novelists and screenwriters, illuminating twentieth-century feminist literature.[9]

Figure 5. Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey Diagram

These theories however do not represent LGBTQ+ nor post-modern feminist psyches. Additionally, they metaphorically represent archetypes and do not account for the potential for sustainable collective transformation through the generational relationship between genetic and environmental (socio-cultural) evolution.[10], [11], [12], [13], [14] Furthermore, these theories cannot be applied uniformly on an individual level due to genetic and environmental variance.[15]

Myths have been a source of tribal unity since the dawn of civilization.[16] [8] In the book, “Imagined Communities”, Benedict Anderson argues that beyond geo-linguistic kinship, nations largely exist in the collective imagination of individuals. National identity is manifested in the production of myth, history, language, tradition, etc., in which the institutions of education and media play a significant role.[17]

Like the gene, “memes” are "units of culture" that can pass from one individual to another and multiply to form systems of values. Stories are organized clusters of memes like how clusters of organized genes can form organelles, organs, and organisms. The way that memes are transmitted across generations and between cultures supports Jung’s concept of collective unconscious. In a perfect market of ideas, the more truth and utility they have, the more they spread and withstand the test of time.[18][9] [10] [11]

Stories, spread by inter-cultural osmosis or media, can be a form of cultural diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy is a form of soft power that includes the exchange of ideas, information, art, language, and other forms of culture among peoples and nations. The goals of cultural diplomacy are, through acts of good-will and humanity, to influence a foreign audience to cooperate, earn support for policies, mollify conflict, and foster understanding.[19] In contrast, diplomacy is often described as “war by other means”.[20]

Cultural diplomacy can also be used as propaganda. Propaganda is defined as “information, ideas, opinions, or images, often only giving one part of an argument, that are spread with the intention of influencing people's opinions.”[21] In the 20th century, the term propaganda was often associated with a manipulative approach, but historically, propaganda has been a neutral descriptive term. In Spanish, “propaganda” simply means “advertising”. A wide range of materials and media are used for conveying propaganda messages, which changed as new technologies were invented, including paintings, cartoons, posters, pamphlets, films, radio shows, TV shows, and websites. More recently, the digital age has given rise to new ways of disseminating propaganda, for example, bots and algorithms are currently being used to create computational propaganda and fake or biased news and spread it on social media.

Manipulative intent, omission of counterpoint, and selective editing generally distinguish propaganda from education. Education should be designed to teach how to think, not what to think. However, some propagandists may look upon themselves as educators, that their perspective is truth, and any effort to convince or spread that truth is for the greater good. “Education” for one person may be “propaganda” for another.

Public relations (PR) is the practice of managing and disseminating information from an individual or an organization (such as a business, government agency, or a nonprofit organization) to the public in order to affect their public perception. The field was pioneered by Edward Bernays, the “father of public relations”, who believed that "Engineering consent" of the masses would be vital for the survival of democracy.[22] Bernays advocated for the media as an authoritative tool against authoritarianism, which is in constant conflict with the anarchy bubbling under the surface of democracy and its principal value, liberty.

As Egyptian artist Ganzeer puts it, apply [PR] to a culture and what you have is mythology. Artists have the power to shape and reshape that mythology and create new ideas about our shared identity.”[23]

All art and media can be viewed as a form of propaganda.[24], [25] The absence of overt politics in art or popular cultural production can be perceived (generally from a Marxist/socialist perspective as well as genuinely oppressed or marginalized people) as the reinforcement of the status quo or dominant ideologies though is it possible that such production could be conspiratorial media manipulation as well.[26], [27]

Similarly, Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci asserts in his theory of hegemony that the elite maintain status quo dominance by using ideology rather than violence, economic power, or coercion to create self-propagating structures of values and norms.

These views however contrast with the way of god which Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato brings from ancient oral tradition, study, and contemplation that “if wealth and poverty did not exist, there would be no opportunity for people to demonstrate either generosity or indifference. (…) That wealth exists allows the rich to be tested by [their] advantage, determine whether [they] will be generous or indifferent to the poor who need [their] help. The poor are likewise tested to determine whether or not they will be satisfied and thank God for the little that they have”.[28]

Egyptian rulers famously used wall paintings to construct national narratives for the public as did Italian plutocrats such as the Medici family, helping to spread Christianity through beautiful and expensive imagery.[12] [29], [30]

According to Plato, art is a form of “mimesis”, meaning representation or imitation, of nature or society. This perspective shaped the general perception of Western art for centuries as the reflection of what is beautiful and/or meaningful.[31] In contrast, modern art emerged in the 19th century in rejection of realism, giving way to forms like abstract art and parody.[32] [13]

Everyone is biased; limited in their perception. The intentions and identity of the creator matters but perhaps what matters most is its reception.[14] [33], [34]

Ideology, systems of ideas and ideals applied to society can be divided into the real and the idea, what is and what ought to be. The ideal can then be divided into the positive and the negative, praise and criticism. Breaking it down further we understand ideology as: 1. Interpretation – a means of understanding the world. 2. Integration – a means of reinforcing cohesion and identity. 3. Domination – a means of maintaining control by elites through manipulation. 4. Legitimization – a means of legitimizing authority and a specific social order. 5. Normative Logic – a contextual set of rules, guidelines and norms that facilitate and prescribe action based on individual and group experience. 6. Social Theory – in which perception of reality is determined through open discourse and rationality. 7. Fantasy Structuring Social Reality – in which no experience of social reality can exist outside of ideology.[35], [36] And then of course there’s religion which could be represent any or all these forms of ideology and can be described essentially as mythological objectivism.

