Bethlehem - Ma'an - On Friday 17 November, some five hundred children crammed into the hall of the International Centre of Bethlehem (Dar An-Nadwa) to watch the first performance in Bethlehem of the 'The First Palestinian Circus School'.
After overcoming a great many obstacles, the First Palestinian Circus School opened its doors to a packed audience on August 18, 2006. Since then, Palestinian children and teenagers from towns and villages around Ramallah, Jerusalem and Bethlehem have been trained in the arts of the circus by determined foreign and Palestinian circus artists.
The school, which is run by the dynamic ginger-haired Palestinian, Shadi Zmorrod, sees itself as presenting a new form of resistance to some of the Israeli occupation's policies, not least the suffocation of entertainment and creativity within the occupied Palestinian territory. The First Palestinian Circus School hopes to combat the depression, anxiety and trauma rife amongst a whole generation of Palestinian children and youth whose childhood has witnessed at least one Intifada, house demolitions, death of friends and relatives, arrests, poverty, and the effects of unemployed parents and siblings.
Above all, this 'Circus behind the Wall' aims to directly counteract some of the horrors symptomatic of Israel's encroaching 'Separation Wall'.
The circus acts have a particular Palestinian flavour. In one scene, the artists form a wall of bodies and then slowly, one by one, each artist breaks through the wall. One of the artists is used a battering ram to knock down the remains of the wall. The trapeze artists, who fly through the air in symbolic freedom, wear Palestinian keffiyehs around their middles.
On Friday, less than ten days since Israel's bloody bombardment of Beit Hanoun in the north of the Gaza Strip, the organisers called for a two-minute silence to remember the victims of this assault, of whom many were innocent, sleeping children.
As all the seats filled up, young children jostled to find a place on the floor at the front, their upturned faces glowing with excitement. Young mothers and elderly grandparents accompanied their wide-eyed children, looking almost as excited and fascinated as the young.
A number of foreign NGO workers were also seen in the crowds, looking forward to this new Palestinian act of defiance.
Shadi's circus is a great achievement in the face of many obstacles. One of the first disappointments Shadi faced was that a Belgian circus group, from 'Cirkus in Beweging' (Circus in Movement), who were due to conduct some of the first training workshops, were forced to cancel as a result of the Israeli war with Lebanon over the summer. At the last minute, the group pulled out, leaving the workshops in crisis.
But Shadi was not to be beaten. A letter appealing for help was sent out to the First Palestinian Circus' friends and acquaintances around the world, and the circus organisers planned to go ahead with the workshop, despite a depleted number of trainers and funds.
Individual foreign circus trainers responded to the call and, some, who almost miraculously were in the region, appeared to volunteer their skills. Friends and companies, moved by the circus school's unique appeal, donated small amounts. The school economised and bought toilet brushes to juggle instead of real juggling clubs. Participants built their own stilts. The Belgian circus group still sent circus materials to the school.
The result was a hugely successful show on 18 August and the start of this First Palestinian Circus School.
The school has grand plans for the future. Further workshops and shows are planned, if the funds can be secured, and even tours, both nationally and internationally.
The school hopes to set up four Circus Clubs in early 2007 where more Palestinian youths can learn acrobatics, juggling, trapeze, clowning and other circus acts, while gaining vital problem-solving skills, quick-thinking and teamwork.
In their vision for the future, the circus school seems to offer a form of psychological therapy for the traumatised youth of Palestine. The school hopes to offer the young participants the chance to interact in a safe environment and create some necessary order in their unstable lives, boosting their self-confidence and improving self-expression. The circus school says it hopes to make the children "positive actors of change".
The circus school aspires to reach in particular the underprivileged Palestinian youth in refugee camps and rural villages. Workshops are planned in Al Am'ari refugee camp in Ramallah, for instance. More shows are planned during the Muslim feast of Eid Al-Adha, which falls at the time of New Year.
Shadi's dream, however, is to bring the circus to Palestinian street kids and handicapped children.
Good luck to him and his troupe!