RAMALLAH, West Bank — Three young men have been putting on shows in the neighborhoods of East Jerusalem using basic props and a guitar. As soon as their show starts, parents and children gather to watch Ahmad al-Joaba and Moataz Qawasmi perform circus shows to the sound of Mo’men Abu Sabih’s guitar.
Bashar Mashni, the head of the Tourism and Arts Jerusalem Cluster, volunteered to organize and coordinate the shows to support the three young men and whoever might join them in the future. He told Al-Monitor, “The idea came as the young men were sick of the institutions’ neglect when it comes to supporting their talents. We wanted to build a popular supportive environment and a platform for the talented youth to spare them the agendas of funders and foreign supporters.”
Mashni said, “We are providing the people with new entertainment shows for free. The people of Jerusalem need to take their minds off things amid the worsening security and economic conditions plaguing them.”
The Street Circus is a mixture of circus and acrobatic shows, with music and 20-minute satirical comedy sketches that begin unannounced to surprise and delight passersby.
They put on their first shows in Jerusalem's central bus station on Salah al-Din Street and then moved to other busy streets of Jerusalem to entertain as many citizens as they can.
Joaba told Al-Monitor, “Our primary goal is to bring life to the city of Jerusalem, specifically the old town. Such shows are rare here, and they are usually performed in formal venues at costs that average families cannot afford.”
Joaba, 26, is from the Christian Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. He comes from a family of modest means that could not afford to enroll him in costly circus acrobatic courses, prompting him to seek to provide a platform for talented boys with undeveloped potential.
Joaba said he and other young people from Jerusalem are neglected by art and cultural institutions in Jerusalem, so the street was where he had to embrace and develop his talent. Before his current team formed, he worked on the street as a clown and performed acrobatics on his own.
Joaba performed his first street show in East Jerusalem during the 2008 war on Gaza. He continued putting on solo mime and circus shows on the streets until he met Qawasmi and Abu Sabih and formed a circus team.
Guitarist Abu Sabih, 23, also could not afford music classes, so he learned to play the guitar alone from the age of 14 to 18. Then he started working to pay for tuition in a music institute in Jerusalem.
“Our street performances aim to send the message that there is a need for cultural institutions in Jerusalem that would support and focus on our talents. Jerusalem is home to many talents that need support and education. These shows also aim to provide a recreational space for the city's residents so that they can enjoy our shows for free as opposed to the other shows that are organized in theaters and formal performance spaces.”
Abu Sabih plays the guitar to accompany the acrobatics or comedy acts performed by Joaba and Qawasmi. The trio rehearses before each show.
Like his colleagues, Abu Sabih is seeking to expand the team and attract more talented people to share their experiences with others unable to afford formal training. He said, “We are trying to make room for new talent, as the institutions that teach art and music are very expensive.”
Mashni confirmed Abu Sabih’s statement and said that when the Street Circus grows, new talented performers will be able to join the team to develop the work of the circus, embrace new skills and develop the existing ones without waiting for foreign funding.
The team does not categorically reject funding if such funding does not affect their mission and/or set conditions. “The problem in Jerusalem is that funding usually comes with conditions imposed on the youth. We will not accept such funding or any funding that goes against the vision that we have presented through our work so far.”
The circus has performed several shows in the outskirts of Jerusalem as well, according to Mashni. “The reaction of the street is better than good. We felt very appreciated on the street, but in return we meet marginalization and indifference on the part of the cultural and artistic institutions,” he said.
While the circus team hopes to organize shows in other Palestinian cities with entrance fees to cover the team’s travel costs, the shows performed in Jerusalem will remain free of charge.
The circus team has a dream of spreading through Jerusalem to the rest of Palestine and the world and sending a message that performance artists can manage to spread joy without outside support or funding.