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Imagine that you’ve been trapped in the same 40km strip of land your whole life. Imagine that you usually don’t have access to electricity, and that clean water is rare and precious. Imagine not being able to plan for the future, with unemployment at the highest rate in the world. Now imagine that the people keeping you imprisoned here start dropping bombs on your city every few hours.
This is the everyday reality lived by people in the Gaza strip. This area of the occupied Palestinian territory has been referred to as the world’s largest open-air prison, and the UN has declared that it will be uninhabitable in a few years. But the way UCC graduate Jenny Higgins sees it, Gaza is already uninhabitable. Jenny has been coming here every few months for three years now. A long-time performer and lover of circus, she travels to work with the circus community in Gaza, helping them to grow and develop their skills and training facilities. In early 2018, she began her most ambitious project yet: setting up a new circus and yoga centre for women in Gaza City. The Gaza Women’s Yoga and Circus Hub has since become a safe space for women and girls to come together, learn skills, exercise, socialise and have fun. Jenny has also worked with the boys and men’s circus groups in Gaza, helping to fund and organise training programmes and equipment so that they can grow their skills and expand their community.
Getting into or out of Gaza is difficult for some, and impossible for most. A complete blockade of the area has been in place since 2007, cutting it off almost entirely except to a small number of diplomats, aid workers and journalists. When I visited Palestine in Spring of this year, I knew Gaza couldn’t be on my itinerary. I travelled to Jerusalem and the West Bank, staying with a Palestinian family in Bethlehem. The sense of kindness and welcome that I experienced from this family and countless other people I met is almost unmatched by anything that I have ever experienced elsewhere in the world – in fact, the only other place where I’ve experienced similar is here in Ireland. Perhaps this, coupled with our similar histories (still ongoing in the case of the Palestinians), is why Irish people feel such an affinity with and empathy for the people of Palestine.
But these people’s hospitality and generosity notwithstanding, the difficulties they experience in everyday life were always apparent. My local guide was often scrutinised by Israeli soldiers at checkpoints, while I was waved through without even a glance at my passport. People queue at these checkpoints for hours every day to get to work and home. Every house I passed had six to ten water tanks on the roof. Water is a highly politicised resource in Palestine. The supply is turned on once a month for a few hours at a time, with no prior notice of when this will happen, and you had better hope you’re home to fill the tanks when it is, because if you run out that’s your tough luck. Homes in the illegal Israeli settlements have a 24/7 water supply.
Throughout my dismay at the daily difficulties routinely dealt with by people in the West Bank, I was constantly conscious of how much more extreme things are in Gaza, where people have lived for 11 years in an impossible and ever-worsening situation. Creative and social outlets like circus and theatre are vitally important in this environment. They provide a sense of community, skills, exercise and social engagement, especially for children. Any child aged 9 or older in Gaza has now lived through three wars. Circus and particularly clowning provide a vital outlet for those who have suffered trauma. It is a place for all ages and abilities to meet, to share, and most importantly, to have fun.
In August, the Said al-Mishal Culture Centre, which served as a theatre and a training and performance space for the circus, music and dance communities in Gaza, was destroyed by an Israeli bomb. The place where memories were made, where laughter rang out even during air strikes, was suddenly gone. This was a direct attack on the heart of a community – a source of light for people in the dark. In a letter to the Guardian, 14 prominent figures from the UK theatre scene strongly condemned the bombing, calling it a devastating loss.
I’m part of Circus Factory, a space for Cork’s circus community to come together and train in its various circus skills. We see jugglers, clowns, aerial acrobats, hand-balancers, hula-hoopers and many others come through our doors every day. Our circus space and our community mean the world to us, and we feel deeply the loss affecting those in Gaza who are living in a situation far less preferable to ours. On 20th October, we’re putting on a spectacular Circus for Gaza Cabaret, all the proceeds of which will go toward helping the people affected by this enormous loss. Sadly the al-Mishal centre cannot be rebuilt in the current situation, but we can bolster the groups affected by its loss by helping to fund learning, equipment, and other facilities for them. In a night of dazzling performance, Cork’s circus community will come together to help another rebuild itself. We’d love for you to let us entertain you. If you can’t make it but still want to help, you could always donate the cost of your ticket.
October 20th will be a night of hope for those in conflict. Come along and help bring smiles, laughter and magic to people living in the dark.
Feature Image Source: Aileen Ferris