In The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Anthropologist Clifford Geertz described culture as "a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men [people] communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life."[37] To Geertz, in addition to recorded and oral tradition and expression, it is the role of the anthropologist to interpret cultures through semiotics.

Semiotics is the study of signs – sounds, objects, qualities, acts, events, images, and words, and how they indicate meaning in society through metaphor (symbols) and simile (icons)[38],

Figure 6. Icon Figure 7. Symbol

even individual letters.

Figure 8.Inter-Alphabet and its Meanings

Roland Barthes viewed signs in terms of their denotative and connotative meanings. Barthes divided the system of signification into three parts: the linguistic message (the text is used to illustrate images, particularly in comic strips and cartoons), the non-coded iconic message (the literal/denoted image that represent reality e. g., drawings, paintings, cinema, and theater) and the coded iconic message (the way in which the literal image is juxtaposed or altered via light, color, size, etc., to connote the way it should be perceived).

In his book Mythologies (1957), Barthes asserts that none of our ideas, our very language, are our own. He argues that mythology isn’t something from the past but a constant and necessary function of communication, which allows society to function by aligning our individual perspectives into collective social parameters. Barthes deconstructs the semiotics of news media such as how music, parlance, and aesthetics mediates audience skepticism.[39], [40]

Similarly, in the book “Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman argue that news outlets cover events in ways that favor the [competing] ideologies of controlling, shareholding elites and that due to revenue incentives, news outlets focus on narratives that sell, often exaggerating reality to garner followers.

Today, the internet and social media has democratized media production and distribution, fragmenting the influence of the establishment media elite.

The question is, to what extent does the media we consume reflect, construct, criticize, and mythologize reality?

In fact, the word “media” is the plural of the Latin word “medium”, literally meaning “middle ground” or “intermediate” thus media also simply implies a form of communication. Its modern usage as a word to describe newspapers, radio and other sources of information likely derives from the term 'mass media' which was a technical term used in the advertising industry from the 1920s on.[41]

Aristotle’s Poetics describes the ability of art, and stories specifically, to achieve catharsis of emotional tension for the audience. In the Arab world, particularly Egypt and the levant (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine), before the arrival of theatre and TV, “Hakawatis” – “storytellers” – were a major source of entertainment. People would gather in coffee shops, homes or public spaces to listen as the Hakawati would narrate stories of heroism, action or romance in the form of tragedies and comedies containing all sorts of events and characters, fictional or real, often spontaneous, sometimes pre-conceived, and always with a moral or lesson in the end.[42] If an issue arose in the community, a Hakawati might embed relevant solutions to the real-life conflict within the story.[43]

Figure 9. Drawing of a literary cafè in Cairo early 1900s by Ihap Hulusi Görey

Similar is the Jewish tradition of the Maggid, literally “Teller” in Hebrew, the storytellers who would spin fantastic fables to teach Torah wisdom. Among the greatest Jewish Maggids of all time, the Dubner Maggid, (Rabbi Yaakov Krantz, d. 1804). When asked: “Why do we have two Torah celebrations both Simchas Torah (the completion of the annual Torah cycle) and Shavuos (commemorating the Sinai revelation of the Torah)? Why not condense them into one grand Holiday? Characteristically – he responded with a story:

“A childless King and Queen were desperate. After many years, they visited a sage – who conveyed a potent blessing with a cautionary clause. Shortly, the Queen would successfully bear a baby girl. No man outside the family may see her until her wedding day, lest she die. And so it was. Upon the Queen’s birth of a baby girl, a secluded island was prepared for the Princess – where she was raised in regal style with the finest array of female educators and advisers.

As the Princess came of age, the King encountered a serious technical difficulty in marrying off his daughter. Each nobleman in the King’s court was thrilled to accept the princess’s hand in marriage – until it was explained that the first date and the wedding would coincide. On the verge of despair, the King approached the final nobleman – who remarkably assented to marry without even a peek.

As the wedding approached, our heroic nobleman began to experience buyer’s remorse as his repressed bridal fears shook him profoundly. For better, but probably for worse, he was stuck. On that wedding day, the whole world came to dance, except for the anxiety-stricken groom. As he peered underneath the veil, bracing for disaster, but inexplicably the princess was incredibly beautiful. A nagging nervousness persisted: “What’s the catch?” What of her personality? A woman marooned on an island her whole life? But none came. Every day she revealed yet another wondrous aspect of her personality. Not only was she stunning, she was also spunky, spirited, charming and deep.

Months later, the nobleman approached his new father-in-law, unabashedly admitting his delight in his bride, with but one disappointment; he had essentially missed out on the wedding. The King decided that a new party would be arranged. All the guests would be invited back but this time only one person, the prince himself, would dance to express his absolute delight. And so it was.

