Heidi Trautmann

Excerpt of my book: Interview with Mehmet Ertug, last puppeteer in North Cyprus

"Art and Creativity in North Cyprus, Volume II" Chapter Theatre

Traditional Turkish and Cyprus Turkish “Karagöz” Shadow Theatre


The name refers to the main character in the plot.  Karagöz represents the common people and is a mischievous character who speaks irreverently, using vulgar language.  Hacivat is a so-called educated gentleman, but the two are friends and meet and talk daily.

The Karagöz Shadow Theatre came to Cyprus with the Ottomans in 1571 and it is said that its roots are in Bursa where Sultan Orhan (1326-1359) reigned. There are many legends about how it started. Mehmet Ertuğ is the last puppeteer in North Cyprus


Mehmet ERTUĞ

Puppeteer of the Karagöz Shadow Theatre

born in Arsos/Larnaka in 1939


The truth of life is only on stage


It was a day in the 1940s in a village near Larnaka.  The rumour spread fast amongst the villagers: “The puppeteer is coming, we have seen him and his wife on the road!”  and they would flock together at the village café, just opposite the place where Mulla Hasan would set up his Karagöz Theatre. An exciting time was anticipated by all, and they remembered the puppeteer’s jokes of previous shows, men roaring with laughter, women and children who were not supposed to listen to the puppets’ conversations would giggle behind their hands. Also opposite the public theatre was the grocery shop, the owner of which was Mehmet Ertuğ’s father, and the boy Mehmet was just as excited.

“It was our cinema in those days. With these shows, we heard the rumours, local news, village gossip all brought with irony and often rude remarks. We children hid, often on the rooftops, our women folk stood behind the curtains and the jokes were repeated the next day in the cafés and shops and laughed over again. It was prohibited for us children to attend the shows but we knew ways and tricks. I admired Mulla Hasan, how he had made the puppets himself from camel skin or other material, the way he handled the puppets with sticks. He and his wife worked together behind the screen; they did the dialogues and chanted and made noises using the reed pipe and a tambourine, just as the different figures requested it.” The plays made a great impression on Mehmet and this passion would follow him through his entire life.

We sit in Mehmet Ertuğ’s little Karagöz Shadow Theatre in the Büyük Han in Nicosia where people can come daily and see his small exhibition of original puppets.  While I was there, people of different nationalities came to the entrance to look around.  Mehmet got up to greet them with a tune on the Cypriot bamboo pipe, a dillidüdük– six holes, he says, instead of seven – and in their language – Guten Tag and Aufwiedersehen – and when there were children, he gave a special short show for them because he loves to see their faces light up. “Come again”, he shouts, “come again on Saturday at 11o’clock.  And I will put on a play for you.”

I have watched him behind the white screen, directing the puppets with long sticks attached to them; the light comes from right behind the screen, so the sticks cannot be seen. And while he lets the figures act and dance, he pounds the floor, makes music with a “nününü or nareke or zirilti” a short handmade wooden whistle with cigarette paper over it – the noise reminding me of our childhood instrument of a comb with thin paper over the teeth – and shakes the tambourine, a one-man-show. And he bends down to change over the little actor puppets. “I have more than 200 puppets, collected over the years from other puppeteers. We had very good puppeteers, but unfortunately, their beautiful handmade puppets were often torn when I found them and I had to patch them up. You see, the puppets making a black/white shadow are made of carton, or are repaired, but the coloured ones are made of hide.  In the old days, it was camel hide.  Today, it’s cow hide or the same hide that is used for drums.” And he shows me his collection of originals and also the ones he made himself, for his plays.

“My parents at that time were not very taken by my love for the puppeteers, I knew that but passions cannot be discussed away. For my secondary school education I was sent to Nicosia to stay with relatives.  I lived with them in a house with one room only and no water closet, but soon moved to a boarding house.  During those years, whenever I could go home for holidays, I ran off to be with the puppeteer Mulla Hasan and soon I started imitating what he did.  It was a sort of apprenticenship for me.”

Mehmet Ertuğ was trained as a Turkish literature teacher, first at the Teacher’s Training College in Morphou, then in Ankara at the Gazi Educational Institute, and when he came back in 1960 he started teaching in Pergamos (Beyarmudu).  In his second year as teacher, the headmaster of the Namık Kemal Lycée in Famagusta heard that he knew how to perform with Karagöz puppets and that he knew the background of the theatre.  So he asked Mehmet Ertuğ to prepare a show. “How should I do it?  I had no puppets then, but the project intrigued me and I came forward with the idea of making a live show – which is what we did. We had the costumes made after my design, plays from the classical Turkish Karagöz archives were selected, roles were studied among the students. People were really delighted with our shows – it was also shown on Channel I of the German television – and the success triggered something in me.  I began to make puppets myself, write my own plays using the themes of the day.  I tried them out among family and friends.  Also, when I had to do my military service between 1970 and 1973, I played in front of the soldiers who just loved it.”

