Tour’s over, time to go home

28 February 2007

That’s it.  After 40 shows to 7000 kids and 20 workshops teaching circus skills – the 2007 Boomchucka circus tour has ended.  Relief (it had been very hard work) is mixed with great sadness – we have only done so little.  There is also hope, because during our time in the West Bank we have met many people who are actively working to ensure a healthy future for circus in Palestine.  To mention only a few: The Palestinian Circus School in Ramallah, The Freedom Theatre in Jenin, The Children of Bethany in East Jerusalem and Shirra Circus in Bethlehem.

As for hope for a resolution to the deteriorating conditions of the Palestinian people – well that’s harded to find.  Perhaps one has to look either to the small but growing number of activists within Israel who are beginning to question they government over its actions or the residents of Bil’in who continue their nonviolent protests.  But maybe we have to go further afield to the US, where the publication by President Jimmy Carter of Palestine: Peace not Apartheid has (in my opinion) helpfully added the concept of Apartheid into the debate.  Or perhaps to the UK where a recent commons select committee has questioned the EU preferential trade deal despite Israel’s continual breaking of conditions.

Hope is sometimes a rare thing; it must be nurtured for it to blossom into peace and freedom.  One must by continually vigilant to water and feed what hope we can find.


Protesting against The Wall

24 February 2007

We had been invited to Bil’in, a village just North of Ramallah, to make a show.  Bil’in is famous for the weekly protest held there against The Wall (actually here a fence with loads of barbed wire) which separates the village from more than half of its land.  On land previously used for grazing and olive trees sits an Israeli settlement.  For more details on the situation in Bil’in there are a few videos available.

Our show was the day before the 2nd anniversary of weekly non-violent protests against The Wall in Bil’in.  While we were setting up in the local show the tension in the air was palpable, however in the end it was one of our best shows with loads of crowd heckling and participation.  I like to think that we helped to release some of the tension through fun and laughter.

We had decided to attend the protest (as individuals not as a circus) the following day.  I did so as an act of solidarity for the people of Bil’in and the rest of Palestine, and to show the Israeli authorities that the International community was concerned about their breaking of international law.

Protest day started with the setting up of a photo gallery of previous protests; we also played circus skills with some of the village children.  Slowly more and more Palestinians, Israeli and international protesters filled the village.  The march started directly after the main friday prayers.  We walked through the village and out towards The Wall.  At one point it was possible to see across the valley towards the head of the march; it was a high turnout with approximately as many protesters as people in the village (1,800), comprising men, women and children.  At the gate the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) had a reasonable presence – they stated that we were in a military controlled zone (despite being in Palestinian territory).

The protesters stood their side of the gate across the road and sung and chanted.  A few men climbed the gate and waved the Palestinian flag.  Down the hill a number of people started cutting away at the barbed wire in front of the fence.  Suddenly, triggered by one event or another, stones started flying and things went bad.  The IDF let off sound bombs and started firing teargas.  Most people scattered across the terraced hill and between olive trees.  From the cover of the trees youths used sling shots to pelt the IDF with stones.  A number of soldiers moved down the road to the brow of a hill and continued to fire rubber bullets and teargas at the stone throwers.

Back at the gate the non violent protest continued and a number of protesters held a sit-in infront of the gate.  This continued with a number of flash points causing injuries by water cannon or teargas cans and some people getting arrested.  Eventually, with the promise that those arrested would be released, the protest returned to the village.

The protest was covered by Al Jazeera, Reuters and Associated Press(click the links to read the stories) – so in terms of publicity the protest was a success.  It is unfortunate that it resorted to stone throwing by the youth and the subsequent retaliation by the IDF.  But it was encouraging to see the community leaders continue to use the non violent means to publicise the wrongs they suffer.


The making of a Settlement

18 February 2007

Travelling through the West Bank you don’t go far without spotting an Israeli Settlement; modern buildings, in regimented rows with red roofs.  Located on hill tops they are heavily heavily fortified and have something of the medieval castle about them.

