Circus School in Palestine: Cultural Resistance with a Creative Spin

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"We started with nothing," says Jessika, "We had one box with a few diablos, and sticks and balls, and that was all. And we had volunteers." (Photo: Brendan Work)

By: Emily Lawrence

Published Monday, December 12, 2011

In a lively playground in the small West Bank town of Birzeit, a few kilometers north of Ramallah, an acrobat swings on a trapeze, expertly balancing and performing for the large group of children gathered below. Everywhere there is wild activity and life; children spinning plates, juggling balls and batons, and throwing colored hoops and diablos into the air in the bright winter sun.

Birzeit is now home to the Palestinian Circus School (PCS), an organization which teaches contemporary circus arts to children and young people from all over the West Bank. On December 2, around 135 children from Jerusalem, Tulkarem, Jenin, Ramallah, Hebron, and the refugee camps of al-Jalazon and al-Fara'a gathered in Birzeit to celebrate the opening of their new school premises and practise their circus skills for the afternoon parade.

Starting a circus school in Palestine

The school was founded in 2006 by Shadi Zmorrod, a Palestinian actor and performer, and Jessika Devlieghere, a Belgian aid worker who had previously run several summer camps for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Together they decided that their real vision was to open a circus school for Palestinian children in the West Bank.

"We started with nothing," says Jessika, "We had one box with a few diablos, and sticks and balls, and that was all. And we had volunteers."

The school started with only a few students, but after numerous performances around the West Bank, it soon gained momentum. Several of the original students became volunteer trainers at the school, and in 2007, thanks to various international fundraising projects, the team managed to rent a training hall and started teaching in Jenin, Ramallah and Hebron.

Now, five years later, the school has over 165 students between the ages of 9 and 20. There are also plans to establish a professional academic three-year programme, so that students can gain qualifications in circus and performing arts in order to start their own businesses and careers.

The school has now secured a permanent school building, donated by Hanna Nasir of Birzeit University. The historic 19th century building and surrounding land, previously abandoned and derelict, have undergone a US$148,000 refurbishment funded in part by the Belgian government.

"It was really hard to get this place, our place," says 14-year-old student and trapeze artist Hazar Azzadeh. "We moved more than five times in Ramallah and finally we are here, our own place… it’s a great feeling."

Inside the new school, the smell of fresh paint lingers in an airy studio with panoramic views of the surrounding olive orchards. Boxes of batons and juggling balls are stacked high, safety mats and spotlights line the walls, and a costume rail holds an array of wigs, masks, striped trousers and colorful sequinned waistcoats.

Outside, trainers and children enjoy a large playground and circus apparatus, complete with a trapeze and tissu, or aerial silk, a long purple ribbon on which a student twists and spirals with immaculate precision and balance. The playground is full of children and young people in matching PCS t-shirts, honing their skills and performing skits for each other; comedy juggling routines, balancing acts, contemporary dance and mime, all ending in the debkah, a traditional Palestinian folk dance, performed by students from al-Fara’a refugee camp.

Difficulties of occupation

Whilst the open day was an exciting day for the students, the Palestinian Circus School has not been without its difficulties. The Israeli occupation has created difficulty in every aspect of life for Palestinians, particularly when it comes to travel. Due to the complex system of Israeli military checkpoints and roadblocks, travel to and from the school has become highly frustrating and cost-inducing.

"Usually it takes an hour and a half to come here from Hebron, but today it took four hours," says 11-year-old Rula Rajabi, a student from Hebron. "At the checkpoint they were stopping cars, stopping the traffic."

But even though the journey is difficult, she is still determined to come. "When I come here I see new things that I didn’t know before. And I enjoy meeting new people from other places in Palestine."

Whilst travel is difficult for many of the pupils, for some it is impossible. Mohammed Abu Sakha, 20, a former PCS student from Ramallah, has been denied permission to go to Jerusalem with the circus, since he was taken to an Israeli jail when he was 17.

