The crowd of men, women and children assembling outside Ramallah’s
Ashtar Theatre on a hot August Friday evening is decidedly diverse,
running the gamut from veiled Palestinian women to a foreign man in an
elaborate dreadlock coif resembling a plate. As the appointed hour of
the show nears and they have spilled into the theatre lobby, a young
woman on stilts comes out to pass the programmes. But above the buzz of
the crowd, an altercation in the street outside seems to grow louder
and louder and closer and closer.
Suddenly, mowing his path among the waiting crowd is the source of the commotion: an old man in his traditional robe and kefiyeh driving his cowering adolescent son before him. In an apoplectic rage, he shouts, “The Circus?!! You want to join the Circus? After all I have done to see to your education! I paid 5 agoras for each of your school notebooks…” Who knows what the fate of the poor boy would be if at that moment the doors to the gym room do not open, and a young girl call out, “Circus Call.”
The assembled crowd is invited to stand or sit against the wall of the circus school to watch the training, which starts off with humorous warm-up exercises led by a clown with just a few emphatic grunts, wheezes, cries and shifts of intonation. We are all warmed up as well and ready for the tumbling and acrobats which start with cartwheels, flicflacs, handstands, and work up to a girl doing a handstand on the shoulders of her partner, to the loud whistling and clapping of the crowd. Suddenly a man with a machinegun appears, waving it around at the performers. A wall is constructed from the locked arms of some of the performers, while others use their acrobatic talents to vault over it. A girl climbs on the trapeze and falls down into waiting arms, which use her as a battering ram. The crowd roars as a series of trapeze acts follows, to be followed by a competition between two girls to see who can outdo the other on the rope, tying themselves up as they climb toward the ceiling, and getting down in a series of dramatic drops.
Now we are “invited” to the theatre itself. The man with the machinegun gestures menacingly, shouts unintelligibly and prods us in that direction. But it is not so easy to comply. For our way is blocked by young men with locked arms asking for our passports, under whose arms we must pass. The overflow of the crowd is made to sit on the stage, where next to the backdrop of the wall the performers are already sitting, in an all-too-familiar vignette. A girl walks in a tightrope in front of it accompanied by a strange grating screeching noise, which I later learn is literally the sound of the wall, as captured by a sound artist from Denmark. Then, for the next half hour or so, the scene shifts several times, as we watch the performers do their stuff with spinning plates, diabolos, juggling, pins and scarves. Suddenly, the performers fall to the ground in a panic calling out “Fire, Fire,” urging us outside. I smell the kerosene before I see the man and woman facing each other in the dark street, juggling with fire.
I am not the only one who feels as if they have witnessed a birth. Iman Aoun, director of Ashtar Theatre, so well known for its groundbreaking work, says that the First Palestinian Circus School represents an institution giving birth to another institution. Walid Abdel Salem, responsible for the theatre department at the Ministry of Culture, speaks for everyone when he expresses his surprise and admiration for the unexpected level of talent and performance, promising to do what he can to support it.
But behind this amazing and impressive “presentation” is an even more inspiring story. For it is hard for the spectators to believe that the performance they have just witnessed is the result of less than three weeks training and rehearsal and that most of those on the stage have had no prior circus experience.
If you think that such things happen only in children’s dreams, you may be right. For the First Palestinian Circus is the fulfilment of the dream of the ginger-haired Shadi Zmorrod, a self-described child of Ashtar, who began celebrating his 27th birthday as the crowd started to disperse. Having joined the company from its beginning, when he was 13, his interest in circus began in 1999, when he saw an empty Russian circus tent in Ramallah. “Give me that tent,” he thought. “I would know how to run it.” From that moment he took every opportunity to develop his juggling skills, from taking workshops with visiting circus groups such as the Stella Polaris from Norway, to juggling tomatoes in his kitchen. In 2005 he wrote a play called Dreamer Kid in which a boy’s dream of joining the circus is realized against all odds, but shattered when he breaks his leg on the very first day. He is taken to a hospital filled with similarly sad circus accident victims•until they decide to make their own Enchanted Hospital Circus. At the time, he had no idea how closely his story would parallel his own life.
When I met Shadi, he was on crutches, having had an accident. But unlike the boy in his play, it was not this which threatened the realization of his dream. It was rather in Lebanon that both the fulfilment and its potential shattering sprung. For while Shadi was “Desperately Seeking Circus,” Beweging (Circus in Movement), a Belgian circus, was “Desperately Seeking Palestinians Seeking Circus.” They approached Jessika Devlieghere, a young Belgian woman working here, who had previously brought circus groups to summer camps for Lebanese and Palestinian children in that country, and agreed to her condition that they did more than just send people for summer camps, put on a show and leave: they would have to help set up something sustainable. She found Shadi through a friend in January of this year. Things were all set for the planned training of trainers when the war on Lebanon began and the Belgians cancelled their trip. However, they did send the equipment. So with Jessika’s help Shadi sent out emails to NICE, “Network for International Exchange,” which he had helped set up last year, and everyone else they could think of, asking them to come and offer training, send equipment or money. The response was overwhelming: people sent small amounts of money to their bank account and within a week circus trainers from different parts of the world had arrived, and several more just magically materialized•they met one at a coffee shop in Jerusalem, she came back to Ramallah with them and the next morning at 7:00 stilts were being made. One trainer, the fire juggler, who works with Peace and Justice in Hebron, was sending out emails to all his friends, saying how bored he was, when someone wrote back, “Haven’t you heard about the First Palestinian Circus School?” Another who found out about it by chance changed her plane ticket to stay. The programme was quickly adapted to the situation. Shadi called on his actor siblings and enlisted three Palestinian youngsters with previous circus experience. The foreign and Palestinian trainers would train the Ashtar group, who would then use what they learned to teach circus skills to youngsters. Thus the day before the show, they had given a workshop to 12 delighted girls and four boys from the Handele Cultural Centre from the village of Safa, several of whom said they planned to enrol in the circus school.