The means by which the are created and the reasons for their development are highly controversial and a major stumbling block along the road to peace.  The following is the summation told to me, separately, by a number of International volunteers who have spent many years in the West Bank:

In the middle of the night ideological settlers (Zionists driven by the belief that the land belongs to the Jewish people) park their mobile homes on a hill top.  This land has, generally, been used or cultivated by Palestinians for many hundreds of years.  The collection of mobile homes are set up in a defensive formation and is called an Outpost.  Outposts are illegal under Israeli law, however in practice the State is either unable or unwilling to stop their creation.  These Settlers are aggressive towards the local Palestinians as a means to drive them from their villages and seal their claim over the land.  I was told of stories of harassment, beatings, poisoning of livestock and water sources, shootings and killings.

Once an outpost has become established the Settlers start to demand amenities from the Israeli authorities – water, electricity, roads and schools.  Over time an Outpost turns into a fully fledged settlement with full Israeli government backing.  Established Settlements are supported by the Israeli state by giving people economic benefits to live their – thus creating a new breed of Settler – the Economic Settler.

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Last week we made 9 shows in and around the small town of Salfit which is located just South of the second largest Settlement in the West Bank – Aerial population 30,000.  Looking at a map of the West Bank (for more details) you can see Aeiral Settlement is the nail of a finger sticking out into Northern West Bank almost cutting the territory in two.

 Deir Istiya and Settlement in the distance

Travelling to villages in the Salfit area meant that we would very often have to go many miles out of our way to traverse the length of the finger, and when we got to the tip there was a check point to keep track of movements.  Another feature of the development of Settlements is the construction of segregated roads.  Palestinian plates?  Drive on narrow, winding, damaged roads.  Israeli plates? Please use straight, smooth, duel carriage ways.  The new road to Aeiral mans that the residents can commute to Tel Aviv in under an hour.

It was great to get out to some small villages and make some great intimate shows.  At one village called, literally, Little Chicken we had a film crew from Al-Jazeera Children record the show and us teaching some skills.  Watch this space for a clip!


The many lines of an occupation

15 February 2007

Lines on maps representing lines on the ground.  Lines on the ground made real by concrete, wire, cameras, check points and guns.

Monday; three shows and many crossings of these lines.

First show in a kindergarden in Shufat camp – inside East Jerusalem but outside (the Palestinian side) the dividing line.  From the school playground you can see the no mans land where the wall will be constructed.  Once completed it will stop the Israeli headteacher from coming to work.  No one knows what will happen to the school; no one wants to think about what will happen when Shufat is cut off from the rest of the world.

Second show was in Anata a suburb of East Jerusalem behind an already constructed section of the wall.  Along with an Israeli only road the wall surrounds Anata.  We wanted to make a show in the play ground of the local school which was cut in half by the construction of the wall, and was the site of the fatal shooting of a very young local girl by the Israeli Defence Force.  Unfortunately because of high tensions the local council couldn’t guarantee security and we made the show in the community centre a stones throw away.

Third show was in the French Cultural Centre – in East Jerusalem but inside (the Israeli side) of the wall.  Jerusalem used to be the cultural centre of Palestine; now due to constant hassle from the Israeli authorities many people have left for Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron or Jericho.  Now muslim (East) Jerusalem is devoid of cultural activity – once there used to be three cinemas, now there are none.  This lack of entertainment was brought home to us when over two times the expected number of people turned up for our show!

Crowd incursion:

Crowd Incursion

The rest of the week we will be in and around Salfit just North of Ramallah.  We have 9 shows arranged in 9 different locations over 4 days!  Watch this space for more news and stories.


Jenin

10 February 2007

Driving north the hills become greener with small crops of trees here and there.  We passed along broken roads and through small villages.  Donkeys and horses shared the highway with ancient vehicles over loaded with people and produce.  The hills in the North of the West Bank are beautiful dressed with the pink of cherry blossom and dark green of olive.  We were heading to Jenin and to work with The Freedom Theatre and a new circus group called Street Circus – 4 days of shows and workshops (Fun with a parachute) – our most extended visit yet.

