Youngsters enthusiastically practising acrobatic moves in the training hall at the Palestinian Circus School in the old town of Birzeit is indeed a pretty sight to behold, but begs the question, why a circus school in Palestine, of all places?
Shadi Zmorrod, founder and general manager, sits down to tell this incredible story, beginning with his personal journey through theatre and eventually finding his calling in Bethlehem during the Millennium 2000 celebrations.
He attended a workshop facilitated by a Norwegian circus group and took a liking to juggling. Thereafter, he travelled to Europe, where he worked with Iranians, Iraqis and Sudanese — people from countries in conflict who then led him to grapple with the idea of trying the same in Palestine.
Jessika Devlierghere, the Belgian co-founder and executive director of the circus school, met Zmorrod in 2006 in connection with bringing her friends to Palestine to organise an intensive circus workshop, and the seed for his dream to establish a circus school was planted. It began with a workshop in Ramallah, and soon all the legalities and paperwork followed.
“Many obstacles still had to be overcome, those created by the second Lebanon war, which curtailed the first planned workshop and financing as well as materials,” Zmorrod says. “Nevertheless, we continued. Two students from [occupied] Jerusalem even made their own juggling clubs from toilet brushes, and the dream became bigger than just performing, to include training and making a social impact.
“Thanks to our friends and supporters, we staged the first ever presentation of ‘Circus behind the Wall’ in Ramallah in 2006, portraying Palestinian life under occupation, which is part of our daily life. Palestinians were surprised as circus was a new art form. When we took the circus to Hebron and Jenin, we learnt that we could use it as a social tool to make a difference in people’s lives.
“That led to the evolution of mobile circus schools in the summer, in towns all over the West Bank, breaking borders, crossing checkpoints and sharing talents with all Palestinians.”
Zmorrod and his team established ties with European circus schools, such as the National Circus School in France and Italian Vertigo School, from where two of his students graduated. Nayef Abdullah, the head trainer/performer, was sent to Canada, to join the world’s only programme in professional circus pedagogy. Now he has returned to develop a curriculum for a three-year professional programme.
“Every summer, in cooperation with circus troupes and trainers from abroad, we organise an intensive two- to three-week workshop for our most talented students and then jointly stage performances across the West Bank,” Zmorrod says. “In the summer of 2008, we even did a show in the occupied Golan.”
Today, the Palestinian Circus School, after having moved from one training venue to another over the past five years, is housed in a building in the old town of Birzeit, which was donated by Dr Hanna Nasser and whose renovation funded by the Belgian government. It has two small training halls, offices, and a large outdoor training and performing space which is being paved at the moment.
“We have purchased a circus tent from Europe to seat 200 and the courtyard is where it will be erected on arrival,” Zmorrod says. “As for the funding for the tent, we refused to accept money from a company that markets caffeine-loaded drinks for the youth. It goes against what we stand for.”
This tent will not only be used for the circus, but also for artistic performances by musicians and other artistes to bring back life to the old city of Birzeit, and, as Zmorrod says, “it fits in with the greater vision for the town”: “Wherever we look around, we see olive trees, and smell the fig leaves and jasmine. It connects us to the paradise Palestine was and can be, once we are free of the occupation.”
Zmorrod takes pains to explain what makes them different. “People think of a circus with animals and scantily dressed women on the trapeze. We have no animals, which is also an international trend, as violence is the means to discipline them, though France still has horses.
“Also many countries have children doing circus. We don’t want that, as we adhere to the right of the child to play and study, and our circus school is a once-a-week activity. We travel to refugee camps in Palestine, we go to the people. We are even holding a circus parade with all our students in Birzeit to bring them together and strengthen the family feeling.”
The only Arab country that they have toured is Egypt, but they have travelled to many European destinations, such as Italy, Belgium, Germany and France.
Zmorrod adds, “Our new production is set to hit the road soon. It’s our first professional circus production.”
Being the general manager of the Palestinian Circus School, Zmorrod has to think strategically, and in this regard he is exploring how to take the circus to the Arab world, “and to do this we seek partnerships in Dubai or Abu Dhabi”.
He says that “usually circus schools are financed by governments as part of the cultural upliftment which is way down the list of priorities here, and for us to obtain support for our professional programme, we require grants and donations. At present, 20 per cent of our yearly budget is self-generated.”
“Though circus may sometimes be perceived as clowning, in reality, we have a strong pedagogical approach,” Zmorrod says. “We focus on the individual development of the student; self-expression through learning values, working in teams, strengthening the creativity and physical skills of youth, while working on various techniques that require concentration and perseverance.”
Explaining the social dimension, Zmorrod says, “The circus is a part of the curriculum of a girls’ rehabilitation centre, which has 42 girls from various backgrounds. They have the classes on Wednesdays.”
The Palestinian Circus School works closely with some of the leading schools in the world, such as LIDO Circus School from Toulouse, France, and the Scuola Dimitri Theatre in Switzerland, and by doing so, gains much for its talented students.
“What makes us different is that we make use of theatre, music, dance, light and costume design to convey a story through circus skills,” Zmorrod explains. “In all our productions, the stories of our students are central. They decide on the content and the message they want to convey. All our productions reflect our unique surroundings.
“Our staff and trainers are supported to go and study for professional circus programmes, and we invite international professionals to conduct workshops here in Palestine. In 2010, my brother Fadi pursued a two-year programme for a ‘Professional Training Course for Contemporary Artists’ at La Scuola Di Cirko Vertigo in Torino and since his return, he has co-directed two productions.”
Zmorrod, who recently underwent a surgery on his spine but continued working from his hospital bed, is passionate about this venture. “The Palestinian Circus School is,” he says, “a seed whose fruit is from Palestinians to Palestinians, and not from foreigners anymore. It is an injection of hope and engagement for Palestine.”
Rafique Gangat, author of “Ye Shall Bowl on Grass”, is based in occupied Jerusalem.