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Back to the circus after administrative detention: an interview with Mohammad Abu Sakha

By The Palestine Monitor - November 14, 2017
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Administrative detention] [culture]

“When I came back, I felt a bit lost at first,” Mohammad Abu Sakha starts. This young circus performer spent 20 months in detention. Before being jailed, the 26-year-old had been teaching circus techniques at the Palestinian Circus School in Bir Zeit since 2008.

“What confused me the most when I came back is that I realised how long I had stayed in prison,” he explains. “I only realise how much time had passed when I came back from prison to the circus school: I saw all the pictures, all the new activities, all the improvements… I was happy of course, but I felt I missed so much, it was like I had been in jail for 10 years.”

Mohammad Abu Sakha, kept behind bars since December 2015 over allegations of being a member of the PFLP, a secular Palestinian political party considered a terrorist organisation by Israel, the EU and the US, was released in late August. Over the 20 months he was detained, the charges against him were never made official and public.

According to Palestinian human rights organizations, there are currently 450 Palestinian prisoners in the same situation. They are detained under the Israeli system of “administrative detention” – a protocol under which Israel detains suspects without trial for periods of several months, renewable indefinitely. Countless human rights organizations have condemned this practice.

“In that framework, I lived on hope,” Abu Sakha explains, “Every time I got the court order, I would start giving my clothes to other prisoners, because I was so convinced that I would leave.” Other prisoners used to answer him that “it’s not so easy to get out of jail,” he recalls. “But I would always believe in it, because I know I did nothing.”

Shadi Zmorrod, a Palestinian actor who started the Palestinian Circus School said the most difficult part for him was not knowing when Mohammad was going to be released. His name would always be on the programs, his picture at the school, and the staff would always talk about him. “We felt it would make us mentally ready for his return,” Shadi says.

When Amnesty International called for Abu Sakha's release and protests were organised around the world, and each time diplomats made statements calling for an end to his administrative detention, staff at the circus school hoped the order (each one lasts six months) would not be renewed. It ended up being renewed three times.

“Every time, it was like a slap, and I would feel devastated,” Shadi Zmorrod recalls. “Living under occupation gives you the feeling that you never really know what will happen. It is really hard to keep working normally in that context.”

Mohammad Abu Sakha after his return to the Palestinian Circus School

Circus values helped Mohammad Abu Sakha live through those long months of uncertainty. His mother said he was always willing to get material to train inside the prison. “I was always making jokes about prison being like a summer camp, where you have to create activities, find ideas to train,” Abu Sakha says. “I did a handstand outside, where we were allowed to walk, and then I was told I would get punished, but I only realized when I was handcuffed and my feet were tied as well, as the prison staff was moving me from one prison to another.”

Today he is back in Bir Zeit. He was physically weakened by life behind bars, especially the prisoners’ hunger strike last spring, but he continues performing and training children at the school.

“We knew it would change him a lot,” Shadi Zmorrod says. “Almost two years between four walls, it changes you, for sure. It’s hard for us to know where to start, and how to share. There are many questions we want to ask him, but we also want him to feel 'back home’ and there is a moment of rehabilitation: the children grew up, we did a lot of projects and shows during the time he was detained, and we need time to all reconnect.”

Abu Sakha is determined to teach again. He feels it is part of his responsibility as a circus performer: “we have to protect the children, to give hope and life when they get exposed to so much violence, we need to keep them in the circus, to have them expressing themselves through the circus.”

He would like the Palestinian authority to open more facilities such as the Palestinian circus school. “Our social programs should reach all Palestinians,” Abu Sakha feels. “Israeli soldiers with tanks coming to our villages are bringing ideas of violence and you can’t stop those ideas with stones. You need other ideas to replace them and I think that the values of circus could be a good alternative.”

The circus school already teaches and performs in refugee camps and isolated areas. “They say I’m pushing it with my big ideas about circus, but I feel circus is really very important,” Abu Sakha explains, “as opposed to sports such as football, there is no competition, because with circus, the idea is always come together. Circus is also stronger than theatre that has a story and is always conveying a message, while circus is just pure expression of your body in nature. In the end, circus can be like a vaccine: it gives you values of teamwork, and keeps you away from violence.”

Mohammad Abu Sakha works on various projects run by the Palestinian circus school, from performances in Jordan, to the Palestinian festival of circus arts in 2018, or the workshops in the refugee camps. “We have many projects, but I still need more time. Before I used to go to class jumping from joy, now the very serious life of prison took away parts of this feeling, so it’s harder.”


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