Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, Drawing 14, 2015, oil, pencil, and ink on cotton paper, 22 1/2 × 30".

Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, Drawing 14, 2015, oil, pencil, and ink on cotton paper, 22 1/2 × 30".

Wael Shawky

Sfeir-Semler Gallery | Beirut

Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala, Drawing 14, 2015, oil, pencil, and ink on cotton paper, 22 1/2 × 30".

One of the most popular and critically acclaimed works in Adriano Pedrosa and Jens Hoffmann’s 2011 Istanbul Biennial was Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File, 2010, Wael Shawky’s video inspired by Amin Maalouf’s 1983 book The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, which tells the story of the Western conquest of the Middle East as represented by Arab sources. The first installment of Shawky’s then-developing Cabaret Crusades trilogy, The Horror Show File covered the period from 1095 (when Pope Urban II declared the First Crusade) to 1099, the year Jerusalem, until then under control of the Fatimid Caliphate, fell to the Christians. Played out by two-hundred-year-old marionettes from Turin’s Lupi collection, the tale opens with a scene in plague-stricken Constantinople in 541; the following scene, set in 1095, marks the beginning of the Byzantine Empire’s decline and the Ottoman conquest of its territories. This history, told in classical Arabic with subtitles, felt all too relevant at the time it was screened in Istanbul, even if Shawky never intended the work to mirror the present. After all, the Arab Uprisings of 2011 had raised all kinds of ghosts, from the Nakba and the Six-Day War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

In 2012, Shawky completed the trilogy’s second part, Cabaret Crusades: The Path to Cairo, which opens with the fall of Jerusalem in 1099. Featuring ceramic marionettes fashioned as human-animal hybrids, the work ends in 1146 with the assassination and burial of Imad ad-Din Zengi, a Turkish governor who was a hero of the Seljuk Empire and founder of the Zengid dynasty, following a scene in which a single dying puppet calls for tolerance. This sets the tone for the trilogy’s final chapter, Cabaret Crusades: Secrets of Karbala, completed in 2015. Staged using puppets made from Murano glass, it recounts the Muslim split into Shia and Sunni as a result of the decisive 680 Battle of Karbala. It also covers the rise of Saladin, a Sunni Muslim who came to rule over the Shia territory of Egypt and Syria as sultan and paved the way for the reconquest of Jerusalem—a victory Shawky finds impossible to separate from the Islamic schism. The sequence jumps around in time (from the seventh to the twelfth centuries) and place (from Aleppo and Damascus to Mecca and Mosul) so as to illustrate the Machiavellian impact of war, as brothers betray brothers, daughters betray fathers, and—ultimately—humans slaughter humans throughout a history in which everyone is united by a belief in God. This macabre unity becomes the invisible force that is symbolized by the puppet strings controlling each figure in the cabaret.

The recent Beirut premiere of Secrets of Karbala, accompanied by The Path to Cairo, had an uncanny synchronicity with world events. The show coincided with, among other things, the downing of a Russian passenger plane in Egypt, the November 13 Paris attacks, and a suicide bombing in Beirut—incidents claimed by ISIS, with a rhetoric mirroring the faith George W. Bush invoked in 2003. Content aside, the exhibition was beautifully presented, with walls painted a luminous Prussian blue to set off glass marionettes, sketches in the style of Arab and Persian miniatures mapping out locations and scenes in Secrets of Karbala, and a large, gold-leaf-tipped, terra-cotta-hued city wall that filled an entire room. Yet the beauty of Shawky’s objects could hardly disguise the growing similarities between the histories recounted in his trilogy and the violence of the present day. Indeed, when a puppet calls for jihad against the Western occupiers in Secrets of Karbala, we become privy to a hard fact: History does not repeat itself—it simply keeps on going.

Stephanie Bailey