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A Circus Act of Defiance

Jan. 17, 2007 4:52 P.M. (Updated: Jan. 17, 2007 4:52 P.M.)
Life with the Palestinian Circus School

Ramallah - Ma'an -The Palestinian Circus was started by a man named Shadi Zmorrod and seeks to enlighten people about Palestinian suffering, whilst also entertaining the Palestinian people. When I contacted Shadi to learn more about his creation, he insisted that I come and experience life with the circus first-hand. The day I arrived, Shadi had just secured funding from the French Consulate, which had enabled him to hire a room in which the circus' performers could practice. Previously, the circus had been forced to make-do with limited resources; they practiced in the street, used toilet brushes as juggling batons and relied on the generosity of local restaurants to feed the performers. The funding will also facilitate a tour of Europe for the Palestinian circus students. As Shadi announced the news to his students he was met with cheers and joyous bursts of laughter.

Children will be children

Shadi explained his motives for setting up the Palestinian circus school. He said that his goal was to, "redraw the smiles on the faces of the children." Children are born every day into an oppressive, conflictual situation and Shadi is here to enable them, despite their surroundings, to just be children. Shadi described how Palestinians had lost their trust; how it had been systematically destroyed by the occupation. He said that the first exercises the circus does with children in the workshops are trust exercises. Circus is based on trust and working together and it is necessary for acrobats to trust one another in order to perform together. He explained that anything built on trust stands in stark contrast to the Israeli occupation. Shadi told us how he intends to put trust back into Palestinians through the circus. The circus has very grand aims; it also seeks to build unity and solidarity in people who, in the face of the current crisis, have become divided. Shadi explained how the circus is not only about learning techniques; it also has a wider pedagogical purpose.

Breaking down boundaries, domestically and abroad

Fresh in my mind when I went to meet Shadi was an incident when a group of activists were held at Allenby Bridge crossing into Israel by Israeli border control who were suspicious of their purpose in traveling to the occupied territory. Bored by 8 hours of waiting, the activists began to entertain themselves by clowning around and juggling. The border control soon realized that this group of people were harmless and allowed their passage. Shadi spoke of how Palestinians are internationally known as terrorists, he seeks to promote circus as an alternative to violence and rectify the reputation of Palestinians. But the circus has come up against barriers domestically. When Shadi first told people about his idea to set up a circus, they said, "So what, you're going to put a girl wearing a bikini on a trapeze?" The circus is a truly unfamiliar art in Palestine. Despite this, the performances of the Palestinian Circus not only sold out, but far outnumbered the capacity of the venues they had booked, meaning the circus had to move to larger and larger venues to meet overwhelming demand. The circus maintained respect for Arabic traditions and culture; there is nothing sexual in their performances, no performers are scantily clad. When people witnessed the innocent, yet ground-breaking nature of the circus, they came in droves and brought their children.

A unique goal

Through the Palestinian circus, Shadi is spreading a Brechtian message, his circus, he claims, is the first circus group which has focused on human suffering. The circus props include a makeshift separation wall, and the aim of the circus is to illustrate the suffering of the Palestinian people. Shadi said he wants to take the tour around the world to highlight the problems encountered by Palestinian people, but that it would be even better if people from around the world came to the occupied territory, to see for themselves. However, he does not always intend to put on a circus based on suffering; he would like to do a show unrelated to politics in the coming years and hopes that this will represent the future and a marked change in the Palestinian situation.

The first circus workshop in a Palestinian refugee camp

We were lucky enough to witness the first ever circus workshop in a Palestinian refugee camp, which took place in one of the poorest refugee camps in the occupied territories, Amari refugee camp, in Ramallah, in the occupied Palestinian West Bank. A school in the camp filled with wide-eyed, expectant children; and they would not be disappointed. The show began with a clown, bringing an element of the absurd to the children of the camp. I watched as the amazed children's mouths gaped open for the entirety of the show. The show began with the clown obstructing the warm-up of the performers and soon turned to a kind of deliberate chaos, with several intended mistakes, which served to demonstrate that anyone can be involved in circus, and slip-ups on the stage really do not matter. Through the circus, a message of inclusivity and solidarity is spread to the Palestinian people. Following the performance, the performers held a workshop, in which they taught the children to do acrobatics and juggle. The children were divided by gender and I watched as the boys formed an orderly queue, each excitedly awaiting their turn to roll down a row of gym mats. The girls stood in a circle learning to juggle with brightly-coloured juggling balls.

The future of the circus

Shadi intends to work with people with special needs in the circus in the future. He has written a circus production entitled, 'Dreamer Kid,' in which 50% of performers will be people with disabilities. The story is about a kid who wanted to join a circus group, but he jumped on a trapeze and injured himself on his first day of practicing, then he went to hospital and discovered that the hospital waiting room was full of other injured circus performers. Shadi and his lively group of performers will also be taking the workshops to other refugee camps within the Palestinian occupied West Bank. The Palestinian circus is an all-encompassing, far-reaching group, led by a dynamic, charismatic individual who has charged himself with reaching out to the whole of the Palestinian people as well as illustrating the Palestinian situation to the rest of the world, and he is certainly on the way to achieving his goal!

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