Baabbaleeza the Puppeteer

It was a scorching afternoon in the small town of Al-Azraq, Jordan, and I was just getting ready to leave on the earliest bus to Amman for a connecting flight to Cairo when a street vendor approached me. The man was ancient, he’d lived through a lot of poverty and turmoil, but still he smiled his toothless grin and flayed his products in front of me.

He was quite mobile for such an old man, bouncing about me shouting and smiling. I waved him off and politely told him that I wasn’t interested, but still he insisted. Its only then that I caught sight of what he was selling. Little puppets made of some sort of leather with bright glistening eyes that danced about on strings when he moved them. Once again I waved him off and tried to ignore him.

But that’s when I felt a tug at my backpack, I spun on my heel and was about to yell something at the vendor when I realised he’d disappeared. When I spun around there he was, with that cheeky toothless grin, puppets shaking off his fingertips. At that point I had given up, even though I was told not to give in to street vendors under pressure, I just wanted this old man off my back. I handed him whatever change I had left and he handed me a puppet, one that looked oddly like me. He bowed and shook his hands together as he stepped back, thanking me for the business.

I thought no more of it until I reached the bus stop and the old man was there, waving at me as if we were old friends; he seemed excited to see me. So there I was, in some remote town of Jordan with a geriatric stalker. He rushed up to me, grabbing me by the arm and tugging me towards the town again. I tried shaking him off but he was strong, too strong. I wondered what he ate, or what I didn’t. He tugged me along all the while smiling, its then I noticed the old man was blind. A layer of white veiled his eyes from the outside world.

‘Stop it’ I shouted at him and he just turned around, shocked at my tone.

‘You come with me. I have thing to show you’ he croaked, and I was surprised to see he spoke English. In the streets of the town he had only spoken in his native tongue, when he had hassled me. My curiosity was now mixing with the adrenaline of fear in the melting pot that was my mind. He led me to a house that was on the outskirts of the town. It looked abandoned, the windows were boarded up, the gate was swinging off a hinge and the paint had begun to peel away from the walls.

‘We go inside’ he said as he tugged me inside the gate, I couldn’t protest but I felt I would have to make a run for it. As if sensing my fear he spoke, ‘don’t worry, me no hurt you. You buy puppet, you get gift’. That eased my mind a little but not much, I wondered what kind of gift it would be. We entered the house and his hand was still closely gripped around my forearm. Apart from us the house seemed empty.

‘You come see how puppet made’ he exclaimed.

‘Oh no its ok, I really have to be going’ I responded kindly, feeling bad for having thought ill of this poor old man. He only wanted to show me how he had made my puppet, even though I was curious.

I tried to break free but his hand was fixed tight around my wrist now, ‘Come, Come I will show you’ he smiled, that toothless grin.

He led me through the house down a long corridor and then down a flight of stairs to what seemed to be a cellar. It was dark and cool in the cellar and it smelt of burnt wood and something sweet, it tantalized the senses. I had lost sight of the old man in front of me, but I felt his grip tighten on my wrist. When I looked up at the door to the cellar it was slowly closing, some draft of wind or something was pushing it shut.

Then I felt his hand let go of my wrist and I was left wandering aimlessly in the dark until I hit something solid, a bench of some sort, a slab of granite or some polished stone.

‘Excuse me?’ I spoke into the darkness. Then I saw a flash of light and there was a candle lighting up the old mans face, which looked more graven and elongated now, but still he had that awkward toothless smile. At one stage I thought the candle would burn his scruffy white beard straight off. He placed the candle on the bench and then went around it lighting candles. Then I noticed something lay on the table, I couldn’t make it out with the light of the two candles, but as he went around I saw what it was. There was a naked body lying on the slab of polished stone, disembowelled with its organs arranged in bowls alongside it. Its then that I felt my lunch creeping up my throat and the sudden dizziness of nausea. When I tried to turn around I found he was behind me forcing me to look at the corpse.

‘I will show how a real puppet is made’ he croaked in a deeper malevolent tone.

I was fixed to the spot as he moved towards the bench, rolling up the sleeves of his robes and picking up what seemed to be a large shaving instrument he began to peel away at the corpses skin until he got a good sized fabric. I tried to move but I was paralysed, it was as if I had been chained to the spot with imaginary shackles and locks. He spoke to me as he did it, detailing the gruesome actions as he went by them.

‘A puppet must have both mind and soul, heart and brain. From a single man I can make 10 of his former self, and they will be immortal’ he croaked with his toothless grin still on his face.

I tried not to look or listen but I found myself not being able to turn away, watched as he carved bits of the heart and brain and placed them neatly in their respective positions inside the puppet he made from the fabric of skin. When he had finished he had made a puppet that would dance on his fingers, ‘But to bring them life I must do other things that you will never know, you will only experience it’ he smirked.

I gulped with the full weight of dread falling upon me.

It was a scorching afternoon in the small town of Al-Azraq, Jordan, and I was rushing about the town square, trying to warn them of Baabbaleeza the puppeteer, trying to tell them not to buy his puppets, to tell them what he had done. But I found that I could not speak, I could only move about on my strings.

Baabbaleeza the Puppeteer


Buderim, Australia

  • Artist



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