Shavuos, explained the Dubner Maggid marks the Jew’s unshakable commitment to God’s wisdom and His Torah. Not knowing what was in the Torah, at Mt. Sinai, we proclaimed Na’aseh V’nishma (We will perform the mitzvot and then we will understand them). That faith remained blind until the Jew was exposed to the sweetness of the Torah. Simchas Torah celebrates, through dedication to Torah Study, the Jew’s joy and appreciation for the Torah.”[44]

The nature of stories induces the audience to empathize and identify with the protagonist. In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud explains the ability of cartoons to foster empathy. McCloud posits that the simplicity of cartoons allows viewers to identify with the characters as symbols, and, when juxtaposed with realistic backgrounds, to place that identification within their framework of reality.[45] These effects allow the audience to accept the reality of the characters, as part of the “suspension of disbelief” embodied in all forms of fictional storytelling, and thus absorb the story’s meaning.

Figure 10. "Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.” Copyright © Scott McCloud.

Stories can induce the audience to transform into the protagonist on a neurological level.[46] Neurons react both when an action is performed and when it is observed, i.e. the sensation of eating chocolate when we observe others eating chocolate. These “mirror neurons” help explain why audiences adopt the same sensations felt by the character whose perspective is presented.[47]

The Influence of Cartoons

Cartoons often reveal undercurrent trends unconsciously molding society’s beliefs, values, desires, political inclinations, and private, intimate thoughts.[48] The freedom of the pen enables a single image to capture ideas that would require a thousand words to express and can be spread and understood with ease.

The first use of political comic strips started in the 1700s in satirical magazines in Europe and spread to common use. Benjamin Franklin’s 1754 editorial cartoon, “Join, or Die”, among the earliest and most influential political cartoons in history, became a symbol of colonial freedom during the American Revolutionary War.[49]

Figure 11. Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" Cartoon

Rodolphe Töpffer is considered the father of the modern comic strip with Histoire de Monsier Jabot in 1831. Growing popularity of Comic Strips led to 10 cent Pulp Magazinesin 1896, featuring stories from adventure series to soap opera novelas. The 1930s saw a boom in the growth of comics from the US, Britain, France, Italy and Japan and their influence grew to circle the globe.[50]

Figure 11. Comic Strip by Rodolphe Töpffer

The French referred to comics as “bandes dessinées” meaning “drawn strips”, which contains no indication of subject matter, unlike "comics" and "funnies", which imply a humorous art form and have pioneered comics as the "ninth art" (le neuvième art) since the 1960s.[51]

Stereotypes – "a conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception, opinion, or image” – are a type of symbol used by cartoonists.[52] Cartoonists use stereotypes as part of a visual shorthand to communicate complicated ideas quickly and effectively. Like how a light bulb above a character's head signifies an inspiration, stereotypes efficiently signify the appearance and behavior of social groups. Cartoon art depicting racial and ethnic characteristics may be based on overserved, reported, or rumored physical characteristics and behaviors that may have a kernel of legitimacy in real physical traits or actual ritual. Caricature itself is the art of exaggeration. This trace of reality makes negative stereotypes particularly effective and difficult to combat, since they appear to be accurate in the opinion of those who hold them. “American cartoonists used racial and ethnic stereotypes as soon as large numbers of non-Anglo-Saxon Protestants began arriving in America in the 1840s. First to be lampooned were the Irish; then, as the abolitionist movement progressed, African Americans; next came the Jews, Germans, and Chinese; and finally, by the turn of the century, the Italians.”[53] In a sense, all fictional characters are stereotypes because a single character cannot possibly capture the variability of individuals within a group identity.

The history of animation begins with the flickering light from fire on paleolithic cave painting.[54], [55], [56] This invokes Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave”.

Figure 10. “Allegory of The Cave” © Churchill Films 1973

The Allegory of the Cave represents Plato’s beliefs that the world revealed by our senses is not the real world but only a poor copy of it, and that the real world can only be attained intellectually; his idea that knowledge cannot be transferred from teacher to student, but rather that education consists in directing student’s minds toward what is real and important and allowing them to apprehend it for themselves; his faith that the universe ultimately is good; his conviction that enlightened individuals have an obligation to the rest of society, and that a good society must be one in which the truly wise (the Philosopher-King) are the rulers.

In it, the cave represents our physical reality as well as ignorance, as those in the cave accept what they see at face value. Ignorance is further represented by the darkness that engulfs them because they cannot know the true objects that form the shadows, leading them to believe the shadows are the true forms of the objects. The chains that prevent the prisoners from leaving the cave represent that they are trapped in ignorance, as the chains are stopping them from learning the truth. The shadows cast on the walls of the cave represent the superficial truth, which is the illusion that the prisoners see in the cave. The freed prisoner represents those who understand that the physical world is only a shadow of the truth, and the sun that is glaring the eyes of the prisoners represents the higher truth of ideas. The light further represents wisdom, as even the paltry light that makes it into the cave allows the prisoners to know shapes.[1]

The freed prisoner might either join the ranks of the puppeteers to communicate “the truth” in a way the prisoners understand, risk his life to drag the prisoners outside against their will, try to overthrow the system by extinguishing the fire or removing the other puppeteers, or return outside to live out his life, etc.

In contrast to the philosophy of communicating reality in the allegory of the cave, the religious perspective asserts that its teachings, its texts, offer the most approximate way of communicating reality. Rabbi Akiva Tatz paints a similar picture to the Plato’s allegory replacing the light source with God, the shadow-casters as the Torah scroll – the film through which the light is projected, and instead of the shadows on the wall, and the world itself is a projection of the word of God, down to the very letter in the Kabalistic tradition – “God spoke and it was so”.[2], [3], [4]

Modern animation can trace its origins to puppetry as a nascent form of 2D and 3D animation.