The shows and his role as puppeteer developed their own momentum, and Mehmet Ertuğ was soon invited to make Karagöz radio programmes at BRT Radio and in television.  Could he make his living from it, I ask. “Oh no, for most of my life I have held several jobs, that of a teacher in secondary schools, as Karagöz puppeteer, my role as husband and father – since we always play a role, and only on stage we find the truth – and my wife and I produced Eau de Cologne for 15 years and sold it.  I also had a stationary shop in Nicosia, and for a short while I acted in five plays for the Nicosia Municipality Theatre.  Not to mention my role as the first President of the Turkish Cypriot Philatelic Society, but that is another story I will tell you later.”

He still remembers the day of the intervention on July 15, 1974, ... because the day before, on the 14th , I had a show and a week later the Turkish army came.  What a nightmare!  The members of our school were transferred to Nicosia where I had started working for the English School. A time of radical changes.”  But things do always go on somehow, as we all know. “In 1986 Yaşar Ersoy, director of the Nicosia Municipality Theatre, heard of my Karagöz shadow theatre and he invited me to participate in some of his plays. And imagine!  In one of the plays I did a Karagöz show. Also, I was invited to set up my theatre at art festivals which were then organised by Mustafa Akıncı, the mayor of Nicosia at that time.  On 27 March 1987, fourty of my puppets, all with names, were exhibited at the Atatürk Cultural Centre inaugurated by President Rauf Denktaş, a proud moment.”

When did he stop being a wandering puppeteer, I ask him. “That was six years ago when the renovations of the Büyük Han were finished.  Evkaf invited me to join the group of artists for the Büyük Han cultural project and build a place for the Karagöz Theatre.  When I said that I would also do shows, everybody was delighted.  But the only room big enough had already a long waiting list, but in the end I managed to get it thanks to Sınası Tekman who stepped down for my sake.” Oh, the great sculptor, Sınası Tekman, who died not so long ago? And I point to a chair on which was with a plaque with his name, why was that? “Sınası, who was a nephew of mine, helped me a lot in the first year and I had a private armchair made for him, a chair of honour, to sit in my theatre. That made him very proud but it did not help him to live when he got seriously ill”

Were there still other puppeteers around Cyprus, I want to know?

“We had very famous puppeteers in Cyprus.  I have done research into all of them and the history and have written a book about it “Gelenksel Kibris Türk Sayirlik Oyunlari” which was published in 2007.  The last important puppeteer was Mehmet Salih Efendi who died in 1967. There are also some puppeteers in the South of the island and they claim that the origins of the Karagöz Shadow Theatre are Greek which is not true. They came to visit me and I told them this; their puppets have a complete different background with Alexander the Great fighting the Pashas.”

A visitor comes in and wants to buy a book he has been leafing through, I had been watching him. It is Mehmet Ertuğ’s book in English “Birth of a State with postmarks, the Postal History of the Turkish Cypriot Posts”.  I tell Mehmet that I was given the very same book by Ali Nesim who is a mutual friend. That is really an extraordinary book, a philatelic history book, the development of a young state alongside its stamps.

“Besides my passion for the Shadow Theatre, I was a passionate philatelist even when I was a young boy. In 1979, I became the first President of the Philatelic Society in North Cyprus and in the same year, the first edition of the book was printed. There was a second edition in 1985 and a third, the present, in 2001. In the function of the President of the Philatelic Society,  I went through many hard times and disappointments, as for example we would never be recognised as a member of the International Philatelic Federation.  It is a peaceful society, what can be so hard about giving us international recognition?”

I look at him. In his friendly face, are engraved some traces of sadness and hardship, lines and shadows which life has drawn. Has he ever thought of training young people to continue his life work, the shadow theatre, from the amount of documentation he has put together?

“I have tried my best to find somebody but young people lack the patience to learn the business in which so many things are involved.  There is not only the technical side to be learned, but you have to learn about people, about the daily ups and downs of your country, your neighbourhood, sharpen your senses and use with irony and sharp wit the information you have read. Who would still do that?” Our world is geared for fast living, fast news, fast food, too fast for Karagöz, I wonder?

Mehmet Ertuğ wants to find a permanent address for his shadow theatre, but where will it be? He remembers that Sınası Tekman's life work could not be kept in his old studio at the Büyük Han when he died, as the rooms were no longer available. So what will happen to the Karagöz Shadow Theatre?  Will it have a room to itself in a future National Museum of Fine Arts?  During my years on the local art scene, I have heard this question so many times.  This is his big question for the future.

A group of tourists come in and with a light in his eyes and a smile on his lips, he takes his dillidüdük and greets them with the tune of a good shepherd.

(The interview was done in July 2008)


Amendment: 2013

I spoke to Mehmet Ertug in October 2013 by phone at his home. I had tried to contact him at the Büyük Han and found his little theatre closed, so I enquired at his neighbour’s little shop and I heard that he had had an operation; his voice had gone. His voice has still not returned fully. His answer to my question ‘What will happen to the Shadow Theatre’ was: “I will not be able anymore to do it myself because of my age and my damaged voice, but I will keep the place and establish a Mini Museum to cover the history of the shadow Theatre, it should not be lost. If there will be somebody to take over the task of bringing the theatre to life again, I don’t know, I shall try and I will let you know.



In the Shadow Theatre in Büyük Han
In the Shadow Theatre in Büyük Han

Typical music instruments
Typical music instruments

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