BIRZEIT, Palestine—Music and laughter are all that can be heard under a circus tent in this town near Ramallah in the West Bank.
Students at the Palestinian Circus School are learning their skills of choice. Some juggle. Others dance hip-hop. Some practice aerial acrobatics, gymnastics and other performing skills.
The school, a nongovernmental organization, offers intensive training in circus skills to young people as an extracurricular activity while they study traditional subjects in regular schools. Many of the trainers are students too, at universities and colleges.
“The Palestinian Circus School is a space for every Palestinian from different cultural backgrounds, religion and parties to build one Palestinian identity,” said Shadi Zmorrod, the school’s founder.
In its dozen years of existence, the school has grown from a small local operation to one that performs widely in Palestine and beyond. This month it sent a troupe to London for its first performance there, on April 15.
Zmorrod conceived of the school in 2006. He wanted to start with intensive training led by professionals from the Belgian circus school Cirkus in Beweging. But the Belgian team couldn’t come to Palestine due to the outbreak of the Israeli war in Lebanon in July 2006. “Therefore, we had to craft our own equipment,” he said. “Our first performances had pure Palestinian handmade equipment.”
The circus school won official recognition by the Palestinian Authority as a nongovernmental organization in 2009. In 2010, it had 160 students. Today, it has 1,500.
Its goals go beyond physical training.
“By doing balance performance, such as tightrope walking, we teach our students how to be calm and create internal and external balance,” Zmorrod said.
“When we also teach our students how do human pyramids, we teach them how to trust each other and how they cannot reach the top if they don’t have strong bases.” Such exercises help build a “strong trustful society that cares about collective benefit,” he said.
Zina Rafidi, 14, described her experience in the circus school as eye opening.
“Although sometimes I heard negative criticism for joining the circus school, I insist that women are capable of doing what they want,” said Rafidi, who’s training to be a juggler and planning to study medicine in the future. “I will be a doctor who will train circus to indicate that Palestinian women can do what they want,” she said.
Khaled Maqdadi, 22, has been a trainer since he was a teenager.
“The circus is a way to convey political and social messages,” he said. “I found myself in the circus as a tool to express my thoughts and beliefs … to improve awareness in Palestinian society regarding serious social, political, and cultural issues.”
Noor Abu al Rob, 27, a juggler who has performed with the circus for four years, described the group as a way to transcend Palestine’s political challenges.
“The circus is the only thing that we can do without being charged or judged by the Israeli authorities,” Abu al Rob said.
Beyond its rare international appearances, the circus usually performs only in the West Bank. Israeli officials have sometimes prevented it from working in Jerusalem and have even arrested some of its members.
Mohammad Abu Sakha, a 24-year-old circus performer and trainer, was arrested at a checkpoint in December 2015 and held in administrative detention for nearly two years after being declared a “threat to the security of the state of Israel,” according to Amnesty International UK. He was released last August.
“The occupation tries always to restrict and to demolish everything that’s related to Palestinian identity, culture, and art,” Zmorrod said. “However, that won’t happen, as it is the main mission of the school to empower the Palestinian society.”
The circus school seeks to embrace a wide variety of Palestinian cultural backgrounds.
“We respect all cultural ideas and beliefs,” said Abu al Rob, the juggler. “We try to accommodate the variety of cultural thoughts in different Palestinian cities, such as Hebron, Ramallah, and Bethlehem.”
Ramallah and Bethlehem are considered to be among the most liberal cities in Palestine, while Hebron is known as a conservative city. The school conducted the first mixed-gender performance in the old city of Hebron.
Zmorrod said the school’s growing number of students “reflects our ability in cultivating trust in our community with mixed-gender activities. There is a space for everyone to voice out their thoughts, opinions and fears equally.”
Dana Jodua, 14, a gymnast, said she continued training even when her parents resisted. “Nowadays, after noticing how much I have improved, they keep encouraging me to continue,” she said.
Financing is always a challenge, Zmorrod said.
The school receives funding from the European Union, the Switzerland-based Drosos Foundation, and Secours Catholique-Caritas France, among other organizations. It has also received $10,000 from the Palestinian Ministry of Culture.
“I can recall every organization and individual who supported the Palestinian Circus School financially, because funds are very limited,” Zmorrod said.
Still the school has been able to perform locally and internationally. Many of its shows reference Palestinian suffering under the occupation.
“Sarab” (“Mirage”), the show it performed in London, strings together narratives from refugees in Germany, Iraq, Palestine and Syria. Their stories are all journeys that should be documented and recorded, Zmorrod said.
“Art is a way to preserve our identity and culture,” he said. “Without them, we will be lost.”