The crusades from an Arab perspective, played by puppets

Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala

Wael Shawky

The crusades come to life in Egyptian artist Wael Shawky’s beautiful Cabaret Crusades. Inspired by the writings of Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf, Shawky’s film trilogy explores the horrors of the medieval holy wars in the Middle-East – from an Arab perspective. With a cast made up entirely of puppets, the third part, The Secrets of Karbala (2014), centres on the period between the 7th and 12th centuries, covering the crusades as well as a dispute between two Islamic sects. Beautifully made of handblown Murano glass, the puppets have amazing expressive power, making the scenes full of violence, repression and torture all the more awe-inspiring.


Festivalfocus: Edges of Europe

During the first six months of this year the Netherlands holds the Presidency of the European Union. But what is left of the dream of European unity? At the Holland Festival international artists present a series of performances focusing on current European issues and exploring this changing continent. 

The festival’s opening performance by Estonian directors Ene-Liis Semper and Tiit Ojasoo Die Stunde da wir nichts voneinander wußten shows the diversity and tensions of modern Europe. And in their film Ash and Money they focus on the phenomenon of political populism. Directors Milo Rau (The Dark Ages), Joël Pommerat (Ça ira (1) Fin de Louis), Wael Shawky (Cabaret Crusades: The Secrets of Karbala) and Ukrainian band DakhaBrakha delve into Europe’s past, exploring the effect of some of its history’s darkest chapters. From the heart of Europe, the collective God’s Entertainment stages a test about chauvinism, which is causing the European dream of unity to falter. The Dutch theatre company Wunderbaum responds to European issues in its project The New Forest. A large Syrian orchestra for Arabic music will reunite for a special concert in Africa Express Presents… The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians with Damon Albarn and Guests. Artists may not be able to change the world, but they can change the way we look at it.


Background information

Wael Shawky, one of the most exciting artists to emerge from the Arab world, will present his film The Secrets of Karbala (2014) at the Holland Festival. It's the final instalment of his trilogy Cabaret Crusades. Using an intriguing, alienating blend of animation and puppetry, Shawky highlights key moments in the history of the Crusades, told from an Arab perspective with a voice-over in Classical Arabic.

The other two parts of Shawky's trilogy are entitled The Horror Show (2010) and The Path to Cairo (2012). In his work, Shawky uses the past to explore our contemporary culture, and vice versa.

Shawky's trilogy is based on The Crusades through Arab Eyes by Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, a narrative retelling of the crusades drawn from Arab chronicles and other historical sources. The book was an overnight sensation. Shawky showed the savagery of European knights who killed, plundered and raped their way to the Holy Land, often not sparing their fellow Christians either. He was intrigued by this story, even more so when he found out that there are four completely different versions of Pope Urban II's famous speech in which he called for the First Crusade (1096-1099). The exact words of the real speech – which started two hundred years of religious war – have not been documented and have been lost in history. With surreal means (such as puppetry) Shawky shows that there is no single historical truth. In his installations, films, narratives and performances he uses historical facts and fictions to explore the impact of history, culture and globalisation on our contemporary society.

Every part of Shawky's trilogy has its own unique style, aesthetics, sound and design. Cabaret Crusades: The Horror Show File (2010), the first in the series, was shot with two-hundred-year-old wooden Italian marionettes. Using realistic-looking spaces and three-dimensional architecture, the film tackles the period between 1096 and 1099, spanning four years of critical events that changed forever the relation between the Arab world and the West. Part two, Cabaret Crusades: the Path to Cairo (2012), features ceramic marionettes handcrafted by Shawky himself. Using scenographic landscapes collaged from famous Persian miniatures, the story covers the period between the First and Second Crusade (1099-1145). For the concluding part of his trilogy, The Secrets of Karbala, which is screened at the Holland Festival, Shawky used translucent glass marionettes set against a background made of dark clay. The film revolves around some crucial events in the 7th and the 11th century AD, including the first major rift in Islam, the division between Sunni and Shia. Blending religious gravitas and dramatic fantasy, he stages a theatrical account of history. The marionettes are the most grotesque in the trilogy, surreal creatures – part human, part unknown animal and part extra-terrestrial being – which convey the horror of war, religious fanaticism and aggression. The music has a similarly alienating effect, mixing traditional Arab hymns (Le Fijiri from the Gulf, Egyptian Sufi enshad and Iraqi Shia song) with electronic music. 

The artificiality of the marionettes and the gloomy sets create a disruptive effect. Past, present and future coincide. It's cartoonish yet convincing. Shawky delivered the first part of his trilogy in 2010, just before the start of the Arab Spring. His work shows some bizarre similarities between the events one thousand years ago and the present time. The Secrets of Karbala marks Shawky's Holland Festival debut.



Based in Alexandria, the Egyptian artist Wael Shawky (1971) studied fine art at the Universty of Alexandria before receiving his Masters of Fine Arts at the University of Pennsylvania. His work has received international acclaim. Shawky explores pivotal changes in history and transitional events in Arab society, politics, culture and religion. 

Shawky's alienating narratives through the use of puppets, child actors and television-show formats emphasises the power that historical and mythical stories hold over the way we think about ourselves and the world. In his art he combines truth and fiction, childlike wonder and religious elements. Shawky's exhibitions include Museum K20 (Düsseldorf, 2014-2015), MoMa PS1 (New York, 2015), dOCUMENTA (Kassel, 2012), Nottingham Contemporary (2011), Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial, 2011), Sfeir-Semler Gallery (Beirut, 2010), Cittadellarte (Italy 2010), the Venice Biennale (2003 en 2005), Istanbul Biennial (2015) and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (2015). Shawky has received the Mario Merz Prize (2015), the Prize for Filmic Oeuvre created by Louis Vuitton and Kino der Kunst (2013), the Abraaj Capital Art Prize (2012), the Schering Foundation Art Award (2011) as well as The International Commissioning Grant and an award from Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (2005). In 2010 Shawky founded MASS Alexandria, the first independent educational studio programme for young artists in Alexandria.



Wael Shawky
based on
The Crusades through Arab Eye, Amin Maalouf
Aida Fahmy,
Mahmoud Masaoud,
Khaled al-Zahaby,
Adel Khalaf,
Amed Khalil,
Tarek Ismail,
Jehad Abo al-Enein
supervised by
Ibrahim Baalousha
sound technician
Mahmoud Shaaban, Hakim Studio
production managers
Ahmed Zayan, Fig Leaf Studio
Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen
with the support of
Kulturstiftung des Bundes
postproduction with the support of
Film un Medien Stiftung NRW
Venetia Stvdivm
special thanks to
Sheikha al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani,
Marion Ackermann,
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen,
Adrino Berengo,
Jean Paul Engelen,
Abdellah Karoum,
Doris Krystof,
Gallerey Sfeir-Semler,
Andree Sfeir-Semler,
Anna Nowak (coordination)