Shadow puppetry emerged in India in the first millennium BCE and spread across Asia and the Middle East between the 7th and 9th century, developing traditions that are still practiced today especially in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, China, India, Turkey, and Greece.[5], [6]

Shadow puppet theater likely came into vogue in the Ottoman Empire after the Mongol invasions in the 14th century. After the Mongols took over Baghdad in 1258, and at the beginning of the so-called “decadent epoch”, Iraqi doctor and poet Shams Eddine Mohammed Ibn Daniel el-Moussili (1238-1310), settled in Cairo and wrote the three oldest preserved Arabic scripts of the shadow theatre tradition. The first play, “Tayf elKkhayal” (“The Shadow Spirit”), a farce filled with provocative irreverence. Emir Wissal requests the assistance of a matchmaker to find himself a wife. On the day of the wedding, he lifts the veil of his future wife and discovers that she is extremely ugly. This is followed by the death of the matchmaker and the emir’s repentance that takes him to Mecca to gain forgiveness for his sins. The story addresses with the country’s political situation. Ibn Daniel seems to praise the laws adopted by Sultan Zaher Bibars against debauchery but really rails against the Mamluk Sultanate, mocking its reforms.[7]

The second play, “Ajib wa Qharib” (“Strange and Bizarre”), is a drama which depicts the life of circus performers of the Egyptian souks during the Mamluk period.[8]

The third play, “El Moutayyam (“The Lovelorn”) a romance uninhibited by the mores of its time about a bashful lover who’ll do anything to satisfy his beloved. The play ends with a big party where each guest relates personal experiences and erotic pleasures, when suddenly the King of Death appears to take the lover who begs for mercy and asks to travel to Mecca to repent his sins.[9]

Historian Ibn Ayass, narrates in his work, Badai’ az Zouhour, that Sultan Selim watched a shadow play depicting the assassination of the deposed Mamluk Sultan at the Rawda Palace in Bahrain. After the performance, Sultan Selim told the puppeteer: when we go to Istanbul, you shall come with us so my son can watch and enjoy your show.[10]

After Salah ad-Din al Ayyubi topped down the Fatimids in Egypt in 1171, he attended a shadow play with his vizier Al Qadi Al Fadhel. At the time, banning Shadow Theater was being considered for religious reasons. After the show, the king asked Al Qadi what he thought. The vizier replied, “I saw a great preach, I saw states falling and others rising”.[11]

In the 11th century Sunni Jurist and Poet of Andalusia, Ibn Ḥazm, (994-1064) likened life to a shadow play, on account of its temporality.[12] Philosopher, Lecturer, and Theologian Abu Hamid Al Ghazali (1059-1111) famously illustrated Aristotle's concept of the “Prime Mover” or “Uncaused Cause” referring to the origination of the universe, by using the example of a puppet master working behind the screen".[13], [14], [15]

The oldest indication of shadow theater in the Arab World goes back to Imam Shafi’i (Gaza 767-820) in a poem cited by Mohammad Khalil Al Moradi (1871): “This world for me is a shadow play moved by The Merciful Lord“ (أرى هذا الوجود خيال ظل محركه هو الرب الغفور).[16]

The religious dimension

During the Fatimid rule, the caliph allowed all forms of art to develop and prosper. This led to the reappearance of old traditions in the conquered states, notably Egypt, like the traditions of deriving spiritual value from media such as Shadow Puppetry (a characteristic of the original shadow art of East Asia). [17]

The puppet represents this philosophy of faith in which all creatures are puppets in hands of the Mighty Creator. The puppets of the shadow theater are a symbolic reflection of whom they represent without being a traditional direct personification of the created human appearance as personification is prohibited as the artist might be in doubt that he is able to insufflate a soul in it. Metin And says that the deformation of the characters in shadow theater is related to the prohibition on aniconism.[18] For these reasons, maybe, Shadow Theater was more accepted than other artistic forms such as painting and acting since it didn’t rely on depicting all the human body directly but through deformed shadow reflection.

In Sufism and other mysticism such as Suhrawardi, light and shadow are an abstract representation of two opposite worlds, the spiritual world facing the real concrete world.[19] Light and darkness are therefore two symbols: a symbol of happiness in the spiritual realm and a symbol of misery in the “evanescent” world.[20]

These ideas influenced historical conditions during which Shadow Theater entered the Islamic world, when Sufis movements and ideas were on the rise in times of gloomy social and political conditions.

Most of the shadow puppets plays in Egypt during the Mamluk period have the traditional ending: the repentance of the characters and their pilgrimage to Mecca to do Hajj and ask for forgiveness.

The artistic styles of the puppets:

Arabic shadow theater can be classified into four styles: The Mamluk style, the Ottoman representative style, the Arabic popular drawing style and, the primitive style.