Jenin is split in two; Jenin city and Jenin camp (dating back to 1953).  The theatre is located in the camp – a network of narrow winding lanes navigating around haphazard concrete houses across the hill side.  Images of young men (either drawn stylized or photos) holding large guns – martyrs – are all most the only images on the streets.  Some are lit up almost as shrines, others are faded posters on shop front shutters.  The imagery is pervasive; for it to be normal is as far alien to me as anything else I have ever seen.  But yet for the residents normal is what the martyr has become.

On a walk into the city centre the martyr images continue, but the roads become worse not better; the telltale marks of tank tracks break and cover the tarmac.  These are the product of an Israeli offensive which turned Jenin into a war zone.  Now taxis and pedestrians have to navigate the terrible road conditions made worse by the winter rain and mud.

During our second night in the camp we were woken by the sound of gun firein the distance.  After a while it came closer and I started to become concerned, then a grenade exploded and I was now fully awake and damn worried.  Gun fire faded into the distance and eventually I fell asleep; my consequent dreams were disturbing.  As this kind of Israeli incursion is fairly common one can only imagine the stress caused to the residents and their children.

3 shows and 5 workshops later, it was our last day in Jenin.  We were in the city centre buy felafels for lunch when we saw a procession coming towards us.  Thankfully it was a joyful (if a little muted) march to celebrate the agreement between Fatah and Hamas in Mecca.  At the front of the procession one man was dancing holding a model of the al-Aqsa mosque.  Not wanting to get caught up in the march we made a quick get away.  Back at the theatre I was checking the internet for news regarding recent developments in Jerusalem and building work near the mosque.  Up appears a picture of the mosque on the screen.  Over my shoulder a couple of kids recognised it and indicated to me that this building was theirs and how important it was to them.  Such is the passions that are being stirred in the Middle East.


Oh little town…

4 February 2007

Bethlehem.  Even for those without a Christian upbringing it brings forth images of a rustic birth setting with shepards and kings in attendance.  The reality now, in case you hadn’t guessed, is rather different.  Bethlehem is in Palestine and is the location for a number of refuge camps started in 1948.  Since then the camps have grown and made Bethlehem into a large town, subsumed into the massive Jerusalem conurbation spread across many hills.

Entry to and out of Bethlehem from Israel is regulated with re-entry especially difficult – controlled as it is by turnstiles, x-ray machines and metal detectors.  A inhumane process, and to suffer it very day must be humiliating.  The one of suggestion puts off many tourists on which Bethlehem’s economy used to rest.  Today wandering around Manger square the touts out number the tourists and the fantastic tourist centre looks like a white elephant.

We weren’t there, however, to see the sights; we were there to work with the children of Diesha camp (which number as many as 8,000!).  Diesha camp crowds rough concrete houses up winding lanes paying no heed to the conveniencece of automobiles let alone planning permission.  This was the first time we had visited a camp and the atmosphere is starkly different.  Speaking with the people there is a distinct sense of dislocation and a bitterness of swapping olive groves with the concrete jungle.

Our first show was an interesting one; a combination of our show and the local circus.  In a wind swept playground with looming skies, it was chaotic but full of fun and energy.  Th crowd tripled in size during the performance and only the bitter cold could stop the show from going on and on, such was the enthusiasm of the local circus.

The next day we went to a community centre funded by Germany (all facilities and amenities are funded by one country or the other) on the top of the hill.  Waiting for us were a bunch of special needs kids.  Th show we did was punctuated with spontaneous crowd participation.  At one point, where I drop the juggling knives (one purpose I must add), a boy jumped up and, as quick as a flash, grabbed a knife, swinging for my knee before Sheila could come to the rescue.  Afterwards we had a very enthusiastic games session with a parachute and ball games.  Then lunch and time to teach juggling to the young people who help in the centre, followed by another show to 50 local kids.  Best day yet 🙂

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Half way through.  Time for a short break, time for the Dead Sea, time for some luck.  Or was it?

