The circus has become part of my life since I joined 11 years ago. At first, I thought it was crazy to have a circus school in Palestine, but then I realized how unique and extraordinary it was to have a circus here. Everybody, in fact, thought that Shadi and Jessika were out of their minds for trying to start up a circus school. However, their faith in the abilities of young Palestinians and in the impact that a circus could have on them was much stronger than all the skepticism. Stubbornly following their own beliefs, they succeeded in contributing to a cultured and liberal artistic society.
The story of the Palestinian Circus School (PCS) began in 2006 when Shadi Zmorrod from Jerusalem met Jessika Devlieghere from Belgium and shared the dream of establishing a circus school in Palestine. Only ten people had signed up to participate in the first circus workshop, which was held in a small room in Ramallah. The group of ten quickly grew when they started teaching their own students in 2007. With the few skills they had learned, the students were eager to pass along their knowledge to others, especially the younger generations. That was exactly when my brother and I joined this little magical place, which later became our second home and our second big family.
Since then, the PCS has helped me become the person I am today, with all my failures and successes. It has accompanied me in every decision I had to make. It has taught me to love, respect, accept, and appreciate every person I meet, no matter the person’s background. I could not agree more with the writer Robert Sugarman, author of “Circus for Everyone: Circus Learning Around the World,” when he says: “By turning you upside down, we teach you to stand on your own two feet. By dropping objects, we teach you to catch them. By making you walk all over someone, we teach you to take care of others. By clowning around, we teach you to take yourself seriously.”
The circus was created to make the impossible possible. It was born out of Palestinians’ desire to live a normal, creative, fulfilling life. Reality in Palestine seems to be one big circus, where people need to balance between life and death while navigating the many obstacles imposed on them by the occupation; a place where laughter hides deep sadness and where the right to be happy is a daily struggle.
Dignity, unity, respect, trust, and, most of all, hope are under serious threat. The occupation is devastating our lives, both as individuals and as a nation. However, we continue to believe that a future Palestine is possible, where people’s dreams of a better life come true.
Our circus school aims to develop the creative potential of young people in Palestine to engage, empower, and strengthen their identity. We offer a safe space where children and youth meet in equality and work together to achieve meaningful results.
By teaching kids from a variety of backgrounds, we encourage the development of a new form of cultural expression and the rise of a new generation of artists in Palestine. We practice an art form that is both dynamic and experimental in nature and that aims to challenge traditional perceptions of the arts and artistic interactions. We offer an open space for creativity at all levels, encouraging strong participation of all people involved: students, trainers, volunteers, and the community at large.
I have watched the PCS evolve into a professional institution that teaches circus skills year round to more than 230 children and youth above the age of 6 from all over Palestine. They come with variable abilities and from different backgrounds, including ex detainees, children with intellectual disabilities, and refugees. PCS opens its doors to everyone because we strongly believe that we all have equal rights to access opportunities to learn, to improve our lives, and to experience joy. Each of us matters, and together we can improve our society. This is how we use our energy to create an inclusive society. Our art is not made just for the sake of art itself inside the walls of our circus school.
In addition to teaching, PCS has created a variety of productions that have been performed in Palestine and abroad, reaching over 110,000 people locally and internationally. This is how we have been able to share our pride, our dignity, and our hope as Palestinians.
By performing circus arts, we bring joy and laughter to the hearts of children who are barely given the chance to enjoy their childhood. We try to give our audiences the opportunity to think freely, dream with no limitation and forget for a moment all the difficulties and obstacles they face in their daily lives. Our message is the dream of a world where everyone fits in, a world without borders and free from occupation – physical and psychological.
The performance Sarab is a production by the Palestinian Circus School, directed by Paul Evans and presented by seven Palestinian Circus Artists. It reflects the history of Palestinian refugees, aiming to involve the audience in these stories, and make them feel what refugees go through, especially at a time when millions of refugees worldwide go through similar experiences.
After a PCS performance of Sarab in London, an audience member admitted: “I didn’t want to continue watching, but I couldn’t leave. You brought me into your own world, one that we’ve all been trying to blindly ignore. You slapped me in the face and woke me up.” This is the kind of impact that we try to have on our audience. Sometimes this kind of exposure is not all that pleasant, but what is important to us is that people react to what’s happening around them. This is what we believe we can offer – raising awareness, spreading knowledge about certain issues, and inspiring people to take action.
This year (2018) we overcame the challenge of organizing the second Palestine Circus Festival, bringing local and international circus artists together with Palestinian society, united to call for freedom. More than 25,300 Palestinian children, youth and families attended 31 shows and lived the stories we created in our small training halls. Unfortunately, we had to cancel one of the shows which was supposed to be performed in Jerusalem, because the Israeli occupation authorities refused to issue permits for two of the Palestinian performing artists. In addition, they also prevented six members from three of our partner circus crews in Gaza from traveling to the West Bank and joining us. We actually have never had the chance to meet them in person due to these restrictions and simply know them from communications via social media, and picture and video sharing. As an alternative to us performing in this part of our homeland, we have organized two events in Gaza for these three crews. Some 2100 spectators came to see them, a big achievement. We succeeded in creating joy even if it was fleeting.
Circus for us is a tool of resisting the occupation and the injustice. It might not free Palestine, but it frees the mind and offers an escape from the inhumanity Palestinians face daily.
For me personally, I sleep better at night when I know I have succeeded in spreading joy and happiness during the day.