The first thing I saw was an AK47 assault rifle dangling around the waste of a man in uniform. He looked like a tired old security guard with his pale blue shirt and his Marlborough hanging out of his mouth. I wanted to ask him if I could hold his gun. In amidst the crowd of colorful suits and men on stilts I wondered what his reaction might have been.
The circus tent was widowed in the back of some buildings around the corner from the church, its walls were blue, and it didn’t look like a circus. Inside there were children doing back-flips across the stage to the applaud of their onlooking families, outside there was the old security guard.
I was standing at the back of the crowd, next to the exit with a cigarette and two companions: An American-Palestinian student who still wonders why his family ever left Brooklyn. And an English teacher from the UK, overstaying his visa tri-fold to share the mother tongue.
The crowd was still applauding when we made our escape from the humidity of the blue tent to the real circus outside. The blue guard was still standing idly in the middle of the crowds of hundreds; juggling, dancing, stilting and jumping. The scene was like something out of Timothy Leary’s bible – the sort of thing three westerners in a semi-intoxicated limbo would appreciate on a May Friday afternoon. Clearly there is no better way to spend International Workers Day than with the Palestinian Circus School.
We had been walking for over an hour through this procession of stilted jugglers – my mind was hot and my English teacher friend – Ike – was fretting.
‘How long until we can find a beer’ I thought, my question abruptly being answered with the promise of a fine bar on the other side of town – where our freak pilgrimage was taking us. If this is what the pilgrims of old were like, its no wonder they ended up in bloodthirsty Crusades!
‘I want to find some shade and get a shot of these dancers’
‘Waving their hands like fucking minstrels, their minds must be going numb with the heat’ Ike weighed in with a tone of withdrawal.
‘They ought to spray some more of that foam stuff. The crowds bloody love it, and its colder than my water’
‘Beer is colder than water and foam’ Ike concurs.
Beer is colder than the foam, and less sour.
As we put our thoughts to the end of the crusade the crowd has stopped in the street as a construction vehicle lifts a young girl into the air. She’s wrapped up in silk. Ike is now evidently concerned, perhaps we have walked into some kind of demonic circus ritual where this girl is about to be dropped to the floor and trampled by stilted dwarfs. Now more than ever we needed our security guard – Mr. Pale Blue to jump post and and leap through the air spray his AK47 into the pilgrims before they commit to their unearthly plan. The girl was dropped, red silk unfolding faster than the eye could blink and painting a picture of the red to come – she rolls down the silk spinning and whipping at each turn uncontrollably like a bat until she snaps inches from the floor and is projected back into the air like a drone. The crowd applauds furiously, the girl is alive, a truck sprays them with more foam. We keep moving.
The foam stuck in our hair and we made for the front of the truck where we would be sheltered from this barrage of nightclub goo. The pilgrims were dancing and the scene was getting intense, with so much dancing, how would they know when the end of the parade had come? Or would they just go on forever, until they collapse of chronic-dehydration?
It seemed for a minute at least that they were beginning to slow down, perhaps to consider their next move. The passed the mosque on one side, the church on the other, and like holy beggars they danced their way further down the street to the inevitable climax of this circus-horror story. I can only imagine what the residents of this town must have been thinking as they passed by for they’re daily tea and bread. The music was turned up and it became clear that this was going to end like a confrontation with Colonel Kurtz. This is the end.
Circus staff in khaki uniform lined across the rooftops watching down over the parade –
‘They have their own army up there, fucking circus-marines!’
‘Calm down Ike, if they catch on to us they’ll think we’re gypsy-spies. They’ll have us shipped back to the tent and cartwheeled until our heads turn green’
‘How the fuck can we keep calm in this, they’re spraying more foam, the jugglers are watching us!’
‘Just keep dancing, they might not notice that we don’t belong to their circus cult. Keep calm and dance, avoid eye contact, if they see our eyes we’re as good as dead’
‘I just want a fucking beer. I don’t want to die in this place’
Ike was right, the scene was starting to unsettle the both of us. The only way to make sense of it was to take more photographs – hide behind the lens. If anyone asks I’m on the payroll for the Clowns Daily. I broke off to the side, leaving Ike to fend for himself for a while, I knew that if I didn’t see him again, I would have to prepare speeches. He had been a good companion. We all have to be tested in life, and this was Ike’s moment, adapt or die.
A juggler danced in front of me, his eyes fixed on mine, another on stilts joined him, they both just swayed from side to side. I smiled, danced from side to side as best I could and held on to the most important part of my memory and soul to stop them from warping it.