The Ottoman style:

According to the Turkish scholar “Metin And”, shadow theater moved to Turkey from Egypt in the 16th century after Sultan Selim 1st conquered Egypt in 1517 and then evolved to the modern form known as “Karagöz” (meaning “blackeye” in Turkish).[21], [22]

Two legends explain the origins of Karagöz. The first tells that in 8th century Kufa (Modern Iraq), a Jew by the name of Batruni put up a shadow show imitating of the Arabian king Qail. The shadow show was condemned as sorcery and was Batruni put to death. The second legend has it that Karagoz and Hacivat were two quarrelling workmen in the Ottoman times, engaged in building a mosque or a in the city of Busra. Their constant bickering was so amusing that other workers would stop to listen. These delays made the sultan lose his temper. He ordered the execution of Karagöz and Hacivat. However, soon after their execution, along with the other workmen, the sultan was overcome with regret. A Sufi courtier called Shiek Kushteri, came to provide comfort resurrected Karagoz and Hacivat using his turban to create a curtain and his shoes to form the shadow puppet impressions of Karagoz and Hacivat.[23]

Karagöz represents the illiterate but straightforward public, whereas Hacivat belongs to the educated class, speaking Ottoman Turkish and using a poetical and literary language. Though Karagöz always outdoes Hacivat's superior education with his "native wit," he is also impulsive, and his never-ending deluge of get-rich-quick schemes always results in failure.

Figure 10. Karagöz and Hacivat

Hacivat continually attempts to "domesticate” Karagöz, but never makes progress. Hacivat emphasizes the upper body with his refined manners and aloof disposition, while Karagöz is more representational of "the lower body with eating, cursing, defecation and the phallus."[24] Other characters in the plays are different, often stereotyped ethnic characters living under Ottoman domain such as Armenians, Albanians, Greeks, Jews, and Arabs. Karagöz–Hacivat plays have been especially associated with the Ramadan in Turkey.

Karagoz became an overtly politicized and sexually explicit genre that represented the voice of the lower class until Government censorship intervened in the late nineteenth century. As a result, Karagoz retained subversive traits, but resorted to innuendo rather than direct attacks.[25]

Karagöz theatre spread throughout the Ottoman Empire, where the characters were modified to local cultures and stereotypes but often retained the period setting in the late years of the Ottoman Empire.[26] The shadow theaters in Syria, Lebanon and Palestine were the ones mostly influenced by Ottoman style shadow puppetry.

Figure 11. Karagöz and Hacivat © Turkish Culture Foundation (2009)

Throughout the life of Karagöz theatre, Jews played a disproportionate role and were active contributors of creativity and culture wherever they were permitted to do so wherever they wandered. However, just as Jews were obligated to wear designated garments, as were other dhimmi to distinguish themselves from Muslims and forbidden from public displays of their faith, these Jewish puppeteers were forbidden from influencing the public with their culture and perspective.[27] However, the Jews would perform the story of Esther in private community shadow plays and incorporated the mythic Wawaq tree – an image depicting the hanging of Hayman and his sons from Magilat Esther – into traditional Karagöz theatre background features.[28]

Figure 11. The Wawqwaq Tree

Subject of puppet plays in different Arab countries

Egypt was among the most fertile lands for shadow theater. Among the famous play scripts were:

The Old Lighthouse (Al manar al qadeem), written by several authors over time, tells of battles during the crusades and the lighthouse of Alexandria. All the text is a rhymed dialogue between two characters Al Haziq and Al Rakhim (somehow, like Karagöz theatre) the first is a coward and the second tries to convince him to support the war effort. It is said that Salah ad Din enjoyed this play[29].

The New Lighthouse (Al manar al hadeeth, starring the same two characters, Al Haziq and Al Rakhim, in different events, starting with lazy carpenters, who are late in building the battleships, unaware of the threat of the Franks, who soon arrive and destroy all the battleships. The situation is saved by “Al-Ghorab Al-Mansoor” (The victorious crow) who destroys all the enemy’s battleships.

The Crocodile tells the story of Zaberkash the farmer who laments over his bad luck. He is called by a sheikh to become a fisherman, but he is swallowed by a crocodile and then everybody gathers to save him.

Alam and Taadeer tells the love story between a Muslim young man Taadir and the daughter of a Christian monk Alam, after many adventures, she surrenders to his love, converts to Islam and they go to Mecca for Hajj.

The play of The spirit of Shadow (Tayf al khayal):

The most important, original play-scripts for the shadow puppet plays – the trilogy of Shamseddine Ibn Danial al Mosuli (1238-1310), who fled Mosul (Iraq) to Egypt during the 13th century Mongol invasions (1258). These are considered as the oldest play-scripts in Arabic.

Volume I is built on a series of misunderstandings, telling the story of prince “Wisal”, who searches for a bride with the help of a wicked matchmaker. She finds him a bride and once married he discovers that his wife is extremely ugly, and the matchmaker is killed. The plot is filled with references to the political situation in the country. It apparently praises the measures and hard sanctions imposed by Baibars, the reigning sultan at the time, against whom he accused of corruption under the pretext of maintaining security against a foreign enemy. Ibn Danial criticized these reforms, he presents a play highly obscene full of homosexuality.

The second text is “Ajeeb wa Ghareeb”, is radically different, it is a circus like show, composed of several acts, juggling, magic, animal taming and other performances uniquely depicting popular scenes in Egyptian marketplaces under the rule of the Mamluk. Ibn Danial ends this second play by the repenting characters journey to Mecca as in the first one.

The third play, “Al Mutayyam wa ad Da’i al Yatim” (The infatuated and the lost orphan), is dissolute far beyond the limits allowed in that period. It tells the story of the infatuated who does all he can to please his lover including cockfights, ram fights and bullfights, until the end of the play where there is a ceremony with all kinds of sexual perversions, then at a certain moment a deafening sound is heard, the angel of death appears, he has come to take the infatuated.

At the end of all three plays, the protagonist travels to Mecca to repent.


