Palestinians honor their cultural identity with circus school and performance

June 21, 2017 - Birzeit, Ramallah, Palestine - a young group of Palestinian students practice acrobatics movements at the Palestinian Circus School.BIRZIET, Palestine – Under a circus tent here in the West Bank, music and laughter are all that can be heard.

Students at the Palestinian Circus School are learning their trade. Some juggle. Others Hip-Hop dance. Others practice aerial acrobatics, gymnastics and other performing skills.

“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.

Zmorrod conceived of the school in 2006. He wanted to start with intensive training courses with 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. “Therefore, we have crafted our own equipment,” he said. “Our first performances had pure Palestinian handmade tools.”

Zina Rafidi, 14, described her experience in the circus school as an eye opening

“Although sometimes I heard negative criticism for joining the Circus school, I insist that woman are capable of doing what they want,” Rafidi, who’s training to be a juggler.

In 2009, the World Health Organization officially accredited the school. In 2010, the school had 160 students. Today, it has 1500. They are creating a new Palestinian institution, said Zmorrod.

“By doing balance performance, such as Tightrope walking, we teach our students how to be calm and create internal and external balance,” he 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. Hence, we build strong trustful society that cares about collective benefit”

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 the awareness in the Palestinian society regarding serious social, political, and cultural issues.”

Noor Abu al Rob, 27, described the circus 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,” Abu al Rob said.

The circus only performs in the West Bank. Israeli officials have prevented it from working in Jerusalem. Israeli authorities also arrested several members of the Palestinian Circus Schools. Mohammad Abu Sakha, a 24-year-old circus performer, was arrested and has been held in administrative detention for two years after being declared a threat to the security of Israel.

“The occupation tries always to restrict and to demolish everything that’s related to the Palestinian identity, culture, and art,” Zmorrod said. “However, that won’t happen as this is the main mission of the school to empower the Palestinian society.”

The Palestinian Circus School accommodates the Palestinian cultural backgrounds.

“Throughout my four years in being a juggling player, I have learned how to express myself and think outside the box,” Abu al Rob said. “We do respect all cultural ideas and beliefs. We try to accommodate the variety of cultural thoughts in different Palestinian cities such as Hebron, Ramallah, and Bethlehem.”

Ramallah is the most liberal city in Palestine, Bethlehem is considered the second-most liberal country, while Hebron is the most conservative city.

The Palestinian Circus School conducted the first mixed-gender performance in the old city of Hebron.

“The increased number [of students] reflects our ability in cultivating trust in our community with mixed gender activities, where there is a space for everyone to voice out their thoughts, opinions and fears equally,” Zmorrod said.

Rafidi is planning to study medicine in the future. “I will be a doctor who train circus to indicate that Palestinian woman can do what they want,” she said.

Gymnast Dana Jodua, 14, said she trained even when her parents resisted. “Nowadays, after noticing how much I have been improved, they keep encouraging me to continue,” she said.

The school’s finances are always a challenge.

Zmorrod areceives funding from the EU, the Switzerland-based Drosos foundation, Secours Catholiques - Caritas France and others. The school 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 as they are very limited,” Zmorrod said.

Still the school has been able to conduct several performances locally and internationally. Many referenced the Palestinian suffering under the occupation.

The troupe is booked to stage its performance “Mirage” in London in the next few months. The show strings together numerous stories from the refugees in Germany, Iraq, Palestine and Syria. All are journeys that should be documented and recorded lest humankind too soon forget their lessons.

“Art is a way to preserve our identity and culture,” Zmorrod said. “Without both of them, we will be lost.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in USA Today.
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