“At critical moments in history mythic sense tries to return to awareness in order to indicate life’s inherent capacity for renewal. When the end seems near and nothing seems to make sense anymore, the sense of myth tries to return to make sense of all the endings and to hint at ways of beginning again.” -- from The World Behind the World by Michael Meade
A couple of months back, before I even knew that I would be going to Palestine with a circus or that the Olive Tree Circus even existed, I had a vision. A waking dream I guess one could say.
"The Olive Tree Circus spent a day at a school for the blind in Beit Jalla called Al-Sharouq."
I don’t remember what I was doing exactly, probably some mundane task like washing dishes or lying in bed before sleep, something seemingly insignificant. I saw myself spinning fire in Palestine. To my right were Palestinian school children leaving their homes, and to my left were Israeli soldiers aiming their guns in the direction of the children.
I seem to act as some invisible shield, because suddenly the soldiers begin to shoot, and as the bullets reach the alchemical fire, they are magically transformed into bubbles. The children begin laughing and playing with the bubbles floating in the air and all around them.
After our first olive picking experience, I definitely became very in tune with the magnitude and magic that music and circus can bring to such a traumatized consciousness. I felt my own inner traumas that I was seeing played out in Israel and Palestine begin to settle a bit, to calm down, to feel that they could be received by loving arms.
The Olive Tree Circus spent a day at a school for the blind in Beit Jalla called Al-Sharouq (The Sunrise). The children were very responsive to us. And even though they could not see what was happening, they could definitely feel it. So we spun poi, played music, sang songs, climbed ladders, walked on stilts and even made paper mache.
"Either way it was exciting to watch the children discover each new art form in whatever way felt comfortable for them."
Spinning poi with the children posed an interesting question because you can’t exactly show the child how to do the move first. Rather you can help the child feel, kinesthetically, how the poi should spin. Sara, a fellow circus artist, puppateer and poi spinner, and I would do this by standing behind the children and gently assisting them at the wrists with making some simple circles and then allowing them to explore from that point on their own.
Some of the children got this and were able to build a bit from there, while others simply enjoyed feeling and attempting to understand what the poi were made of and what this instrument was for.
Either way it was exciting to watch the children discover each new art form in whatever way felt comfortable for them.
One child had a particularly mystical quality to him. I can’t remember his name but will never forget his face. He was like a young Stevie Wonder, so full of life and music. Once he began singing he simply wouldn’t stop. In fact he continued to sing as we were pulling away from the school in a taxi. He had a chant-like rhythm to his voice that was almost haunting and would sway his head from side to side as if his singing was the only thing that existed in that moment.
I suppose in some ways this may have developed as his way of dealing with growing up in such a tense and conflicted land. There was something very peaceful about watching him, something very comforting.
We spent the following day rehearsing for our next show in the Olive Harvest Festival at the Bethlehem Peace Center. Our rehearsal time was a bit constricted because of all the traveling, touring, workshops and performances we were scheduled to do. We came up with quite a few skits but really only had time to practice and perform a couple of them.
"We spent the following day rehearsing for our next show in the Olive Harvest Festival at the Bethlehem Peace Center."
Also, many interesting issues pertaining to what is happening in the West Bank came up in our rehearsals.
For instance, one of our skits had two of our circus members walking on stilts and swinging a jump rope. First a farmer would try to pass through the rope. The stilt walkers would ignore him and continue to swing the rope in his face. The farmer gets frustrated and heads back home.
Then an ambulance containing three pregnant women attempts to go through the jump rope blockade. One of the pregnant women is actually a man, fellow circus artist Jake. The children always laughed when he would come out with his bloated belly and brightly colored hair net breathing through contractions and birth pains.
Then another “pregnant” circus artist’s water would break. At one point we weren’t sure if we should even do this because there is such a sensitivity to sexuality in Arab culture, but the audience seemed to just laugh along with the rest of the skit.
Meanwhile, the stilt walkers are too busy swinging the rope in the face of these three women about to give birth at the blockade. So the women congregate in a circle to devise a plan to get through. On the count of three they grab the rope, pull the stilt walkers to their knees, hop back into the ambulance and siren their way to the hospital to give birth.
