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Juggling the occupation: a night at the circus

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Elliott D. Woods, for the Pulitzer Center

-- Speckled in dayglo, the young girl shimmying her way up the ropes can't be older than twelve -- but her strength is uncanny. By appearances, she's spent at least a quarter of her young years growing the mane of curls atop her head, a wild mop that flirts with protest in this headscarved land. Several hundred little kids squirm on edges of theater seats in the Ramallah Cultural Palace, spellbound, as she twists and tumbles through the air. She hangs by one arm, her feet extended in a swan pose behind her. Spinning like an ornament on a mobile, she flashes an ecstatic grin. From her perch, soaring above the crowd, she is free.

The young acrobat owes the joy of her flight to an impish, ginger-haired Jerusalemite named Shadi Zmorrod -- founder of the Palestinian Circus School and director of tonight's production, "Circus Behind the Wall."

Zmorrod first played the clown a decade ago, as a theater student in Ramallah. Wrestling with an assignment to improvise a scene, any scene at all, Shadi thought about how best to portray the frustration, the sadness, and the ridiculousness of life under Israeli occupation. At the same time, he wanted to express his need to make others happy. Clowning seemed like the answer. Zmorrod began searching the house for things to juggle. "When you juggle, anything looks like a ball," he remembers with a laugh. "My mom's only comment was, 'don't touch the eggs.'"

That was a decade ago. The 1993 Oslo Accords -- designed to produce an independent Palestinian state -- were already threadbare when Zmorrod joined the Bethlehem Millennium Project Circus Workshop in 2000, on the eve of the Al Aqsa Intifada. In the workshop, he met circus performers from around the world who reaffirmed his conviction that "art brings people together," and that circus is magical art indeed. Inspired by the workshop, Zmorrod and a few dozen West Bank Palestinians tried to coordinate a clown march to the Kalandia Checkpoint, the crossing on the road between Ramallah and East Jerusalem that has since grown to Orwellian proportions.

A portrait of a young Yasser Arafat beside the Kalandia checkpoint (Elliott Woods)

Zmorrod's idea was simple: the Israeli circus performers he met in the Millennium workshop would walk from West Jerusalem to Kalandia while he and his crew made the inverse journey from Ramallah. The Israelis were enthusiastic at first, but they bailed at the last minute. The betrayal dashed Zmorrod's faith in Israel's artist community once and for all.
Zmorrod's group marched alone. Clad in boisterous clown gear, stilts and all, they juggled all the way. "The [Israeli] soldiers were really confused." he remembers, "Some of them ran away!" As the Intifada spewed forth violence in all directions, epitomized by suicide bombings on Israeli buses and Israeli arrest campaigns inside Palestinian territory, and as Israel expanded its network of concrete barriers and security fences, collectively known to Palestinians as "The Wall," Zmorrod envisioned "a new way to represent resistance to the occupation." The youth in Zmorrod's resistance movement would not need weapons or morbid aspirations to martyrdom -- but they'd better not be afraid of heights.

In January 2006, the Palestinian Circus School was born. Zmorrod worked with the Belgian circus group Cirkus in Beweging to form the school as an NGO with the aim of motivating Palestinian youth and keeping the downward spiral of pessimism at bay. Now the school is approaching its fourth birthday and going strong. Students come from the West Bank, Israel, and Jerusalem, to learn techniques in acrobatics, juggling, and clowning. The group practices what Zmorrod calls "modern circus" -- a blend of modern dance, circus performance, and sheer silliness.

But giggles are not the main currency of Zmorrod's circus. "We have the wrong idea about clowns," Zmorrod insists. "We think they are stupid or silly. In fact, the clown has the hardest job. He is the smartest man in the room, and he's the saddest man. But he does not want to share his sadness with you. He wants to break out and make people happy." Zmorrod teaches his students that circus is not means of escape -- it is an irrepressible form of expression, a potent tool of representation.

"We don't use clowning to escape," Zmorrod tells me. "We use it in a smart way. Every show has a message." "Circus Behind the Wall" is no exception. The show starts with a salvo of slapstick and hi-jinks to the tune of the Palestinian national anthem. Zmorrod's clowns chase each other around the stage, pretending to be toddlers, tripping and shouting out in jibberish. The children in the audience are breathless with laughter. The opener ends with an impressive aerial somersault routine and a complex human pyramid -- so far so good.

The rioutous atmosphere cools when three white-masked figures take center stage, shrouded in black robes. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder, motionless under cool blue lights. A female acrobat strides out solemnly from stage left, a male from stage right. The two young acrobats struggle to reach out to one another, but the figures prevent them. Two trapezes hang from unseen rafters, one on each side of what is by now clearly meant to represent "The Wall." The acrobats pull themselves onto the trapezes with feline grace. They reach, lean, twist and contort themselves, striving to get closer to one another. Exhaustion prevails, and the acrobats descend from their swings. Suddenly a third acrobat sprints from stage left and somersaults over "The Wall" with a flying leap. The two men help pull the female acrobat over "The Wall." They then hoist her body like a human battering ram and the three acrobats topple "The Wall" together, drawing an eruption of cheers from the audience.

"Circus Behind the Wall" offers plenty of comic relief -- but darkness and anxiety are infused throughout, and I begin to feel a bit put off as Zmorrod's interpretation of last winter's Gaza tragedy unfolds. It's hard to believe that Israel's devastating military offensive in the Gaza Strip, which left nearly 1,400 dead and destroyed some 10,000 homes by conservative estimates, took place almost one year ago. Red lights and jarring industrial sounds evoke the tension of life under siege. Sounds of explosions suddenly burst from the speakers, and a group of performers scatter for the edges of the stage, with the exception of one female who falls to the floor, lifeless. Performers carry out large grey cloth panels, building "The Wall," until the girl's body is visible only as a silhouette. The girl lies motionless while silhouettes juggle and dance with ribbons around her. In the finale, the performers bring the girl back to life and create a human billboard that spells "GAZA," before creating a pyramid and lifting a Palestinian flag over "The Wall."

The scene is emotionally overwhelming and symbolically potent. But I can't stop thinking, how sad for the parents who brought their children here tonight to have a bit of good, innocent fun. For the thousandth time, I see the occupation woven into every detail of life in Palestine. Even if Zmorrod wanted his circus to offer pure escape, it would be impossible. There is, in the end, no escape from what Gazans call "the big prison." The expression works is, of course, meant literally -- but it also works as a metaphor for the occupation, which sets about imprisoning the minds of Israelis and Palestinians at birth.

Escaping the occupation's psychic grasp -- as "Circus Behind the Wall" suggests -- may prove more difficult than surmounting its walls.


Read the whole story at Pulitzer Center.