But Shadi is not content with fulfilling his own dream. He wants to help the eight- year-old boy at the Abu Rayyeh Rehabilitation Centre, and others like him, fulfil theirs. Weeks before the show, he went to the Centre to translate for a Belgian woman following children handicapped in the Intifada. When she asked the boy what his dream was, and he said, “To be a circus artist,” Shadi’s skin prickled and he was so stunned that he stopped translating. For bringing circus to the handicapped is part of his own dream. He plans to work with handicapped people from age 10-25, and dreams of teaching the blind to juggle. Deeply disturbed by the growing phenomenon of street kids selling gum and tissues at stoplights and checkpoints, he also wants to bring them to the circus. But first he needs that tent. Shadi’s vision is that the street kids will go to school, go home and do their homework and then head for the tent in Ramallah. There they will receive their circus training, before going to sell their wares in the kiosks or caravans around it. Who will buy from them? Why, the next group of circus kids to be trained and those attending the daily show, of course! Shadi is already at work planning the first Palestinian Circus Festival to be held in 2008. As for now, the Circus School is accepting enrolments for its centres at Ashtar Theatre in Ramallah, Dar El-Kalima in Bethlehem and possibly Abu Dis. It is not for nothing that it is called a school, for pedagogic training is an essential part of the curriculum, as it was in the workshop.
What, you may ask, does circus have to offer Palestinians, aside from getting them together for an hour or two of entertainment•which is worthy in itself? The comments of the foreign and Palestinian performers and trainers, and those of the audience not only point to many benefits at the level of the individual and society, but to the Palestinian cause itself. Aside from offering youngsters physical fitness, an outlet for their energy, a safety valve from the overwhelming pressures they face, a means to discover, explore or nurture their talents, build their personality and express themselves, the circus also builds team spirit, camaraderie and trust. It teaches creative solutions to problems, and promotes quick thinking and rapid response. If something goes wrong in the show, for example, the performers are trained how to adapt to the new situation•a good skill for Palestinians, who are kept constantly off guard by ever changing conditions. The circus can also serve as a form of non-violent resistance or solidarity. Those fire jugglers we mentioned, for example, comprise TRCDP “Tel Rumeida Circus for Detained Palestinians.” Whenever someone is detained at the checkpoint, they spring into action. He juggles, and she spins the poi, as the baton with flaming streamers is called. This usually diffuses the situation, and the detainees are released in short order.
But circus, like other arts, also helps Palestinians find friends. People who will never be drawn into what seems to outsiders as the eternal, tedious tit for tat Arab-Israeli conflict, can be brought to care about it by contact with Palestinians through artistic endeavour. Some of the trainers, who hailed from France, Italy and the United States, were already committed to Palestine•the fire juggler got hit by a rubber bullet during a non-violent demonstration in Beillin during the workshop period, for instance. Most of them, however, who knew almost nothing about Palestine and Palestinians when they came, were surprised to find their expectations agreeably shattered. As a result of her experience here, the rope climber will try to bring Palestinians to circus school in Switzerland, and will attend demonstrations supporting Palestine. Some French filmmakers have even selected Shadi as one of the lenses through which to portray Palestine.
Far from prizing Palestinians away from their society, “new” art forms can bring Palestinians back to it. Often they do not appreciate their own culture and heritage until they see their reflection in a crescent smile from thousands of miles away, or the eyes the colour of far-off seas. But how new or foreign is the circus? The clue lies in the human pyramid which ended the show. And as we have seen, the circus can deal with themes of the greatest relevance to Palestinians today.
But it is to the “child” that we must return. For the Palestinian trainers were younger than some of their pupils. And just as the young people led us from room to room during the performance, so can they lead or gently nudge their elders in new directions. I should know. If my sixteen-year-old daughter were not one of the Palestinian workshop trainers, who knows when I would have gone beyond my “comfort zone” to Ramallah? But I have learned through experience as a parent that it pays to go along for the ride as well as the drive, so I soon stopped my grumbling about long drives and checkpoints and with the “quick thinking” of a circus artist set about compiling my list of things to do and people to see in Ramallah. And as usual, I was rewarded beyond my own dreams-privileged to share in the Shadi Zmorrod’s dream come true, and to congratulate Ashtar on its new grandchild: the First Palestinian Circus School.
A former university lecturer, AMIDEAST project coordinator and writing consultant with a background in Cultural Anthropology, Leyla Zuaiter currently serves as advisor to the Arab Educational Institute’s Genealogy/Family History Project, Artas Folklore Centre and Mazra’a Al-Qibliyeh Heritage and Tourism Centre. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information on the Circus School, contact Ashtar at 02-298 0037.