Out of nowhere a tree fanatic swung down from a lamp post nearly taking me out completely, my camera dropped to the floor and for a moment I was submerged in a sea of moving legs, both human and stilt, swimming for my artistic license and the only thing stopping them from robbing me of my identity completely. I managed to grab hold of my camera and pull myself to safety on the arm of a circus-marine, his khaki uniform coated with badges displaying his feats as a freak mastermind. There was something unruly in his soul. His eyes flickered when I released his arm and he stared at me as if to say ‘you belong here’. I snapped up the flash on my camera and shot it in his face, he yelled and fell back, knocking over a stilt-dwarf and casting juggling balls around the hot tarmac. The crowd around me bickered and became a chorus of shoving and confusion and a clown grabbed me by the straps on my bag. Ike was nowhere, I was fucking done for. Circus meat. They’ll probably drag me back to their freak cave and use me as a juggling ball before having me assaulted by a drunken clown. It was all over. ‘Ike, where the fuck are you?! Save me from these demonoid circus lizards! Call in Pale Blue! Where the fuck is Pale Blue?!’ The truck reversed around the corner, the music was at once deafeningly loud and a cloud of foam covered everything to be seen: my arm jilted violently to the left, being pulled with assaulting force to the side of the parade.
‘Lets go, they fucking made you! You should never have gone in there you fool!’
‘I was done for, the clown wanted to feel my insides with the point of his shoe!’
‘Get around the corner, there are journalists, we can hitch a ride with them back to sanity… we need to go!’
‘The juggling boy is fighting the stilt-dwarf! Oh fuck they’re going to tear each other apart!’
We made it around the corner and into a closed construction site, the walls were up but there was no roof, we could breathe here, the circus-marines won’t find us and the stilt-dwarfs will surrender to the pile of rubble we crossed to get in.
‘Chaos all around. We need a plan!’
‘We’ll join back up with the parade on the other side of the site, they won’t recognize us there, we can blend back in.’
We crossed the construction site, into an alley that led us towards the front of the parade. Bowling pins swooped between the roofs above us in a juggling fashion.
The front of the parade was less chaotic than the back, but we knew that soon the riotous mood would creep up here, we made our plan to break away. Two journalists were atop a car just a few hundred yards away, we could spur them into a hasty retreat so long as they didn’t catch wind of the savage midget/juggler brawl that had consumed the back of the parade – the world, they would reason, has a right to see such things.
We edged ever closer toward them, the parade was not stopping and a car had just pulled up and the driver was talking to the journalists.
‘This is it Ike, we can pay them for a ride, if they refuse we’ll distract them and steal the car’
‘There’s something coming, an ambulance! Shit, they must be killing each other off by the dozen by now!’
‘This is it!’
The ambulance came to a screeching halt in front of us, and the crew exited out the back – ‘They’re fucking circus doctors – they’ve taken over this entire town!’
The doctors jumped from the back of the ambulance and danced around the street doing back-flips like the aftermath of a collective teenage lobotomy. The parade made a circle around them at the end of the street and clapped them on. We were back outside the church now, we had gone full circle and were just minutes from the blue tent. The doctors waved X-Rays in the air whilst they flipped over each other, all the while ignoring the now obvious need for medical attention amongst the increasingly unstable crowd of dwarfs and pin-jugglers.
‘They must have just adapted to not care, their own lives are meaningless to them now, all that matters is this circus and they’ll bleed out in the street whilst watching their own doctors do the Full Monty’
Ike was right, there was nothing left in this town worth saving, the circus was law here and the crowd was now so excited that you could see their eyes rolling into their heads. Was it the remnants of the foam that ran from their mouths? Or were they all having some kind of circo-spiritual fit?
The circus marines must have picked up on the growing madness, even for them this was too much. In an effort to appease this overly colourful juggling frenzy they poured gasoline all over a car parked outside the church and set it on fire. Just as they intended the whole crowd became fixated on the burning fumes emigrating from the flaming auto-wreck.
The chaos at the back subsided as the stilt-dwarfs and juggling freaks joined together to watch this inferno. As if this wasn’t enough they brought in the fire-brigade to extinguish the flames only to then begin dissecting what was left of the car with their industrial rescue tools. It was becoming clear that the circus requires these shows to keep the frustration of its cohorts from exploding amongst themselves.
‘Ike, they’re setting it on fire again’
‘There’s a bar across the road! We can drink to it!’
As I had suspected, the fire crew had extinguished the flames only to continue to pour gasoline on the now exposed interior and burn the rest of the car like some Gulf oil spill.
‘Fucking circus hooligans!’ reasoned Ike.
Myself and Ike made our way around the side of the hypnotized crowd and into the wooden clad trendy looking bar restaurant on the side of the street, just opposite the church and the still flaming car.
We drank our Taybeh beers from the bottle, watching this chaotic cult flock slowly disperse in different directions around the village – many went back to the Blue Tent. The security guard in pale blue was watching the floor intently. We wondered if we would ever see our Yankee-Palestinian friend again.
The Palestinian Circus School exists as a creative outlet for children and adults alike who are struggling with the day to day realities of military occupation.
Through circus young Palestinians can find a way to vent frustration and increase creativity.
You can support the great work that they do through their website at: