I am sitting in the amphitheater of the Maluti mountains in Malealea, Lesotho surrounded by blue grey misty peaks finally taking the opportunity to reflect on my recent expedition in Lebanon at the end of February (apologies for the late posting!). It is thousands of miles and another world away from where myself, Esther Haddad from Clowns and Magicians Without Borders, and Ellen, our photographer, spent a week working with youth in Palestinian refugee camps. My whirlwind life has taken me from the streets of Beirut where war is a razor’s edge away to yet another Clowns Without Borders project in this serene village of Malealea that has known only peace though ravaged by HIV/AIDS and poverty. It feels like a lifetime ago that we negotiated the helter skelter chaos of riding ancient Mercedes taxis through Beirut to Borj Al Barajneh, the refugee camp where we worked with Circuna (www.circuna.org), a Palestinian social circus program that empowers youth to teach children in camps throughout Lebanon in partnership with Clowns Without Borders Sweden. We arrived late on a Saturday night to be welcomed by Ibrahim, Circuna’s project director, and a host of Esther’s relatives from Beirut including her grandmother who cannot speak a word of English. The commonplace stereotype of only Muslims speaking Arabic was instantly swept away as I met her Christian uncles, aunts, and cousins in the arrival hall. Indeed, the diversity of Lebanon with its Christian, Shiite, Sunni, Dru, and Palestinian populations has been both a blessing and a curse to this war torn country. Walking through Beirut, we see shelled buildings from the civil war standing next to the most chic boutiques selling Versace and Gucci.
Our days in Borj Al Barajneh, however, are quite different. If it weren’t for Ibrahim guiding us daily through the labyrinthian passages that make up this modern medieval ghetto, we would never have found the arts centre where we teach the youth. Passing rows of storefronts sporting mechanics, fish shops, haberdasheries, espresso cafes, fruit markets, and countless posters of Yasser Arafat and other Palestinian leaders, not to mention the many martyrs, we wind our way underneath spider webs of electric wires and through open sewers to the centre. Walking past an armed soldier quickly evolves from shocking into commonplace. By the following Saturday, I can negotiate my own way back to the main street to the surprise of the artists (I still believe that luck had more to do with it than my memory!). This is not the UN refugee camp of popular lore with rows upon rows of tents, but rather, a veritable quarter of cement buildings that have been built and then rebuilt each time a shell has destroyed it in war – the last in 2006 during Israel’s invasion. One must remember that many of the inhabitants have been living here for 60 years – most born in the camps and have known no other life than the life of being without a home, stateless and impoverished.
Once at the centre, we focus on providing facilitation skills to the youth artists, all of whom teach weekly at different locations. They travel from the south and north to come to the training leaving very early in the morning. The situation is quite similar to working with the South African artists who sometimes leave at 5 or 6 in the morning to get to training in Durban. They are mostly men and have this incredible energy and enthusiasm that often overwhelms any semblance of order or focus in the class. You sort of have to ride it out until they are ready to reengage. Esther and I teach focus, concentration, trust, and ensemble exercises to the youth. Our workshops take us beyond the mechanics of simply teaching exercises and into the realm of hows, whys, and inquiry as we explore ways of facilitating growth and development for both the youth and their children. Our own focus is challenged at times with gunfire cracking in the streets below. Violence is ever so close at hand – on one occasion Ibrahim urges us to move quickly through the streets at the site of an altercation between 2 men. One never knows how an argument may develop.
Nevertheless, after four extremely productive sessions, we take a day off and journey south to obtain permission from the army to enter Al Bus, one of the camps in Tyre, Lebanon’s most southern city. Here, the camp is considerably more orderly with wide tree-lined streets. It is almost peaceful though the passport in my back pocket reminds me that things could change at any moment. We are grateful that the only adversary today is a cold biting rain sending shivers down our spines. As it is our second performance (the first being in Borj Al Barajneh that was interrupted by power failure prompting a dance party in the dark!), we are fortunate to be joined by Jeremy Chapman, a jazz saxophonist and a bit of a legend in Beirut as well as a friend of my sister’s whom she met when living here more than 7 years ago. He accompanies us with dixie jazz and virtuosic improvisation to our slapstick routines. Though Esther and I haven’t performed together in over 2 years, the children love our play. Ironically, the last time we were clowning was for a fundraiser at a synagogue in Connecticut. And here we are doing some of the same routines for Palestinian children in Beirut. Children laugh the same no matter what political, religious, cultural and geographical barriers us adults erect to divide us. It reminds me that we are all human with the same capacity for joy and sorrow.
On our last day, I do not want to leave – after 7 days we have only just begun! Though we are part a 3-year development project, it is hard to say goodbye to the group. To Sumar’s rebellious smile, Jamal’s calm presence, Kamal and Yahiyeh’s exuberance, Omar’s funny bone, and Jafra’s poetic gaze as well as the others. I tell myself that it is only the beginning. Someday, we will return to continue this work that has open a door of understanding and hope in my heart. As I embrace Bilal, an intense youth and incredible acrobat, I feel his necklace of a bullet and silver map of Palestine/Israel pressing against me. It reminds me of the alternatives facing them. And so, in many ways, this the work of peace. The love, laughter and joyful play that binds us together overcomes a potent feeling of despair when faced with the Palestinian tragedy. Perhaps, our small work is part of a bigger picture – one that will lead us to a day when peace may be possible. It may not be in my lifetime but we can pray and work each day so that this dream will come to fruition.
May you be peaceful and happy,