Ring of hope: United under the big top

The lure of the circus is being used to bring Palestinian and Israeli children together - not as spectators, but as performers. This week they come to London. Donald Macintyre reports
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His face may be impassive, but his concentration, like that of the rapt audience, is total.

Twelve-year-old Jamie Bregman is reaching the climax of his rolla bolla act. It began simply enough with Jamie balancing on a plank that is in turn balanced on a cylinder rolling on its side. But then he puts a second upended cylinder on the first and a third, also moving on its side, on top of the second and finally the plank on top of that. And then nimbly mounts the plank and balances there, precarious, but triumphant. The spectators' gasp of delight is involuntary. "We teach the kids to balance, but also to have balance in life," the Israeli circus director Elisheva Yortner explains when the applause dies down. "To have control of their bodies but also to accept others."

But then the Jerusalem Circus is something different, and not just because there are no animals. For the youngsters aged between seven and 19 practising acrobatics, unicycling, juggling, clowning, plate-spinning and gymnastics in this workshop at the open-air Denmark High School auditorium in the Katamon neighbourhood are drawn equally from the Jewish and Arab communities. First conceived 12 years ago by Ms Yortner, a teacher in the multi-ethnic French school, the circus is one of all-too-few beacons of co-existence in this famously divided city, which at once belongs equally to Jews and Arabs and remains in many ways the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It took six years for the idea to come to fruition, and since then it has grown rapidly. With a professional ringmaster, Ukrainian-born Slava Oleinick in charge of teaching the circus skills, some 85 children now regularly attend training sessions at least twice a week.

The circus has toured internationally; and tomorrow, 11 of its stars, seven Jewish and four Arab, who have become good friends across the ethnic divide, will perform twice at Hammersmith's Riverside Studios as part of the London International Youth Circus Festival.

Abdullah Taher, 19, an East Jerusalem Palestinian, and an acrobat/unicyclist/juggler, is a founder member of the group who joined at 13 and will be performing in London. "This isn't a regular circus," he says. "I love it. I've had a lot of fun. It teaches you a lot. First of all, of course, I've learnt the arts of the circus. But I also learnt a lot about Jewish culture and the Jews learnt a lot about mine. For example, if there is a religious festival, Jewish or Muslim, we will ask each other, 'what do you eat or drink, how do you celebrate?'"

Abdullah, who works in a Jerusalem café as he waits to start a business administration degree at Amman University, explains a simple but crucial factor in the choice of a circus as a means of bringing young Jews and Arabs together. "You have to trust each other; me and a [Jewish] kid called Itamar have an act where he stands on my shoulders and I have to throw him in the air so he does a somersault. He has to trust me 100 per cent that I'm not going to make him fall."

Abdullah makes clear the fact that Jews and Arabs work together is a key attraction of the circus life for him, while admitting: "These are two cultures which are very different from each other but there are a few things I think we see in the same way". He says the group tries not to talk about politics too much, but adds: "There are Jews and Arabs who dream about peace in the same way - though there are others who don't think like that."

Not surprisingly, in the present climate, as one of the "dreamers" he is not exactly optimistic. About three years ago, at the time of the Geneva Initiative, produced by a group of Palestinians and left-wing Israelis, "I thought there was going to be peace the next year, and here we are now".

What's nevertheless unusual about the circus, is that though born out of the high hopes and better contacts - for a while - between Israelis and Palestinians which followed the Oslo accords, it has survived the much darker period of the second initifada intact. A Palestinian boy in the circus from the East Jerusalem suburb of Beit Safafa lost seven relatives in an Israeli military operation. A Jewish girl lost one of her closest friends in a suicide bombing.

Ms Yortner recalls that in June 2002 the circus was rehearsing in a school close to the Pat junction in south Jerusalem where a suicide bomber blew up a bus killing 14, including the husband of one of her own colleagues. "And we could hear very clearly the firing between [the Palestinian town] Beit Jala and the [Jewish settlement] Gilo. But we didn't stop. The kids made it very clear they wanted to go on." Indeed, she adds, the "madness" of that period made the group if anything more determined to carry on. "I feel we are stronger today."

Not that it has been exactly easy. Chronically short of money despite donations from a series of funds fostering Jewish-Arab co-operation, including the Kennedy Leigh and Alan B Slifka foundations, the circus has yet to find permanent premises. Some gyms have refused to rent out their spaces for rehearsals, and one school cancelled a contract when it discovered that the group included Arab children.

And there have been other strains. Yassmin Zuaiter, a teenage Palestinian girl, highly popular in the circus and one of its pivotal stars, had been due to go on one of the earlier tours, to Germany. But then it emerged that, while the circus normally eschews anything which smacks of nationalism, Ms Yortner had accepted an invitation for it to perform in the German President's residence at celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Israeli-German reconciliation and in the presence of the Israeli President Moshe Katsav. Yassmin's mother, Layla, decided to withdraw her daughter from the tour, saying that she would not perform under an Israeli flag.

Mrs Zuaiter politely declined to be interviewed on the incident. But Yassmin's friends in the circus were dismayed. "If she had been my girl I would have let her go," said Abdullah Taher, "Abbas Suan [the Arab football international who plays for the Israeli team] doesn't seem to have a problem when the Israeli national anthem is played at matches." Abdullah was unable to go on the tour because he was doing his matriculation exams but added: "I would have gone if I could."

Moshe Perlov, 18, said: "I was a bit angry with her mother. I didn't understand it because there was no real conversation about it to see if we could work out a compromise."

Moshe, who was interested in acrobatics when small, is in his own way a remarkable testament to the attitude-changing strengths of the circus. For he is from the Jewish West Bank settlement of Kfar Adumim. He had little experience of Arabs beyond seeing Bedouin in the Judaean Desert; yet he too now emphasises the trust vital between co-operating Arab and Jewish members of the group. "If I don't trust you [in a circus act] then I'm not going to do it." Did events in the conflict - suicide bombings, say - affect relationships? If something happens from the Israelis or the Palestinians what difference does it make between me and Abdullah? It's not connected."

The Jewish boys in the group ruefully admit that the language between the two groups is likelier to be Hebrew than Arabic because, they say with justice, Palestinian children in Jerusalem are taught Hebrew better and longer than Israeli children Arabic. Moshe adds: "It's really a bad thing. We should know the languages of the place we live in." But he adds: "One thing about the circus is that we can explain things with our bodies. You don't have to speak."

Which points, according to Ms Yortner, to another key way in which the circus can promote co-existence, namely that it - almost uniquely as an art form - transcends both cultural and linguistic differences. Her Palestinian co-administrator Eid Nimr agrees: "This is the best way to bring people together, because it involves kids doing joint things, it is bringing in the parents, the families, the neighbourhoods. And if you don't talk politics you can be flexible."

Mazen Copti, a Palestinian Jerusalem lawyer with two children in the circus, says that in the end: "Peace comes from the people working together not from politicians."

With the army back in Gaza, the Palestinian death toll rising inexorably, and relations at a new low between the two sides, such a prospect seems far indeed from being realised. Ms Yortner says she knows very well that children in Gaza's Beit Hanoun or, she adds, the Qassam rocket-prone Israeli town of Sderot - are not enjoying the opportunities that the circus children have. But she cherishes the dream that one day they might. Describing how when the group was delayed at Lubeck airport on its way to London, she watched two of its girls, a Palestinian, Areen, and an Israeli, Rotem, practising their hula-hoop act amid much mutual laughter, she says: "I was moved to see those smiles and think the circus helped to make that happen."