“When I was 10 years old I threw a stone at them," Abu Sakha says. "But there was not something, no reason, to put me in prison." He says he was kept in prison for one month, and since being released has become a trainer at the school. He says his favourite thing about the job is seeing the children improving.

"I teach not only circus, but how to have good personality, good character," he says. "I am always here. Work starts at 10 but every day I come at 7.30."

The school founders emphasize the need for nonviolent resistance to the occupation and adhere to a strict policy of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS), a movement which creates pressure by boycotting Israeli goods and services.

"We are under a very savage occupation and normalization for us is not an option," says Jessika. "We don’t normalize before there is justice. We are a part of a public, civil society institution that also wants to end the occupation. And we contribute to that in our way."

"As a Palestinian, all kinds of resistance are allowed," says Shadi. "But I hate armed resistance. That’s why I chose art, from the beginning, as our voice."

Despite the difficulties of travel, the school has toured throughout Palestine reaching an estimated audience of 15,000 people, and has also toured Europe with its show 'Behind the Wall,' in order to raise awareness about the occupation in Palestine. They also attended the first International Circus Festival last year in Cairo. "We decided to tour abroad to get closer to the public, and to meet them face to face," says Shadi, "so they see that we are also normal human beings like them."

The positive influence of the circus arts

For the PCS, there is far more to circus than simply juggling and acrobatics. The PCS believes in the power of 'social circus,' the use of circus arts as a medium toward social justice. One of the stated aims of PCS is "to use the circus arts as a social tool to develop the creative potential of Palestinians, seeking to engage and empower them to become constructive actors in their society."

The frustration and aggression which have resulted from the occupation make Jessika and Shadi all the more determined to teach contemporary circus arts, which they see as an outlet for negativity. This is particularly vital since, according to PCS, mental wellbeing and life skills are currently absent from the school curriculum.

“There has been very little social psychological care for kids, and there is already such a huge pressure on the schools because of the closures and the strikes and the incursions - schools can hardly deal with the basics," says Jessika.

“A lot of the kids have never known a day that there hasn’t been violence. It's exactly the kids who have a lot of problems that are overloaded with energy and don’t find a they deal with it in a positive way."

Shadi also says that through circus skills the children are able to improve both their health and concentration levels, which improves their performance in school. "You need to be balanced in your daily life," he says. "When a kid learns to balance on a unicycle, he also starts to be balanced inside. The same with juggling. It's all about coordination, not just coordination of the balls, but how to coordinate your life."

Nayaf Abdallah, a trainer from Ramallah, also sees the benefit of positive expression. "The children, especially from refugee camps and villages, have no space to express themselves, so we bring them to make them feel free."

"Today I had one student come in here with a plastic machine gun," says Shadi. "I told him, try not to play with it. Play with a juggling ball."

Celebrating the new school

Despite the obstacles, the circus school continues to grow and has become an important place for children from all over the West Bank to play, learn new skills, and most importantly, to feel free.

"Without circus I would be not be able to express myself and how I feel," says Lure Sadeq, 14, from Ramallah. "The circus makes me able to express how I feel and this is something I love. I am doing something I love."

The first day at their new premises ends with a parade through the streets of Birzeit. Girls walk on stilts, boys ride unicycles and one student balances a large Palestinian flag on his chin. The youngest children wear fairy wings, looks of intense concentration on their faces as they wave their colored scarves in unison.

Ahmad Walid al-Rajb, 14, from Hebron, is dressed as a clown, with a red nose and orange wig, juggling as he walks. Everywhere there is energetic movement and vibrant color. Some pupils form a human pyramid in the street, some do back flips, all have painted faces and permanent smiles.

The locals have come out of their houses to watch the parade. Some film it on camera phones, women watch from balconies, one man stands at the end of his drive in his dressing gown, looking bemused but enchanted as the procession tumbles past.

A few moments ago the streets of Birzeit were quiet and still, now the dusty streets are filled with riotous carnival color. The circus has come to town.


So the west want palestinians smile while they taking there land.

" that students can gain qualifications in circus and performing arts in order to start their own businesses and careers."

Are you kidding me?

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