Azad: A must-see journey through art, war and the human spirit

A special public performance of Azad will be held at Harvard University on Sept. 21, followed by venues in Berlin, New York City and Yerevan. Azad is a multimedia theatrical experience that weaves personal history, social justice and the resilient spirit of humanity. It features ancient Karagöz shadow puppets, indigenous Middle Eastern folk music and oral storytelling. 

Following A Thousand and One Nights as a universal map for healing trauma, Azad highlights the transformative friendship between Armenian artist Sona Tatoyan and jailed Turkish humanitarian Osman Kavala. A visceral, multi-generational journey through Aleppo, Azad takes viewers from the Armenian Genocide to the Syrian war, offering the power of creation as a remedy for hate and destruction.

Azad (“free” in Armenian, Farsi and Kurdish) is a kaleidoscopic story within a story within a story, centered on a storyteller’s discovery of her great-great-grandfather’s handmade Karagöz shadow puppets in Aleppo during the Syrian war, a century after he salvaged his family and art from the Armenian Genocide. 

Performer, writer Sona Tatoyan holding her great-great grandfather’s Karagöz puppets. (Photo: by Alex Griffin)

When Tatoyan unearths a trunk in the attic of her abandoned family home, filled with Abkar Knadjian’s Karagöz and ancient magic tricks, she encounters his life and art, along with the ghosts of generations of family members long gone. At the same time, she grapples with the recent indictment – and possible life sentence in prison – of her dear friend and patron, Turkish human rights activist Osman Kavala.  

Amidst this backdrop of pain and loss, she discovers A Thousand and One Nights. At the heart of this cornerstone of Middle Eastern literature is another storyteller, ScherAzad (the bold, brilliant weaver of tales who counters destruction with creation), who catalyzes an epiphany for Tatoyan: A Thousand and One Nights is a story of how trauma transpires and how it is healed. 

As a first-generation Syrian-Armenian-American theater and film artist, Tatoyan is always conscious of how the Western imagination sees the Middle East: an unstable place of war, dictatorships, subjugated women, backward thinking and natural disasters. Yet the genesis of all modern storytelling, A Thousand and One Nights, is a work of Middle Eastern literature, and its genius has inspired creators around the world, from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Guillermo del Toro to Angela Carter.

Tatoyan never knew her great-great-grandfather personally, but through his puppets, she reframed her legacy and understanding of the lands of her roots—as a place of intertwined magic and stories, wisdom and healing, alongside layers of trauma. Azad is a quantum collaboration between Tatoyan and her great-great-grandfather. An intergenerational conversation across a painful space-time. A magical healing spell to remember: when we surrender to the constant play of shadow and light, we are free.

RSVP online to see Azad at Harvard University on September 21, 2023. The event is free and open to all. Doors open at 5:30 p.m., and the performance starts at 6 p.m.

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