Finding nowhere suitable to stay (full or hideously overpriced) I was heading to sleep on the beach, when a car stopped and a young lady leaned out and invited me to stay in her flat while she was away for the weekend!  Turns out she was mad about the circus and seeing my juggling clubs strapped to my bag, she opened her house to me.  What trust, what kindness.  Quiet typical for the Israeli’s I have had the pleasure to meet on this trip.

Time to swim in waterfall pools, time to swim (float) in the Dead Sea (very oily and decidedly weird) and time to lounge in natural hot springs.  Lovely.

Next day, I did what I love best; I climbed a mountain.  From 400 metres below sea level (the dead sea) to 300 above. From that vantage point you could see the desert plateux with it’s undulating scene.  Warm weather and sun seeking.  2 hours up the road and it is bitterly cold and raining in Jerusalem.

Onwards to Nablus and Jenin.


Cross cultural circus and avoiding the draft

28 January 2007

Heading north we found ourselves in rural Israel: cow land.  Located in a village built on Kibbutz principals is the Israeli Circus School by the Australian David Berry.  Based in an old cinema the school has great facilities with a huge stage, aerial rig, trampoline and tight rope.  We were visiting to thank David for his formal invite for the circus to visit Israel and to see what cross cultural projects they have been working on.

Working in the arts in Israel is not easy; there is chronic underfunding.  50% of the school’s income is from its services and 50% comes from overseas funding.  This story of lack of state funding was repeated when we visited the Lajun Theatre in Narazeth.  The theatre was set up to perform Arabic cultural shows in bilingual (Hebrew and Arabic) medium.  They take these shows to Jewish schools in the area to foster cross cultural understanding and appreciation.  Its such a shame that the Israeli state dosn’t appreciate the true value of such work.

During our time at the circus we got to know some of the pupils and teachers.  As young people high in their minds is military service; either impending draft, friends serving or their own experiences.  Although it is a requirement it is possible to avoid joining and completing social service instead.  This is done by claiming to be ‘crazy’ – or in other words a pacifist.  Twenty years ago it wasn’t so easy; I met someone who attempted suicide outside Jerusalem hospital to avoid the draft.  Avoiding the draft isn’t without it’s drawbacks; working for the civil service is impossible and it is likely that employment in many nationalist organisations will be closed to you.  There is also the issue of peer pressure – as one girl who was considering her options put it: ‘but all my friends are going.  If I don’t go I won’t be with them.’  There is certainly a lot of pressure on very young (18 when they join) Israeli Jews to conform, and once they have, the military have 3 years to indoctrinate them into ‘proper’ Israeli citizens.  However there is no compulsion for Israeli Christians or Muslims to join the military; building a religious divide within the nation and the military.

Perversely it is compulsary for Israeli Druze to join the military, which leads to its own tensions between religious communities.  Some say this was borne from the Druze community as seeing the new Israeli state as a salvation from Muslim oppression.  However nowadays, perhaps from the realisation that the Israeli state is not treating them equally, as many as 30-40% avoid the draft.  One project that the Circus school has done in cross cultural work was creating a performance of Aladdin with a Druze community circus in Maghar.  It was a trilingual show with performers from the Jewish and Druze communities.  Circus is a great means to develop high level trust; something much needed in a country where there is much inter community distrust.

We went to visit Maghar to work with their cirucs and put on a show.  It was fantastic to have extended time working with a small group of very enthusiastic and talented young people.  We worked on a number of theatre games and worked on circus skills.  There is certainly a lot of potential here and I can’t wait to return to see have far they have developed.  Yet again we were hosted with great kindness and warmth by Adnan and his family; we are all putting on weight with th quantity and quality of food provided.