Juggling Act: Politics and Play in the Middle East

The Palestine Circus School is hoping children will trade throwing stones for juggling balls. Marcello Di Cintio meets the performers clowning around in the West Bank
Circus in the Middle East

Juggling act … the Palestinian Circus School. Photograph: Thomas Freteur/Out of Focus

I met Nayef Othman in front of a Montreal Metro station last September. Othman had been training with the National Circus School for just over a month and I asked him how he was enjoying Canada. “It is cold,” he said. I told him to wait until winter came. We wandered until we found a small bar where we could talk, and I noticed that even as he shivered his way through a neighbourhood still mostly unfamiliar to him, Othman walked with the sort of muscular confidence certain athletes and dancers possess. I noticed, too, that he’d kept the stubbled buzz-cut he and his fellow circus performers favoured when I’d met them a few months earlier in Palestine. Othman’s shaved head made him look even stronger and more streamlined, but as we walked I suggested he let his hair grow. What works in a hot Palestinian summer might not suit one’s first winter in Montreal.

Othman is the head trainer at the Palestine Circus School (PCS), and he’s currently spending a year honing his skills as a teacher of the circus arts at Montreal’s National Circus School. He is also learning to guide students through the process of creating performance, promoting their physical and psychological development, and using the circus for social education. Othman’s training in Montreal is intense. By the time he completes the course, he will have endured more than 700 hours of instruction, much of it physically demanding. He plans to return to Palestine in the fall to teach new circus artists what he’s learned. The circus, he believes, can arm young Palestinians with new weapons in their struggle for identity and dignity. “The circus is a kind of fighting,” he told me. “We are creating an army, a culture army, non-violent, of open minded people.”

More than this, though, he hopes the circus will provide Palestinians with an alternative language, a language without words, that they can use to tell their story. For decades, Palestinians have been ill-served by the scripts written for them. Negotiations and international agreements have done little to nudge the idea of a Palestinian state towards reality. United Nations resolutions in their favour have been ignored. Speeches and slogans come up empty. Palestinians have grown weary of the illusion that words matter. It’s little wonder, then, that they yearn for a more trustworthy form of expression. Which is why some have turned from the failure of words to the muscle-and-bone honesty of the circus.

Othman hopes the circus will provide Palestinians with an alternative language, a language without words.

Shadi Zmorrod, the co-founder of the PCS, studied theatre as a young man. In response to the cheapening of written text, Zmorrod started to examine performance based on physical improvisation rather than on written scripts. “I realized how important it was to forget about the text and focus on the body,” he told me in a recent interview in Birzeit, a village not far from Ramallah. Beginning in 2000, Shadi conducted physical theatre workshops in Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank, as well as abroad in Europe and North Africa. In each workshop, Zmorrod touted the primacy of the body and the spontaneous emotion of the performer. “What I feel at this moment, I present.”

Zmorrod’s work attracted the attention of the Jerusalem Circus Association, an Israeli circus troupe, who asked him to join them. Zmorrod hesitated at first. It was 2002, during the most violent days of the Second Intifada, and Zmorrod had vowed to boycott any work with Israelis. Still, the offer intrigued him from a theatrical perspective. While traditional circus thrills audiences with animal acts, clown antics, and feats of daring, contemporary circus artists tell stories. But instead of words, they speak the language of juggling and acrobatics, of Chinese poles, teeter-boards, and aerial silks. And they express a kind of physical truth. Rather than a representation, circus artists exemplify their own individual realities. They embody their own bodies. The circus appealed to Zmorrod’s philosophy of scriptless physical performance.

Zmorrod thought, too, that working with the Israeli circus could bring Jewish and Palestinian performers together and might advance the cause of peace, at least in a small and symbolic way. Zmorrod had seen this sort of thing work elsewhere. He’d held workshops abroad that used theatre to unite other traditional enemies. Turks and Greeks. Iraqis and Iranians. Even warring ethnic groups in Sudan.“I thought, ‘Why wouldn’t it work here?’”

It didn’t work at all. “The Israelis didn’t concern themselves with peace,” Zmorrod said. In the eighteen months he spent with the circus, the directors refused to perform shows in Palestinian neighbourhoods or teach Arab children in East Jerusalem. Then, without telling Zmorrod, the circus brought a ten-year-old Palestinian boy to perform at a commemoration of the Holocaust in Berlin.

Watch a clip from Palestine Circus School’s show B-Orders

That a boy who lived under Israeli occupation should be used as a prop to memorialize a tragedy suffered by his occupiers, and to suggest a peaceful coexistence that was inherently false, proved too much for Zmorrod. “The kid used to sell chewing gum with his brothers at Israeli checkpoints to make money for the family,” he says. Zmorrod left the company.

I was able to reach Elisheva Yortner, the former director of the Jerusalem Circus, and she called Zmorrod’s accusations “lies” and “pure invention.” She also added that it was Zmorrod’s international funders who encouraged and invited him to “tell a story of struggling in the face of darkness,” meaning, one could presume, that she felt Zmorrod was engaged in constructing a narrative for himself and the circus rooted in Israeli suppression and betrayal. She labelled it the narrative of “his ‘Palestinian Heroism’ and the ugly Zionist face of the Jerusalem Circus.” We were communicating by e-mail, but I could almost see the shoulder shrug as Yortner added that she also understands this sort of storytelling, calling it the “rules of the game in order to get budget.”

