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Eugenios Spatharis: Greek Karagöz player dies

As if I knew. As I was passing by the graceful old house in the central square of Maroussi in the north of Athens, one strong thought passed through my mind: this time I should definitely visit this place, it is just around the corner from my house, it has been there for more than 20 years, it has been visited by every child and adult in the area and I have not done so.

I must do it, this time. But once again, other priorities kept me away from visiting that two-story, old house with the garden in the front that has been converted into the "Spatharis Museum of Karagöz."

"Next time I am in Greece, I will definitely go and meet him," I said to myself. After all you could personally meet Eugenios Spatharis either in his museum or sometimes in the few local tavernas where you could easily spot this white haired long faced man with thick sideboards, in his striped shirt with braces and a characteristic strong versatile voice. Living away from your country involves a complicated feeling process. It relates to separation from people but also from locations. It also involves a strong tendency of procrastination on your part to delay everything that you think you have to, as if there is always going to be a next time. But often, there is no next time. And you are left to deal with the feelings of remorse and self-accusation for not doing what you should on time. In reality, it is time that you want to prolong and that is in fact impossible.

When I heard that Eugenios Spatharis died at the early hours of Sunday, it was as if I was expecting it. Since my last visit to my home suburb and my half visit outside his Karagöz Museum, Spatharis had strangely entered my long must-do list. After returning to Istanbul, I had already planned my visit to his museum and had already browsed through its colorful Web page where I learned that Eugenios Spatharis, the most famous Greek Karagöz player, was born in Kifissia another Athenian suburb next to Maroussi, in 1924. I also learned that he started performing shows in 1942 touring around Greece; but also that he performed his lively shows abroad in such diverse places as Carnegie Hall, Canada and Cuba in 1953. His spectacular career took him around "touring and teaching the art of Karagöz all over the world besides staging innumerable shows in Greece."

When the art of Karagöz started to wane with the rise of television in the 1970s Eugenios Spatharis transferred the Karagöz "perde" to the TV screen. He devoted his life to that Greek-Turkish popular hero, the barefooted, big black-eyed, two dimensional shadow figure who, through Spatharis, had marked the childhood of the last three generations of Greeks. With such memorable plays like "Alexander the Great and the cursed snake" he enriched our lives with an incredible range of Greek (and Turkish shadow theater heroes) and gave us the first taste of a theatrical experience full of colors, music and humor.

He inherited the art from his father, another legendary Karagöz player, Sotirios Spatharis who through his autobiography published in 1950, turned the attention of the Greek intellectuals to Karagöz theater as a valuable species of people’s theater. Sotirios died in 1973 "holding his beloved leather Pasha in his hands," as we read in his son’s notes.

His son was the reason why I -- as well as almost everybody in my generation -- got hooked on Karagöz theater. Growing up Athens during the late 50s, a summer open air Karagöz performance usually in the central square of any neighborhood or suburb, meant that you could get a full audio-visual treat with lots of good laughs and at the same time get a free popular history lesson through the adventures of this devilish black eyed hero whose shack of a house opposite the Saray of the Sultan or the Vezir or the Pasha -- as the case may be -- simplified the Greek Turkish relations as an issue of rich and poor or clever and stupid. Still for us in a pre-school age, the Spatharis Karagöz Theater was a platform of huge historical primary knowledge as it was the first time where we saw how handsome and brave our country’s national heroes looked in their white and blue attire against the ugly mustachioed enemies-usually Turks, also addressed at as "Agarine dogs" - and where the penniless but clever Karagöz would show us that anybody can beat even the most powerful through the power of his mind; and who would put us under such philosophical dilemmas as, "why should we wash the dishes, if we are going to eat again!"

Eugenios Spatharis who died two days ago, at the age of 85 was active until the last moment. Actually in a way he died "on duty," after suffering head injuries from a fall on the stairs coming out from the Goethe Institute in Athens where he was honored for his work. In 1995, after a life in performing, he set up a Museum of Karagöz in Maroussi where he was living. It was the first Museum of its kind in Greece with a valuable collection of old shadow figures - among them the unforgettable Turkish figures of the daughter of the Vezir, the Hanim, the Pasha, the Hacıvat, the Bey. But he also provided the information for the techniques of making those wonderful figures from carton paper, to gelatin, to leather and finally to plastic. "We did not want to make Karagöz a museum piece, but as Karagöz theaters are now lost from the neighborhoods of Athens and the provinces, in order not to lock him in a trunk, we decided to find Karagöz a permanent place: a place which the adults will visit to remember their childhood and the children will learn about the history of shadow theater," he had said when opening his museum.

I never had the chance to visit his museum. Even when I could, two weeks ago, I put it aside as a cultural duty to be paid at a later date. But digging deeper I think it was probably something else, too that prevent me from going. I did not want to remember my childhood, yet as I still insist that I have time.