Defying all odds, the first Palestinian Circus School flourishes

By Henrique Dores – April 24, 2013

Palestine Monitor

Roll up, roll up – ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, friends and foes – please put your hands together and give your warm welcome to the unparalleled, the outstanding, the one and only Palestinian Circus School.

This could perfectly be the opening line of one of the shows of the Palestinian Circus School. Currently submerged in an ambience of red noses, big shoes, squeaky flowers, stilts and many other props, the Palestinian Circus School (PCS) began as a small circus group in August 2006 thanks to the determination of Shadi Zmorrod and Jessika Devlieghere, who initiated the pathway to introduce circus arts from Palestinians for Palestinians, amidst Israeli checkpoints and M-16 rifles.

The whole idea of creating the first circus school in Palestine was to provide an effective alternative to the massive effects that the Israeli military occupation has had over the lives of young Palestinians, particularly since 2000.

The stories of unlawfully demolished homes, personal humiliations at checkpoints, physical abuses and arbitrary detentions, together with accumulated grief of having loved ones killed by the Israeli military, constituted the sole motivation of the initial core group of the founders of the Palestinian Circus School. To them, too many young people were turning to the streets for an outlet, struggling to achieve nothing else than survival.

However, before becoming one of the most credited and successful Palestinian NGO’s, there were some bumps on the road. From the very beginning, the idea of creating a Palestinian circus school raised suspicions about its necessity. However, the general skepticism did not affect the initial core group.

Shadi Zmorrod was given the opportunity by the Belgian circus school ‘Cirkus in Beweging’ to start with a first intensive training course for young people living behind the Apartheid Wall. Further contacts were made in order to ensure training for the people who would be involved in creating the future circus of Palestine, through an intensive three-week workshop. The excitement about these first achievements can only be compared with the disappointment that took over the group when this first initiative was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Israeli-Lebanese war in 2006.

“We are engaged in showing our progresses in more places, and we are trying to start touring in many other places, like the south of Europe, where circus is still very alive”

Nevertheless, the resilient group persisted on the foundation of the PCS, and despite the lack of financial support, they managed to obtain the required training throughout the help of some Jerusalem circus students and later on, after launching an international appeal, from Italy, France and US circus professionals. This was the definitive step towards the birth of the first Palestinian Circus School, which would culminate with its premiere in Ashtar Theater, where an encouraging audience of 250 people applauded their effort.

Progresses and ambitions

The new premises of the school, which only became PCS’s home in November 2011, are inspiring. Located next to the Latin Church in the old city of Birzeit, the building and site was given for a period of 15 years free of charge by Dr. Hanna Nasir to allow PCS to develop to its full potential.

“When we first saw this place, we thought it was desperately needing some work, but also that it was the perfect place for the school,” says Jessica Devlieghere.

Indeed, the PCS has been constantly developing, and the two small circus training halls existing in the building brought the school to heights impossible to reach under the previous conditions. Currently teaching three levels of education in the art of circus (beginners, preparatory and professional), the Palestinian Circus School provides annual summer camps and open days in order to allow communities to get more acquainted with the goals and the approach of the school. Moreover, since its foundation, not only was PCS able to tour all around Palestine, defying checkpoints, borders and other movement restrictions, but also performed in Belgium, France, Germany and Italy.

When asked about the current projects of PCS, Jessica promptly replies, “I don’t like to use that terminology. We want PCS to stay away from the whole NGO’s way of thinking. This is an initiative from Palestinians to Palestinians and everything we do has a social impact.”

The merits of PCS are easy to identify. Operating in difficult scenarios such as Jenin, Al-Fawwar refugee camp, Birzeit or Hebron, the school has been distributing hope all around Palestine.

“At the moment we have more than 150 students,” Jessica says. “We present circus as a form of therapy, as an alternative to the hopeless lives of many youngsters.”

PCS has also been working together with Social Rehabilitation Center in Jenin, where they try to improve the lives of young women.

But the vision of the adventurers that made possible PCS is bigger than ever.

“We are trying to extend our field of action, so that more people have access to our initiatives,” Jessica explains. “We are engaged in showing our progresses in more places, and we are trying to start touring in many other places, like the south of Europe, where circus is still very alive. Another of our immediate goals is to provide a real circus tent on the courtyard, to allow the many disciplines needing lots of height and space.”

The Palestinian Circus School is flying higher than never, and the people involved are committed in keeping the same enthusiasm they had in making this project come alive. In a sea of disappointment, where bombs and aggression are the language used, the Palestinian Circus School emerges as a safe port to everyone willing to resist occupation with a smile on the face.

 

The Palestinian Circus: creative acts between reality and hope

Posted: December 21st, 2012 ˑ Filled under: .culture.theatre ˑ  No Comments

This post is also available in: Dutch

al.arte.magazine 

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

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 – © Lucia Ahmad

Kol Saber - © Veronique Vercheval

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 – © 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

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