A World with B-Orders

Crossing borders to bring pioneering art to the world is no easy task. Lucy Ribchester meets a Palestinian circus company making its Edinburgh debut

feature | Read in About 6 minutes
Published 12 Aug 2015

It hasn’t been an easy first Fringe so far for Fadi Zmorrod and Ashtar Muallem. The first three shows by the Palestinian circus company were cancelled due to technical issues, and on the day we are due to meet an emergency technical rehearsal scuppers our interview. Two of their technicians, at the last minute, were not granted permission to leave Palestine, and the company is still finding its feet with a new one. It’s a wonder that when we finally manage to snatch some time together in the backstage trailer of the Underbelly’s Circus Hub, while Zmorrod is getting changed and Muallem is in the middle of cool-down stretches, both not only have smiles on their faces, but are sharp, relaxed, and happy to chat in detail about the ideas behind their two-person show.

“In Europe for me,” says Muallem, “life is too simple. What are people concerned about here?”

Zmorrod jumps in: “Yeah, why complain?”

“In Europe you can travel without borders,” Muallem says.

Compared to the trials of daily life in Palestine, it seems these theatrical hiccups are mere trifles. Muallem describes the show, B-Orders, as based on both their experiences growing up in Palestinian society, with the title containing a double meaning: not just "borders" but "orders", the rules of living in occupied territory.

Within the show these themes are borne out in various ways. One segment sees wooden building blocks create a wall of dominoes. Muallem, despite limbs contorted into a pose of restraint, manages to topple one with the tip of her toe. Zmorrod puts it back up and she pushes it down again. Later the pair repeat sequences of movement, appeasing an invisible authority, each repetition increasing in its anxiety and indignity as they are compelled to reveal more skin every time. Later still they squat on their heels for what seems like an agonisingly long stretch, bored and waiting.

And yet despite this Zmorrod insists that the company’s work is not political, or at least was never intended to be.

“I don’t like politics,” he says. “But if you want to talk about my life everything is political. I don’t like to talk about politics but if you ask me, 'how are you?' I will tell you how I am. And if I tell you how I am, there is always something about how I feel that is connected to the situation, the oppression.”

Muallem cuts in to demonstrate. “'How was your day?’ ‘It was good, I passed the checkpoint, I stayed for five hours or so…’”

“You cannot separate them,” says Zmorrod. “It’s there in your daily routine.”

As we talk, the pair overlap frequently, finishing each other’s sentences, clarifying and interrupting one another, and it’s clear that their bond as performers is strong. But then, as circus performers in Palestine, they are rare kindred spirits. Palestine, they explain, has no tradition of circus, and so when Zmorrod became one of a group of founders of a circus school in Birzeit in the West Bank (of which Muallem was one of the first students), it was a pioneering move.

“I believed that it could be something very healthy for the society. My brother was working in the Jerusalem circus­ school – Israeli kids and Palestinian kids learning together. Then they built the wall and the Palestinian kids couldn’t reach the school.” Along with his brother Shadi, and several others such as Jessika Devlieghere, Zmorrod established classes, taking outreach programmes to refugee camps even as he himself continued to train. The tutors were sourced from an open call within Palestine; while it could have been easier to invite practitioners from overseas to lead the way, Zmorrod was determined that this would be a homegrown project.

“The idea was to put a seed in Palestine, doing everything with Palestinians. Most of the time in Palestine there are a lot of people who come for flying projects. They come and they go with the experience – and nothing is left for us. They come for three weeks and they make something and then they leave, but once they leave there’s nothing there. We wanted to go in another direction.”

In order to further their own skills to bring to the school and company, both Zmorrod and Muallem spent time training overseas, Zmorrod in Italy for two years and Muallem in France for one. It was here that they learned about some of the technical equipment used in the show, such as the Chinese pole. Zmorrod however asserts that while the raw building blocks may be imported, the heart of their circus ethos and practice is entirely founded within their society. “We learn the technique but the story is our story.”

The personal elements in B-Orders certainly reach beyond the realms of politics, and in fact the show’s quieter, dreamlike sequences have as much, if not more potency than those dealing with day-to-day oppression. Muallem is a gorgeous aerialist and uses the silks at achingly slow pace, floating high and stretching with all the freedom she can reach for. There is melancholy beauty in it, but also a sense of defiance that the mind can never be locked down – it will always rise in its own imagination.

“Circus was the tool for me to get out of my country,” Muallem says. “So my silk is the way I went up from reality. I leave reality and go up to a higher space, to my own space. We always feel like we want to say something, and the text and the music and the theatre and the dance, these are the elements that help us put ideas on stage.”

Both are adamant that these ideas will transcend borders as they tour internationally. Already the show has been seen in Belgium, France, Germany and Brazil.

“You create images,” says Muallem, “and the images are not direct but people can interpret them the way they want. We’ve got images in the show that could be interpreted differently.”

“We are talking about us,” Zmorrod continues. “Okay, we come from Palestine, so it’s referenced, but it’s not only Palestine. It’s everywhere.”