Voices of Palestine

Shadi Zmorrod

The problem of the occupation is not only the violence that it generates. It is what it does to people. The wall is inside the head. Occupation will not control my life – I will keep creating and I will keep believing. That is my form of resistance.

Every Palestinian child faces the occupation – we have lost trainers and students and it runs through every aspect of our lives. We wanted to create a safe and healthy environment for the children of Palestine and out of that vision grew the Palestinian Circus School. When we started up many years ago we were just a few people in a room on top of a local bar. Today the school has a total of 321 students across the West Bank, performs for large audiences in our tent in Birzeit outside Ramallah, and all around the West Bank and we visit and receive international circus schools and artists who want to train and perform with us.

We are not just here to make beautiful movements – we are working to ensure equality between boys and girls, to unite Palestinians across social classes and geography and above all, we are working to create hope for a new generation. We don’t just need a person who can juggle perfectly with three balls, we need the perfectly balanced person on stage. Someone who can improvise when he drops the ball and deal with the situation with the same flow of energy. It’s about growing as an individual through working in a group and achieving a common goal.

To learn a foreign language they tell you, the best thing to do is to live in the country and use it. To learn gender balance or equality you have to practice it – not talk about it. We teach gradually. I remember when we started in Hebron, which is an example of how we work. First, they were separated for three months. The girls went home on a bus and the boys came in. In the first class, there was a lot of violence and chaos. They were throwing things at each other – the juggling clubs and balls.

We decided to sit down with the students and agree on some ground-rules to give them a sense of ownership and responsibility. My background in theatre and performance enabled me to use roleplay as a tool of education, to show them examples of handling themselves with a positive attitude. After a couple of months, we started hearing phrases like: thank you, please, or can I? They started to respect each other. Then we felt it was time to bring boys and girls together. We try to adjust the tempo according to the progression of the students. It might start with a simple good morning session including both boys and girls, later a good morning and a warm up, then a game and some juggling exercises. When finally, we mix them, it becomes clear that girls are as strong and confident as boys and that when they respect their bodies, so will the boys. They can move the mattress, climb the ropes and carry people on their shoulders in a pyramid just as the boys. Now, we are at a level where we educate female trainers.

We have a lot of challenges in a sometimes conservative society, living under occupation. It might be religion, it might be local traditions or it might be politics. But we know and respect the norms, culture and political context in Palestine and through the Circus School we are linking people from different backgrounds – the youth performing and their families and audience – people from the refugee camps, urban middle class and rural people. They study with us, work with us or come to watch our shows. The Circus School is not a school in the traditional sense. It is a large open family, a lifestyle and a vision.

Every Palestinian kid will face the violence of the occupation when growing up. A 15-year-old student, went to a demonstration the 15th of May last year. He was shot with live ammunition. Two of his friends were killed and became martyrs that day. The bullet passed one centimetre from his heart and went out through his back. They cut half of his lung away, because it was burned from the bullet. He has started to realize that when he performs in the circus he exists in a different reality. He realized that he can put hundreds of smiles on the faces of Palestinian kids. And he decided that this is what he wants to do instead of throwing stones. He chose how he wanted to resist.

From the very beginning we took in students from very hard and modest backgrounds. They are now our trainers and the backbone of the organization. Their development is illustrative of what we want to achieve. The circus school is very successful because we give something to the kids. We don’t make lectures – we make a practical difference. When living here, you are not free. You are living under occupation. The situation can change into something very bad very fast. But to build a proper, better society through investing in our youth will take ages. That is my form of resistance…

Shadi Zmorrod, born in 1979 in Jerusalem, is the founder of the Palestinian Circus School. He used to be an actor and theatre instructor, when he got to know circus in 2000 during a Norwegian workshop. The following years he spent taking part in several circus workshops and international circus gatherings. There Shadi became very passionate about circus and dreamt about a Palestinian Circus School. In 2006, he and Jessika Devlieghere set up the first Circus Workshop in the West Bank and founded PCS. Since then Shadi has been working as general director.