A circus with ‘a Palestinian identity’
Ramallah - It was a definitive choice made when an Israeli group refused to perform in East Jerusalem for Palestinian children but flew a Palestinian child to perform at the Holocaust memorial in Germany.
That is when Palestinian actor Shadi Zomorrod quit as creative director of an Israeli circus where he had worked about about three years.
“I decided I would rather teach and help the children of Palestine,” Zomorrod said.
The 36-year-old Palestinian from Jerusalem founded the Palestinian Circus School (PCS) in 2006, in partnership with the school’s Belgian deputy director-general, Jessika Devlieghere.
“We wanted to give Palestinian children the playground they never had,” Zomorrod said.
Mohammed Abu Taleb said PCS turned his life around. He worked in an oil-stained car repair shop as a teenager before he attended the school to become a trainer.
“If this place didn’t exist, I would’ve been still working in the old car mechanic joint,” the relieved 24-year-old said. “When I am here, I forget about time. I forget about responsibilities, saving up money and how can I afford to get married.”
The school’s website states one of its primary goals is to instil hope for statehood in a new generation of Palestinian artists. Another, the site notes, is to encourage young Palestinians to look forward to a brighter future after Israel’s occupation has ended.
Zomorrod said he observed how art changed feelings while on a trip abroad attending an event that brought together people of different nationalities and origins.
“I witnessed art change people who once hated each other and I thought maybe we, Palestinians and Israelis, could have the same experience,” he said.
Abu Taleb said PCS is the place where he learnt how to move his body, thoughts and emotions. “It is not just a clown juggling clubs or women wearing fitting clothes,” he said proudly.
“We’re putting the smile back on the faces of Palestinian children.”
PCS found shelter in a newly renovated building in the heart of Birzeit on the edge of the West Bank city of Ramallah. PCS also stages plays and offers summer school in various cities in the Palestinian territories.
More than 5,000 students have attended PCS in the past nine years. There are currently about 350 students of different ages, trainers and staff at the Ramallah school. PCS also helps battered women and the less-privileged, who are full-time students.
Three students joined PCS in 2006 but the number grew when the school proved that the plays touched on the daily hardships of Palestinians under a 48-year military occupation.
“We performed on issues that reflected our environment. We showed the people concepts they were familiar with,” he said, referring to the Israeli separation wall that cuts across the West Bank, dividing it from Israel.
The school’s first show was Circus Behind the Wall, Zomorrod said adding: “We gained our society’s trust and proved that a circus is more than just jumping and doing back flips.
“Our circus has a Palestinian identity.”
For Zomorrod and Devlieghere, the deputy director-general, PCS is not just a place where children learn the technical side of the circus. Rather, it is where they learn about self-reliance, attentiveness, balance, hope, motivation and the importance of family, Devlieghere said.
Devlieghere, who speaks fluent Arabic, insisted that PCS plays a therapeutic role.
“Many Palestinians fall into a cycle of despair, which leads them to choose between two things; either leave the country or throw their lives away,” she said. “Here, we invest our time and resources to make people feel happy.”
Although she said she hoped that students would break from the reality and come up with performance ideas that are not related to the Israeli occupation, she said she understood why Palestinians are deeply affected by their reality.
Devlieghere said: “What we try to do in this school is bring out the best in Palestinians, because the Israeli occupation is trying to bring out the worst; the anger, frustration, sadness and madness.”
Mohammad al-Azza, a 15-year-old who has been involved with the circus since the age of eight, was shot in 2014 at Ofer military prison, where many Palestinians protested against Israeli violations. Two boys with him were killed but Azza survived when a bullet missed his heart by about one inch.
Devlieghere said Azza told her that the Palestinian circus has become his entire life.
“He decided he would not throw stones anymore because he will not serve his country this way,” she said. “He said he will serve his country by becoming a strong, proud and alive circus artist.”
Being a new phenomenon in the Palestinian territories is one of the circus’s biggest challenges. Devlieghere said “to introduce a new idea to people who are fighting to preserve their identity and heritage is not easy”.
For Abu Taleb, PCS is his life: “There is no plan B. If this place shuts down, my life is over. This place is not just a school. It is the only place where I can be my true self.”