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New performance by Palestinian Circus School draws attention to the plight of refugees

By Elizabeth Jenkins - February 27, 2018
Section: [Main News] [Culture] [Features]
Tags: [culture] [refugees] [palestine circus school]

A couple of minutes into the Palestinian Circus School’s new show, Sarab, disaster strikes. Clothes fly everywhere, as the performers throw, lift, collapse into each other in well-timed encounters. The dramatic music indicates that terror reigns, made all the more evident by the performers’ petrified looks. 

Just over an hour later, the show comes to a full circle, ending with the same scene. After having packed their lives into suitcases, after all the ordeals depicted on the journey, it becomes clear that it all amounted to nothing. The hope of a safe-haven was a 'sarab’, Arabic for 'mirage’.
The seven performers were originally students together at the Palestinian Circus School (PSC), founded in 2006. Shadi Zmorrod, who founded PSC, explains; “the idea for Sarab came from the performers themselves. They came back from circus workshops in Germany, Jordan and Turkey and were shocked by what they saw there in the wake of the Syrian refugee crisis. They decided they wanted to do something about it, to convey the message that refugees are people not numbers.”
The final creation is the fruit of a long artistic journey over the course of two years. Since the beginning of January, the performers have been working intensively with Paul Evans, a director from the UK.
On witnessing the lack of understanding in his home country around the plight of refugees, Evans was inspired to create Sarab. "They don’t see the journey: how many people are lost along the way; how many people die trying to make that journey and the suffering they have to go through on that journey to even make it to a border,” Evans said, pointing to people in the UK. "Being a refugee isn't a choice."
Circus performer, Nour Abu Alrub, agreed with Evans, “It’s not just one million people who arrive, it’s something more than this, people have to be more aware of the causes, (…) they need to understand all that happens before this.” Abu Alrub’s great grandfather was made a refugee in 1948 when he was evicted from his home in Farwaneh village, next to what is now Beit She’an, in the north of Israel.
Hazar Azzeh (left) and Alaa Abu Alrub coping in different ways with their plight. Photo courtesy of PSC.
Sarab opened on Feb. 15. Four performances in total were held in Palestine, with the last one on Feb. 24 in Birzeit, in the Palestinian Circus School tent. During April and May, the show will tour in Europe, with confirmed performances in the UK, Germany and Belgium.
“The show is intended for Europe,” clarifies Evans. Palestine evidently has a strong sensibility to the plight of refugees, but the show does not have any markers that would indicate a time or place specificity. Abu Alrub explicates this choice; “here in Palestine when you talk about refugees it is always connected to (19)48, to the Nakba, but then we started to realise that the same thing is happening all the time, with different people, different stories, different places.”
Abu Alrub added, “We collected stories from all the world – I didn’t know there were refugees in Colombia, in Congo, in Sudan. When you start to dig more in this, many stories come up. The characters were developed based on these real stories.”
Much is packed into the hour-long show. All seven performers, five male two female, are always on stage in one way or another. There is constant movement, creating an atmosphere of desperation, of being trapped, of running up against walls of violence and indifference.
Defined by Evans himself as circus-theatre, it is a gripping, relentless performance. The advantage of combining the two techniques is that, according to Evans; “we have a greater pallet to pull from, so we can use the simpler movements to resonate with people and we can also use them to pull at the gut.”
And pull at the gut it does. “Circus has a visceral connection with the audience, particularly if there’s an element of danger in it,” Evans explained.
Added to the emotion at the heart of the issue itself makes for a particularly powerful show that it is impossible to look away from. That, of course, is the intention. In a scene of abuse, the audience is faced with its own inaction.
Whilst the seven performers each play a character with a specific story, they also double up as agents of a system of abuse. “Those in power can change, they can be bureaucrats, they can be governments, armies, police, traffickers,” Evans notes. When in positions of power, the performers wear a black cap.
When asked what he would like the audience to take away from the performance, Evans stated he wanted people to ask more questions. “To ask more of their governments, to show more empathy and compassion for our fellow human beings.”
Abu Alrub added; “for me, anything that makes (people) take a step towards being more aware about the refugee cases will be an improvement in this world.”


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