A Small Circus Outside Our House
Teaming up with a troupe of British circus activists, Jo Wilding reports back from occupied Iraq on how clowns are bringing some laughter back to a place ravaged by war, and to a youth increasingly tranquillised in haze of glue sniffing.
12th January 2004
There are those who advise keeping a low profile as a foreigner in Iraq, and wisely so, I expect, especially if you're a business contractor. But we - that is the Circus2Iraq team - needed to practice a new plot involving stilts and skipping ropes. And even now the ceiling fan has been removed, there still isn't room in the apartment for spinning a ten metre rope, so we went outside to the forecourt.
We had all the kids from the street taking turns to jump over the rope, one at a time, in pairs, then threes. We gave Hussein a blindfold and told him to jump on the sound of the kazoo, then held the rope out of the way. The women didn't come out on the street but laughed and waved from the balcony. Fatih and his little girl, Fadia, with whom we had chai and dolmas yesterday, hung out of their window opposite, cheering everyone on. Men tried to get each other to take a turn, each with an excuse for not having a go himself - I'm too old, I'm too fat, until Coco braved it, managing six or seven jumps over the rope before getting caught in it, giggling, to huge applause.
Peat stood on the balcony doing the thing he does with ping pong balls in his mouth, where it looks like he keeps taking dozens and dozens of them out, then he and Luis did their new juggling act. We had to go and get our kit together to go and see the street kids we worked with the other day, but when we left they were playing in the street, kicking a football between themselves, running about blowing bubbles, the men as well as the children. A bit of play transformed the street.
The boys were glad to see us in their new home, grabbing our hands to tow us on a tour of the building, run by Save the Children Kurdistan. This is my bed, this is the office, this is the garden. They're in clean clothes, their hair cut and their faces clean. They're starting to realise that there are stricter rules in the new place - they can't just come and go like they could before. Smoking has been abruptly banned. Ali, a tiny 11 year old, hangs about outside, reluctant to detach himself completely from either the new home where his old mates are or the cloth soaked in thinners that he's still addicted to.
Saif came with us, one of the boys who used to hang out outside the Al Fanar Palestine Sheraton part of town with Ahmed and Laith, both of whom are now in the new house. They hugged each other and ran off to play, none of them smelling of glue. We played rowdy parachute games, then Peat and Luis did their juggling act again. We had them skipping in the street between stilt walkers, along with the boys and girls from the other houses on the road, and little Ali, still a little high on thinners, joined in.
Perhaps it won't influence his decision on which of the two worlds to commit to, the home or the drugs and the street and the gang that controls them. The hardness of the concrete he sleeps on has never changed his mind and there aren't many chances left, if any, so the last hope is that something attracts him more to staying with the other boys than going back to the gang.
Peat taught them some juggling. The older of the two Ahmeds picked it up like he was born to do it. In the crisis centre he didn't speak. He didn't respond, he didn't hug, he didn't laugh, fight, anything. He was just there. When we arrived he was painting a sign. He hugged Donna and chatted happily.
There was an e mail from Tamsin, who went to Bosnia in 1993 and 1999. She talked about the mood of hope and enthusiasm she found there when the long war was over and the desperate disillusionment six years later with the international community, the politicians, the economic reforms. People were still talking, though, about the sound system convoy and the arts group that had come through years earlier, how much it meant just to know someone cared enough to come and play.
Then as we walked home in the rain from the internet centre a voice called my name from a doorway. Hussein appeared. "Bacher?" he asked hopefully: tomorrow? Would there be another circus in the street tomorrow. And the men popped out of other doorways to ask the same thing, still laughing, still playing. It was good.
CHRISTMAS DAY IN OCCUPIED IRAQ - Baghdad - 25-Dec-2003