Despite several indications to the presence of Shadow Theater in the 13th and the 15th century, it is clear that the main period of prosperity of this art was in the 19th century, in Damascus, Aleppo and along the coastline, as a result of the influence of the Turkish Karagoz Theater, merging with the Levantine Hakawati tradition to address the problems of everyday life in Syria and was also used as a satire to instigate the people against the Turks and preservation of Arab culture.[30] Shadow Theatre at Azem Museum, in Damascus.

Syrian Karagöz and Hacivat.

People who frequented coffee shops waited for what was called “chapters of war”, stories presented after the Karagoz show, about historic events such as the Persian and Ghassanids wars, featuring public figures such as Sayf bin zi Yazan and Antara bin Shaddad, and characters from legends and popular tales such as Fadous Abu as Sabeh Rous (The seven headed Fadous) including djinn, monsters, and magic.[31]


Shadow theater in Lebanon and Palestine is related to the Syrian tradition because of the geographical interconnection and the sociopolitical unity at that time. Shadow theater used to show in coffee shops in across the Middle East and North Africa. Seven texts were widely shown during that period: The beggars, Ifranjun, The Afiouni, The Hamam, The evening, The wooden logs, Amon.[32]


The Algerian shadow Theater used Karagoz (without the accompanying character Iwaz) to resist French occupation such as a scene where a giant Karagoz would vanquish French colonial forces with his penis which contributed to the French prohibition of shadow plays in Algeria.[33] The published texts include Karagoz and the French troupe, The devil in French clothes, The love affairs of Karagoz, and Karagoz varieties inspired by Thousand and one nights.

In the 1920s and 30s, Karagöz came into direct competition with the global export of animated cartoons like Mickey Mouse. During the Famous puppeteers, Sefa and Irfan, were among those saying, "Karagöz must be modernized," and Sefa asserted that Karagöz had to be like "the newest American comic, ’Mickey’". Hikmet Feridun, a prominent journalist who shared the government’s ideology, claimed that Karagöz would surpass Mickey Mouse if the theatre could reflect the innovations of the age. "Think for a while how animated pictures, called Mickey, have the world eating out of their hands. But Mickey's many followers are children, whereas Karagöz's witty remarks give adults fun as well as children. [Mickey Mouse] Films are like snacks, ordinary and easy to get, whereas Karagöz is a treasure, which can never be found anywhere else for adults and children".[34]

Turkish Gostermalik (Turkish Shadowplay)

Characters of Arabic popular drawing style:

At the end of the 19th century, the popular drawing style for characters prevailed, especially in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine. The popular style is that found in illustrations tattooed on human skin, on paper, on textile, on certain tools or on walls. These drawings usually do not respect the anatomic proportions of the human body or the proportions of other objects, there is also no respect whatsoever of perspective rules. This style adapted to each country according to the local taste, hence the difference between the forms of the characters across the Arab countries from Syria to Algeria.

Characters of primitive or particular style:

The Libyan and Tunisian shadow characters were very simple, without colors or perforations.

Algerian characters were influenced by the paper cutting art and Parisian shadow puppet characters of the 19th century. It is not unlikely that Algerian puppeteers have seen French puppet shows, because of the intensive influence of the French colonial culture on the Algerian society. Today traditional shadow theater is completely extinct in many countries, such as Lebanon, Palestine and Algeria and Syria. There were no initiatives in these countries to revive this art, except through the efforts of few individuals who were unable spread their ideas. The first [preserved] animated feature film was “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926), which borrowed from both the Turkish shadow puppet tradition and Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights.

Figure 12. Poster & trailer for Lotte Reiniger’s “The Adventures of Prince Achmed” (1926).

The theatre Al-Kasaba was the first to use puppets in its performances for children. The first puppets were made by the Russian-born Israeli puppeteers Simion Golik and Vadim Dikerman who taught manipulation techniques to the actors of the Al-Kasaba theatre. Most of the puppets were glove or rod puppet figures. The puppet performance Little Red Riding Hood show debuted at Al-Kasaba in 1995.

Abdul Salam Abdo, from the Palestinian National Theatre, is regarded among the foremost puppet artists in Palestine. He has produced his own plays that have toured Palestine, Arab countries, and international festivals.

Nidal Al-Khateeb became the second Palestinian to create puppet theatre. Nidal Khatib started his journey in a prison cell. In 1982, Khatib was jailed in Israel for six months for distributing posters during Land Day. There he met his fellow detainees, who became part of the “theatre” they all created. They turned the cell into a stage and used the tools available to them as props. After joining the Hakawati Theatre in Jerusalem, he founded the Al-Tantoura puppet theatre troupe in Hebron in 1995.

Nidal Al-Khateeb

He was put in a prison called “Ansar-3” again for six months for his activism during the 1st intifada in 1998, where he produced his next play “Ansar-3” expressing his experience in prison. His play “Dreams of Halima”, intended for adolescents and their parents, addresses child marriage, and was produced in association with several pro-women organizations. “Butto in Jerusalem” tells the story of a youth and his grandfather who are prevented from going to Jerusalem by the Israeli army.

Figure 13. From Al-Khateeb’s puppet theatre in documentary Palestine, Palestine © 2002Dominique Dubosc

Khatib, his wife Maysoun, and their children all play integral roles in his productions. The couple was awarded the Palestine Award for Excellence and Creativity in 2010.

