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Over the last weeks, The Palestinian Circus School has been performing in Belgium in various locations, offering a show around the theme ‘Kol Saber!’ The travelling company of performers from Ramallah, Palestine differs from the traditional circus setting with the large tent and animal acts. However, classic circus acts such as acrobatics and tightrope walking do form a part of their show, albeit choreographed in a special way and embedded in a story. The young Palestinian people actually use the circus to tell their story to the world.
The Palestinian Circus School was established in 2006 by the Belgian Jessika Devlieghere and her Palestinian husband Shadi Zmorrod. The school teaches around 170 children and young people 9-27 years of age in different parts of the occupied Palestinian territories. Shadi Zmorrod is the former artistic director of the Jewish Jerusalem Circus and started the circus school when the circus refused to take in Palestinian children. The project is a form of cultural resistance against the occupation and the daily threats. The school aims to offer children a solid and safe haven where they can escape the depressing daily reality, just like a real circus family would do. A place that allows them to explore their creativity and develop social and psychological skills. An artistic world in which they can discover fun, embrace hope, create a positive self-image and learn to work in a team.
Kol Saber – © Veronique Vercheval
More than a school
Some of the early students became local trainers themselves in the basic techniques of acrobatics, juggling, trapeze, flower sticks, pois and clowning. They went on to tour refugee camps in the occupied territories with surprising performances. They also performed abroad, in France and Belgium. One of these trainers is Fadi Zmorrod. “I’ve never done anything like circus acts before I started. After three weeks of intensive training I was amazed at the physical capabilities I turned out to have. It’s therapy. I use it to release tension. ” Young students learning more about their culture, and how to trust others, makes the circus school more than just a school. “We went to other cities. The hardest thing I encountered were the many checkpoints, because they made me nervous. But I also learned more about my culture. We had to get rid of some old ideas like ‘men are stronger’ and ‘girls have more fun.’ For example , touching eachother is prohibited. We have to be physical but without touching eachother. The trust factor is also at play. Girls have less confidence. We learn about gender roles and empowerment. “
The youngsters needed something to look forward to in order to take life into their own hands. The circus school enables them to do just that, without having to live in constant fear. According to Noor Abu Rob, one of the young artists, growing up was difficult. “We only had the streets to live in and sometimes we couldn’t go to school because of a curfew. For me, circus is an open world. I can express myself better through the circus than through words. “
Kol Saber – © Lucia Ahmad
Kol Saber – © Veronique Vercheval
When they first performed in Belgium the shows theme was ‘Circus behind the wall’. The performance was based on the Palestinians’ daily lives, in which the notion of separation is central. The title refers to the wall that separates the Palestinian territories from Israel. The Palestinian Circus wants to teach the public about communication through juggling and clowning acts. This time around they performed their new contemporary circus production ‘Kol Saber!’. The production centers on the various realities of streetlife, a story of the ongoing challenge to escape the external power holding sway over their lives.
‘Kol Saber!’ literally means ‘Eat (the sweet fruit of) the cactus!’, but figuratively speaking ‘Eat patience!’, and tells the story of young people waiting for a change in their society. They try everything and keep believing in hope but finally have to accept the fact their lives will remain the same.
The 14 december show in the De Roma concert hall in Borgerhout was overshadowed by the death of the 17-year-old Mohammad Ziad Al-Salaymeh, one of the students of the Palestinian Circus School. He was shot and killed near a checkpoint by an IDF soldier on his birthday. Mohammad went out to buy a birthday cake and came under fire because the soldiers suspected him to be carrying a gun. Later the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported he had been carrying a toy gun. That news devastated both performers and founders of the travelling company. Jessika Devlieghere held an emotional speech and the young artists dedicated the show to Mohammad al-Salaymeh and the many other innocent victims. It was not the first time that candles were lit. In 2008 they did the same, observing a minute’s silence. The young artists hope this is the last time.
Ahmad Abu Taleb – © Vince Buyssens
Ahmad Abu Taleb (21) from Jenin has been performing in the Palestinian Circus for 4,5 years now. “For me, the circus is a way to tell my story and that of the Palestinian people in a creative way and to show it to the world. We recently lost our colleague Mohammad al-Salaymeh. No matter how many atrocities we experience, we will find the power to perform over and over again. Because for every Mohammad who dies by Israeli violence, we are performing even more passionately on stage.”
As has been said, the performance was far from a traditional circus show, but rather a profound story poetically told by means of dance and circus techniques like juggling, aerial acrobatics, balancing acts and jumps. With coats dancing for life, diverging and converging, fighting and living, in a tense context, until a mysterious coat falls from the sky and change the rules of the game. ‘Kol Saber!’ portrays the conflicting life between the bitter realities imposed by the occupation and the sweet and colorful dream of the bereaved sea.
Kol Saber – © Lucia Ahmad
The project gives the students a sense of dignity and is a way to prevent becoming a victim in a dehumanizing conflict, allowing them, on the contrary, to be proud to be Palestinian.
Artists: Ahmed Abu Taleb, Fadi Zmorrod, Mohammed Abu Taleb, Mohammed Abu Sakha and Noor Abu Rob
Directed by Shadi Zmorrod
Costume design: Fadila Aalouchi
More information: http://www.palcircus.ps/
Written by Malikka Bouaissa – Asma Ould Aissa
This article first appeared in al.arte.magazine