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.