This skit brings up a real and sensitive issue for Palestinians living in the West Bank. First, checkpoints are a disturbing reality that most people have to face on a day-to-day basis. They are set up between Israel and the land it occupies, in addition to being sprinkled throughout and between West Bank cities, towns and Jewish-only colonies.
Because the land is so divided and fragmented there is much delay and sometimes complete closures in travel. Jews are separated from Palestinians who are further separated from each other.
I experienced a couple of checkpoints while in the West Bank. And again, because I look like a foreigner I was always ushered quickly through while behind me a line of Palestinian men and women would stand, awaiting inspection and questioning. Whether they are on their way to work, to the hospital or to visit a friend, there are no exceptions, everyone must wait in line.
"Many interesting issues pertaining to what is happening in the West Bank came up in our rehearsals."
The only exception is foreigners and Jews. In fact there are different color license plates to indicate whether you were born in the right religion or race of people to pass effortlessly through the checkpoint. This is another place where internationals come to document and witness any human rights abuses being committed by the occupier on the land they are occupying.
And there have been many documented cases of ambulances containing emergency care patients or women in labor being held for extended periods or denied entry completely. This has resulted in many deaths and women giving birth to still born babies.
There are approximately 800 checkpoints sprinkled in and around the West Bank. Some are smaller outposts, and others are giant concrete structures with many rooms, cameras, windows, metal detectors and machines. There is such an energy to these places, a haunting of sorts, a pain that pulsates within the walls of these increasingly institutionalized structures.
Naji Al-Ali, a famous Palesitnian cartoonist and graffitti artist has a drawing of a Palestinian woman who is pregnant and lying on her back. Around her thighs is a rope tying her legs together. He describes this image that Palestine is pregnant and ready to give birth but has been forcibly forbidden from doing so.
"One child had a particularly mystical quality to him. I can’t remember his name but will never forget his face."
So this skit provided us with some sensitive inquiries during our rehearsals, as did some of the other themes. The bullets-to-bubbles vision was a skit we rehearsed but didn’t quite finish, so it didn’t get a chance to meet the public’s eye.
Throughout all of this there was a fine line of wanting to maintain the humanness of the soldiers and occupiers while simultaneously honoring the horrors experienced by the native population. At one point we entertained the notion that perhaps after the bullets turned into bubbles we could have our circus “soldiers” join the children in a joyous celebration of the magic and wonder brought about by the transformation.
We then decided that perhaps this was too much for now and for the time being the soldiers simply retreat when they realize their bullets have no power in the face of imagination and alchemy. It was fascinating trying to navigate through such heavy and sensitive topics with lightheartedness and artistic vision.
So the following day we performed at the Olive Harvest Festival at the Bethlehem Peace Center in Manger Square, just across the street from the Church of the Nativity. This church supposedly occupies the exact location of Jesus’s birth.
"This skit brings up a real and sensitive issue for Palestinians living in the West Bank."
There were many traditional dance troupes there that night shaking the stage with their traditional Palestinian dabke dances and native cross-stitched outfits. And we performed toward the end of the evening. As always, the audience was boisterous and excited throughout. And as always at the end of our set we came out fire eating and poi spinning.
And we experienced the same thing we have been experiencing in almost every performance in Palestine -- the children getting very close to the stage and a little too close for comfort to the fire spinners. I could sometimes get the children to move back by getting the fire just close enough, but this didn’t always seem to work and this night’s performance was one of those times.
So we continued to spin our poi about while simultaneously being mindful of the children laughing and playing about us. This is something I thought a lot about. I would try to tell the children in Arabic that this is fire and they must move back so as not to get hurt by the flames or the power of the swinging instruments. There simply was no reasoning here. This perplexed me at first, and it took me a minute to realize that these children know fire very well and in some ways have grown not to fear such heat.
They were born into occupation surrounded by soldiers and settlers toting guns much bigger than most infants. Casey, one of our younger circus members, would get very nervous in the presence of soldiers and guns. Her mother said that at one point while we were in Hebron, a Palestinian town heavily populated with soldiers and colonists wearing guns, she was gripping her mothers hand so tightly she almost cut of the circulation.
This makes perfect sense for her because it is a new experience. I too had a similar experience of discomfort. Yet for these children it is all too normal to see such things.
I can only hope that the representation of this element through spinning poi may plant the seeds of a newly-born idea of what fire contains and has to offer.
Deema Dabis can be reached at .