The Jenin refugee compound, more than 50 years old and one of the oldest camps in Palestine, is home to 13,000 people, half of them under 15. It was the centre of some of the fiercest fighting during the second intifada, and even today many of its schools remain closed.
When Israeli soldiers used to enter the camp, the children would automatically put down their schoolbooks and pick up stones.
Not knowing when the next military raid will burst upon them and with little opportunity to escape, Jenin’s children have a far from stable upbringing. But over the past month one school playground has been been taken over by a carnival atmosphere. There are no advancing tanks, no explosions, no bloody deaths of local martyrs. Instead, from among a phalanx of laughing children, emerges a group of flat-footed clowns who have wandered, seemingly lost, into the cement and wire enclosure. A few minutes later the children are sitting quietly on the floor and the show can begin.
For more than an hour a loud, chaotic and colourful circus event rolls out mysterious card and water tricks, absurd clown skits, juggling of all varieties and a generous helping of good old slapstick comedy—the loudest laughs often coming, as they always do, when the low-status clowns ridicule the big-boss clown behind his back.
Volunteers are pulled out of the crowd to be a part of the performance and after uttering the immortal words “Chillybah Chillyboo!” they are amazed to see water disappear, cards pulled out of hats, magic wands extending above their heads and a real dart being thrown and caught in a clown’s mouth. Even children as tough as these grow shy and tongue-tied on stage in front of their peers, but there is always that look of pride and a pure joy at being the one selected.
Boomchucka Circus, formerly Circus2Iraq, has been touring Israel and Palestine for two months. Originally from Britain, it is made up of six fools who answered an advertisement last November looking for performers to create a circus show for children living on both sides of the conflict.
For the children, the show is a new experience: a humorous, high-energy piece of foolish theatre that transcends the boundaries of culture, language, age and race. But there are lessons for the actors as well. The troupe operates as a collective, with each clown funding his own way. Riding on buses, eating handouts on the street and sleeping on floors, often in return for nothing more than the offer of a chance to learn a little sleight of hand, has given the six actors a clearer insight into the daily lives of the local people and the reality of trying to conduct a relatively normal existence within a war zone than any number of subscriptions to 24-hour television ever could. Perhaps the politicians should sign up for the tour.