In 2012, the couple produced a shadow play, “The Inferno of the Shadow”, addressing violence against women and their right to inheritance.[35]

Snapshot from “The Inferno of the Shadow” © 2012 Nidal and Maysoun Khatib

Mahmoud Al-Hourani is a British-Palestinian actor and playwright, and a graduate of the Royal Central London School of Speech and Drama. He is the director and founder of the Arab Puppet Theatre Foundation since 2008 with a mission to revive and develop the use of puppet theatre in the Arab world, producing dozens of plays including “One Thousand and One Titanics”, addressing the plight of refugees together with Palestinian Puppeteer, Rakan Abdolrahman Al-Khali.[36], [37]

“One Thousand and One Titanics” © Mahmoud al-Hourani, Al-Jazeera 2016

Hooda Shawa is a Kuwaiti-Palestinian author of award-winning popular children’s books including “The Birds’ Journey to Mount Qaf” and “Elephant’s Journey” (“Rihla Fil”), and “My Palestinian Grandmother”. She founded TAQA Productions Company in Kuwait, which has produced several films, operettas, and puppet shows including:

The Gift (2017) – A shadow play written by Hooda Shawa, directed by Mahmoud Hourani, based on a true story set during the 8th century BCE in the palace of Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid, who hosts emissaries sent by Emperor Charlemagne. As the foreign dignitaries prepare for their long journey back home, the Caliph offers an array of lavish gifts to be sent along, including an albino elephant named Abou Al-Abbas, raising the question: “Had the Caliph heard of the German proverb ‘small gifts preserve friendships’?”.

Poster of “Julnar and the Firebird” © 2019 TAQA Productions Julnar and the Firebird (2019) – a puppet show presented by TAQA Productions, written by Hooda Shawa and Dr. Nabil Bahgat. From the balcony of the Palace of Wonders in the island of Zanzibar off the coast of East Africa, Princess Julnar watches sailing wooden ships arrive from Kuwait. Julnar’s dreams of seafaring come true when she sets sail on a quest to find a cure for her friend the Firebird, who sheds his beautiful feathers when afraid.[38]

Duma Fe Darna” (“Puppet show in Our Home") Series (2020) – a Puppets series produced by TAQA Productions and Fuse Media Production that introduces children to famous Arab figures and teaches them how to make their own puppets, sponsored by Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, written by Hooda Shawa, directed by Ahmad Talal.[39]

Screenshot of the Duma Fe Darna Series © 2020 TAQA Productions

Hossam Zuheika (b.1962) is a puppet maker and performer who trained at the Palestine National Theatre and created several shows including “Ass Kicks Asses” and “The Mermaid”.

The Festival of Puppetry organized by the Palestinian National Theatre in Jerusalem began in 1989. It is the only international festival of puppet theatre in the Palestinian territory, but being in Jerusalem, the participation of companies from the West Bank and Gaza has been difficult because of travel restrictions imposed on the territories by Israeli military authorities, but in 2011 the festival was held in Nablus, Jerusalem, and Ramallah to accommodate audiences in different areas.[40]

Puppetry has played an important role in communications especially for “the Arab street” because it is easier to avoid censorship than liv-action since it is perceived as less real, less threatening and because puppets can be made from practically anything, socks, plastic bottles, paper, and glue to provide entertainment and communicate ideas and values for communities that lack resources.[41]

El Leila El Kebira (الليلة الكبيرة) (The Grand Night or The Big Night) is a 1961 Egyptian puppet-operetta that was written by poet Salah Jahin with the music composed by Sayed Mekawy. The operetta describes the celebration of the last night of the moulid, a festival celebrating the Prophet Mohamed’s birthday, through a playful, colorful and musically lively display of the activities done in an Egyptian village including scenes from the carnival and the circus including food stall vendors, a fortune teller, hummus, circus performers and belly dancers, with catchy Egyptian folk songs and rhythms.[42], [43] Approximately 40-minutes in length, it continues to make an impression on Egyptian-Muslim popular culture across the region. In 2011 Jordan-based animation studio “Kharabeesh“ adapted it into an animated short.

Figure 13. El Leila Kabira © 2002 Kharabeesh 2011

Egyptian animation studio, “Giraffics” has adapted El Leila El Kebira into a full-length animated feature film for release in 2022. Giraffics’ adaptation revolves around a little girl, Laila, and her passion for her grandfather’s stories. After being bullied by her schoolmates, Laila escapes to a fictional world through the Bioscope, where she finds herself surrounded by her favorite characters from “The Grand Night”, but she will have to confront a villain, Ommena El Ghoula, to save her story and return to her home.[44]

Figure 14. El Leila El Kebira (الليلة الكبيرة) “The Grand Night” © 2021 Giraffics

There is an interesting history of government sponsorship and censorship in film, specifically cartoons, in both democratic and authoritarian countries.

During World War II, Private Snafu (a military slang acronym SNAFU, "Situation Normal: All F-ed Up") was a series of humorous instructional adult animated shorts, produced between

1943 and 1945 under Leon Schlesinger’s Warner Bros. which outbid Disney for the contract.[45], Figure 9. Private Snafu [46], [47]

The Cold War was a war of ideologies. Each side relied heavily on the ideological unity of its people, often employing the power of the visual arts — graphic design, animation, illustration — to drive its message home.[48]

Japanese Anime, Manga, and Video Games characters are globally ubiquitous. Japan wields these cultural exports for soft power influence.[49]

Figure 13. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as Nintendo’s “Super Mario” at 2016 Rio Olympics behind collage Manga & Anime characters.

