Carnival of the oppressed
From the Palestinian Circus School to a special day of Palestinian arts at Forest Fringe, the artistic voice of Palestine will be heard at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, writes Mark Brown
“History has no time for contemplation”, writes the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, “don’t write it as poetry!” This exhortation is an important reminder that the Palestinian people, although they have suffered greatly in their recent history, cannot be defined by it.
The Palestinians tend to be represented in the mainstream Western media either as helpless victims of the Israeli military or, in that meaninglessly tendentious term, “terrorists”. All too rarely are we reminded that they are a nation, and one which, despite its dispossession and repression, has played a full role in the evolution of the great Arabic traditions in poetry, music and dance.
More than that, Palestinian artists are engaged in modern developments in art forms which are not indigenous to Palestine. One such is circus.
In a 2015 Edinburgh Fringe in which circus is going to be prominent, the Palestinian Circus School is sending a show entitled B-orders by two of its young graduates, Ashtar Muallem and Fadi Zmorrod. I meet the pair at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at London’s Southbank Centre.
They have just appeared in the final performance of a touring show entitled Reinterpreting Palestinian Dance, in which they and other Palestinian artists have performed alongside members of the famous Belgian dance company Les Ballets C De La B. It is a brilliant, humorous, sexy, high-energy piece which zig-zags across the planet, from traditional Palestinian dance forms to hip hop and contemporary dance.
The show blows a massive hole in Western, “Orientalist” preconceptions of Palestinian art. No-one could present this as “exotic” and mystically foreign to our cultural experience.
B-orders, which was developed by Muallem and Zmorrod, is a very different creature from the Belgian/Palestinian co-production. However, as the circus artists tell me, it shares with it a desire to break down cultural barriers and engage people across continents.
As the show’s title implies, it is concerned with notions of borders, those between countries, but also those between cultures and people. Within such demarcations there are also “orders”, means of control and repression.
The significance of such concepts to young Palestinians are obvious. However, just how they can be expressed through the techniques of contemporary circus is intriguing.
Muallem and Zmorrod have known each other since they were very small children in Ramallah in the West Bank. Zmorrod’s parents were involved with the theatre company which was directed by Muallem’s mother and father.
Reunited at the Circus School, also based in Ramallah, they graduated from the school and began working together in Europe. However, it was only when they returned to the West Bank that B-orders really began to take shape.
“In Palestine, something clicked”, Zmorrod explains. “It would have been different if we had been making the piece in Europe”, Muallem agrees.
“We wanted to talk about our experiences as two Palestinians who left Palestine to study abroad. In part, it is about what we carried inside of us when we went abroad.”
Although their work is a contemporary form of circus, it is not, insists Muallem, simply a Palestinian version of what Europeans call New Circus. “It is contemporary circus, but it is very much marked with our life and our story”, she says.
“From the very beginning [of the Palestinian Circus School], in every step we wanted to make, we were facing problems from the political situation.
“Circus first came to Palestine to bring smiles to the faces of the people”, she explains. “For instance, the kids who sell chewing gum on the street.
“It came to give them a new way of making a living and to make them happy. Instead of selling chewing gum, they could juggle at the checkpoint.”
Although B-orders is shaped very much by the artists’ experiences in Palestine, Zmorrod emphasises that the emotions and thought processes explored in the piece are universal. “The themes of our show could apply anywhere in the world.
“They could be because of hunger, conflict or war anywhere. They could be because of abuse within the family.”
It is inevitable, Muallem adds, that Palestinian artists developed their own “Palestinian circus style”, one which is socially engaged. “We don’t do a thing just because it looks nice or it is poetic. Not every Palestinian has a stage, and we take advantage of a stage to say something.”
The Circus School graduates won’t be the only Palestinians performing in Edinburgh this month. Concerned about the lack of a platform on the Fringe for Palestinian artists – due to issues of finance, visas and politics – leading Scottish playwright David Greig came up with the idea of Welcome To The Fringe: Palestine Day.
The event was kick-started by Greig through a crowdfunding initiative, and subsequently supported by numerous backers, including the British Council and the UK and Palestine-based A M Qattan Foundation. The result is an extraordinary day (on August 23) of Palestinian arts, from storytelling to comedy, music to theatre, contemporary dance to poetry, as part of the Forest Fringe programme.
We hear a lot about how the hand of history sits heavily on the Palestinian people. In Edinburgh next month we will, as Darwish demands in his poem, see and hear their artistic expression.
B-orders is at the Underbelly Circus Hub on The Meadows, August 7-29.
Welcome to the Fringe: Palestine Day is at the Forest Fringe at Out of the Blue Drill Hall on August 23. For more information, visit: http://www.forestfringe.co.uk
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on August 2, 2015
© Mark Brown