Zmorrod’s brief cooperation with the Israelis did not, therefore, result in the sort of small-scale reconciliation he’d hoped for, but the experience nevertheless endeared him to the circus arts. He believed that teaching circus could bestow dignity and hope to the children of Palestine, and so he moved to Ramallah to gather support and international funding for a wholly Palestinian circus. In August 2006, Zmorrod and his partner, Jessika Devlieghere, opened the Palestinian Circus School. It was a hot summer. Israeli warplanes were bombing Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, and the war tightened security measures throughout the West Bank. Most of the European trainers Zmorrod had invited to the circus’ opening were too afraid to come. The timing seemed terrible. Looking back, though, Zmorrod believes the circus’ birthing pains forced the company to be self-reliant from the start. “We learned to do everything by ourselves,” he said.

The conflict with Israel infiltrates every aspect of Palestine life and is impossible to avoid, even among the bright innocence of the unicycles and coloured juggling clubs.

Zmorrod’s fellow Palestinians were wary of the project at first. All they knew of the circus was what they’d seen on television. They pictured elephants and lion tamers and, worst of all, girls clad in sequined bikinis dangling from a trapeze—the sort of thing no Palestinian family would want for their daughters. “The original challenge was proving that we could have a circus while respecting the culture, traditions, and religion in Palestine,” Zmorrod said. Their first production, Circus Behind the Wall, reassured the Palestinian audiences. The show used trapeze, acrobatics, juggling, aerial silk performance, and other circus skills—but no words—to tell narratives of two sisters and two lovers separated by Israel’s wall around the West Bank. The show endeared the circus to the wider Palestinian community. “People saw that circus could tell the Palestinian story,” Zmorrod says.

Soon word of the Palestine Circus School drifted into the circus tents of Europe. Clowns and circus artists from Holland, Denmark, Italy, Australia and elsewhere visited Palestine to run workshops or collaborate with the PCS on performances. So have the multinational members of Clowns Without Borders. The PCS has, in turn, sent members beyond Palestine’s disputed borders to perform and train in Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and France. And Canada. With the support of the international circus community, and with an ambition Zmorrod admits is near crazy, the PCS plans on earning recognition within the next few years as the world’s twelfth accredited professional circus school.

For the first few years, the circus lacked a permanent home. The company moved between a couple of theatres in Ramallah, a garage in an industrial zone of al-Bireh, and a space at a technology centre run by Christian Evangelicals. In 2011, the PCS finally moved into more permanent digs, a restored historical building in Birzeit. The PCS, though, reaches far beyond their white-stone headquarters. Trainers run workshops for children in Jenin, Hebron, Bethlehem and in refugee camps. Their “Mobile Circus” brings performances to audiences throughout the West Bank. Most other Palestinian cultural events—concerts, poetry readings, and art exhibits—occur only in Ramallah and cater to the city’s upper-middle-class. By bringing circus to the oft-forgotten hinterlands, and by offering performances that are almost always free, Zmorrod has created one of Palestine’s truly democratic art forms.

Nayef Othman joined the PCS in 2007. The circus discovered him tending bar in the lounge above Ramallah’s Al-Kasaba Theatre, which they were using at the time as a rehearsal space. Othman used to watch the performers practise before his bartending shifts. He was born and raised in the al-Fara’s refugee camp, and like many from the camps who grow up with little access to culture or contact with wider Palestinian society, Othman was timid and introverted. “Before circus, I wasn’t in an open mind,” he told me when I first met him in Birzeit before he travelled to Montreal. “I was a very shy person. I was shy with strangers. I didn’t talk with girls.”

The circus fascinated him, however, and Zmorrod invited Othman to join them. He proved to be a natural and Zmorrod offered Othman a position as the circus’s first paid full-time trainer. Othman excelled at the physical elements of the circus and quickly evolved into one of the company’s most skilled performers. But what most impressed Zmorrod was Othman’s gift for inspiring young people. Othman’s influence on Palestinian children, and the influence of the school as a whole, has been extraordinary. Whatever initial misgivings parents might have harboured about the circus faded in the face of the gains their children made in the care of Zmorrod and Devlieghere (Papa and Mama Circus, as they are known), and trainers like Othman.

“When I started in Hebron, the kids were throwing the juggling balls,” Zmorrod said. “But after two or three months of circus training, these same children started to say ‘sorry’ and ‘please’ and ‘thank you’.” As they learned to juggle diablos and do handstands, the children also learned about teamwork, confidence, and self-esteem. Their grades improved. They even stopped littering.

“And they don’t buy Israeli products,” Zmorrod added. Third on a list of eleven rules taped to a bulletin board—right after “respect and communicate and listen when somebody speaks” and “keep a clean environment”—is a mandate to shun anything produced in Israel. The conflict infiltrates every aspect of Palestine life and is impossible to avoid, even among the bright innocence of the unicycles and coloured juggling clubs. The PCS’s formerly warm relationship with Montreal’s Cirque du Soleil soured last summer when the Cirque disregarded their calls to boycott Israel and performed in Tel Aviv. Cirque du Soleil, in a gesture of consolation, offered Zmorrod’s students and trainers free tickets to their show in Jordan and accommodation in Amman. Zmorrod turned them down. “Our dignity comes first,” he says. “I do not want pity for the Palestinians.”

In Montreal, Othman told me he couldn’t wait to go home to Palestine. It had nothing to do with the cold, but with his yearning to continue his work with Palestinian children, especially those who, like him, come from refugee camps. The circus offers these children something productive, and “protects” them from despair and humiliation. “The Israelis want you to throw stones,” Othman told me. “And why do you have to give them what they want? Instead of going to the checkpoint and selling chewing gum, come to the circus and we’ll teach you how to play with diablos. Instead of going on the street and throwing stones, we’ll teach you to play with juggling balls.”

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One Response to “Juggling Act: Politics and Play in the Middle East”

  1. Dane Lanken
    Thursday, July 23rd, 2015 at 10:23 PM #

    Good story.

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