Similarly, webtoons have emerged as a popular cultural export in Korea as they have been adapted to film and television.[50], [51]

Image from “D.P Dog’s Day,” written by Kim Boton, adapted to Netflix. © Lezhin Entertainment

The Journey (2021) was a joint feature animation production between Japanese anime studio Toei Animation and Saudi animation studio Manga Productions, a subsidiary of the MISK Foundation, based on an epic tale inspired by the history and culture of the Arabian Peninsula with the distinctive anime animation style. Chief advisor of Toei Animation and an executive producer on the project, Shimizu Shinji stated that, it was “a great challenge for us as Japanese from the Far East to share in the history of ancient Arabia, which has completely different customs and cultures from ours.” But “with the supervision and assistance of the Saudi team, we were able to collect the materials and ideas needed to prepare this film.”[52] Through this cross-cultural collaboration, under government sponsorship and supervision, the venture was able to build bonds between the two disparate nations.

Figure 14. The Journey (2021) Movie Poster Copyright © Manga Productions & Toei Animation: Trailer

In the 1980s, Ireland invested the biggest grant it had ever offered a non-manufacturing company to former Disney animator Don Bluth to jumpstart its animation industry.[53] Countries around the world subsidize animation production as a means of promoting cultural heritage and language preservation, especially for the next generation.[54],[55]

The history of American comics shows the transformation of popular culture between conservative and progressive perspectives of realism and idealism. The Golden Age of Comic (1930s to early-1950s) saw the rise of modern archetypal heroes. The Silver Age of Comics (1956 to circa 1970), saw the three-dimensionality of heroes, focusing on the person behind the mask with their flaws and anxieties. In the 1960s artists such as Robert Crumb and Ralph Bakshi pioneered “underground comix”, creating comics and animation that delved into graphic subject matter banned by the 1954 Code of NGO Comics Authority, which had been created to monitor moral guidelines around such subjects as violence, sex, and drugs in comics. In the 1970s through the 2000s independent publishers proliferated and adult themes became mainstream, pioneered by creators such as Alan Moore. From the mid-2010s onward, comics, literature, and pop-culture of all kinds feature more diverse identity representation both on and behind the page, exhibiting intersectional, social activist, post-modernist qualities, including the replacement of traditional heroes with new identities.[56] Together, these comics, especially those brought to the big screen, have shaped and reflected the zeitgeist of American idealism and realism for decades, evolving into modern mythology.

Golden Age (1938-1950) © Marvel Bronze Age (1970-1984) © Marvel Modern Age (1985-early 2010s) Post-Modern Age (Mid-2010s-Present) © Marvel

Silver Age (1956-1970) © Marvel Underground Comix (Late-60s)

Figure 16. Timeline of American Comics Movement

“Pictures speak a thousand words, animations speak a thousand pictures.”[57]Adding sound, music, and animation amplifies audience engagement. Animated movies and series have made and continue to make significant impressions on young people. Disney movies such as Aladdin, Mulan, Moana, and Coco leave significant impressions of cultural identity. Such widely distributed, resource-intensive, cross-cultural products demand responsibility and inclusivity in how they portray the societies they represent.[58], [59]

A Comparative Semitic and Middle Eastern History of Cartoons

Arab cartoonists often consider the origins of comics to be traced back to Egyptian

hieroglyphics and the 13th century illustrated stories of Maqāmāt and Kalīla wa-Dimna,

underlining the traditional Arab roots of the medium.[60]

The Maqāmāt emerged as a major Arabic literary form in the 10th century, beginning with Maqamat Badi' az-Zaman al-Hamadhani – a series of anecdotes of social satire written and the narrative concerns the travels of a middle-aged man as he uses his charm and eloquence to swindle his way across the Arabic world. Maqāmāt grew from the literary tradition of adab, a word that refers to both “literature” and “etiquette” revealing the nature of these stories to educate the public on proper behavior and worldview, based on Islamic principles but also with many influences from cultures and religions across the known world, which developed during the height of Abbasid culture in the 9th century and continued through the Middle Ages in the Islamic world. In 1237, Iraqi Muslim painter, Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, created 96 illustrations for the legendary Maqāmāt of Iraqi poet and scholar al-Hariri of Basra.[61] Maqāmā, revealing glimpses into and commentaries on 13th-century Islāmic life with expressive figures, and vivid but controlled colors. Al-Wasiti's illustrations, which are among the finest examples of a style used in the 13th-century, served as an inspiration for the modern Baghdad art movement in the 20th-century, which blended Turkish art and native Christian (probably Jacobite or Syriac Miaphysite) painting in a lively Islamic syncretism. Sefer Tahkemoni, imitated the structure of al-Hamadani and al-Hariri, but his work also reflects his Jewish identity in a society that was in transition, shifting from al-Andalus to Christian Iberia.

The illustrated Maqāmāt influenced the aesthetics of the Turkish Shadow Puppet Theatre, shown through the emphasis of the outline, the dramatic behavior and mobile gestures of figures, the strong contrast between figures and the background, and the tendency of the figures being present in an unregulated setting.[62]

The Maqāmāt illustrations have stylistic characteristics of other religions such as Christianity and Judaism, such as the use of gold circles behind the heads of characters to denote authority traditionally used in Christian iconography to denote holiness, as well as Jewish gravestones.[63]

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