Simon Llewellyn, Con Fanzini, Kim McCafferty and Will Flanagan arrived safely in Amman, capital of Jordan on Friday 5th April 2013 for two weeks on tour with Clowns Without Borders Ireland all over Jordan.
We packed the van and off we went to the rehearsal space. The rehearsals went well. We ran the show twice to a small, random audience and they were enchanted. So much so that they demanded we come back and play a proper show for them.
Abdullah our driver is a star and part of the family. I think he really enjoys being with us and helps out and plays with everyone.
We went to meet with the lovely Mouaz, the Unicef coordinator in the area and who has been great on logistics. All in all, a great day!
7th…And so it began
We arrived to show numero uno – a pretty park with a humble community centre in one corner and several cheerful staff welcoming us with rapturous handshakes and Aleikoum Salam’s all over the place. It surely was the perfect remedy for our first show nerves.
Will’s wondrous music, Con’s awe and momentary trepidation inspiring unicycle fest and Simon’s footballs and Arabic “Hadufffs!” (goals) were met with squeals of delight and the best sound in the world, little people’s raucous laughter.
Only mild retinal damage was incurred to clowns while juggling and balancing all manner of implements in blazing sunlight and the brightest whitest surrounds imaginable.
Second if not a close first to the joy of making the little people laugh was the giddiness and playfulness we discovered in the adult facilitators during the post show mint tea sessions. Warm and welcoming beyond belief, they plied us with treats and showed us their magic tricks, attempted to surgically remove Cornelius’s beautiful hair and transplant it to their own heads and generally thanked us through the medium of ferocious amounts of smiles.
Our man on the ground, the coolest cat in town, Mouaz McUnicef came to the show and was over the moon with the children’s reactions and the show in general.
Some of the team have been discussing what a refugee camp actually means. It may have the connotation of tents and deserts but what we tend to forget is these places over time become more permanent and soon become towns and maybe cities. Today we headed north to one of the biggest camps – fifty years old and 250,000 inhabitants. You can’t help but get emotionally drawn into their world and their problems. Many of the first displaced now have families and so you now have 2nd and 3rd generation refugees wanting to head home to their homeland.
On to Cyber City, a former site housing workers in a high rise, now turned into another camp just one year ago, with a mix of Palestinians, Syrians and Iraqis. Currently it holds 600 but more come everyday. Here was the first time the clowns performed in a tent but not one traditionally linked to the circus world. Now you physically saw the economic hardship.
The show was playful and the crowd was smiling. Success! So only one more thing to do before leaving and that was play the locals at football. The skill may have been a bit wayward but the craic was mighty and long be remembered. Thank you.
Here’s what UNICEF Jordan had to say about our guys:
For the next two weeks, Clowns Without Borders Ireland will be performing 2 to 3 shows per day in child and family centres supported by UNICEF in host communities across Jordan. These activities aim to reach some 8,000 Jordanian, Syrian and other children from host communities and camps (King Abdullah Park and Cyber City). The activities are taking place in centres where UNICEF partners run psychosocial support and child protection activities. Thanks Clowns Without Borders for bringing a big smile to these children’s faces!
Today the fools visited two camps and performed for 400 children. It was great fun, we had a great welcome in both places and the sun shone on our shows.
The first show was in a girls school, for Palestiniane refugees. We got changed in the tiniest room imaginable, real Alice in Wonderland stuff. Then out we went and had a great show with a lovely, fun, playful audience. They were so taken with the show here that they wrote us a letter of recommendation, which was a really lovely gesture. They also are already looking forward to the fools coming back and playing for them again. The effect the shows have on the kids and adults is amazing.
Off we went then to the next show. This one was classic, as it took place right next door to an airport with planes and helicopters constantly taking off. I’m happy to say that the fools were so entertaining and engaging that the kids never even looked up to see the aircraft! They couldn’t take their eyes off us!!
Our driver Abdullah is an absolute star. He is really in the fools family! He seems to have friends everywhere, has a fantastic sparkle in his eye and is the only person i know who can park on a roundabout, then reverse around it afterwards and not annoy anyone doing it
11th April – Shows Nine and Ten : Pure Gems
We returned to one of the first schools we be-clowned but this time to entertain a different bunch of little people, equally excitable and sweet. Unbeknownst to them Simon and Con concocted a dastardly plan to add a new addition to the show in honour of the Champions League, Latent Baines and to surprise Kim on stage. Much to the little peoples delight, our exit music, taught to us by director extraordinaire Colm O Grady, led us straight off stage and into a locked shut door.
The only women’s shelter in Jordan has capacity for fifty women and children, a lovely little garden with shade and a swing. All are victims of physical and/sexual abuse. A very gentle, sweet and subdued audience indeed. Our friend, the young Jordanian psychologist who we met at Cyber City Refugee Camp near Irbid in the north a few days previously was there to greet and help us. She tactfully asked us to refrain from physical contact or affection with the young children as they were working through the healing process from their traumas. The staff were all smiles but tired and perhaps weary from all the difficulties life in the shelter presents. The women there are from all over – Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Somalia, Djibouti. So we performed a less boisterous show and did just what the General Manager asked of us – “Just bring us fun, please, we need fun”.
The day like the last had 3 shows planned and boy were they to be well remembered in the eyes and hearts of 4 wee Irish minds.
The first was adorable. The audience were young and not so many (50 ish) but their infectious smiles had the power of ten times that amount. Not matter where you looked you could tell they were on our side, so much so they tried to invade the stage countless times . How can you say no to someone smiling, clapping and dancing at your feet.
The next was at a school which initially had cancelled shows as they feared we were going to be culturally offensive but due to hearing such great feedback from our partner UNICEF and that of the other places we had been at demanded our return. Yet again a great show, a great audience and a great memory.
The last was the most touching. We approached a refugee camp with high walls and a gate with wire. Near Ramtha, it is just 5km from Syria, 2 years old and at full capacity of 1,000 and half of those children. Many of whom arrived by foot because of the situation. No matter where you looked there were prefab units, not much in size and basic in amenities, but at least safe, dry and warm. The show happened in another make shift unit and from the moment we stepped out you could tell it was a big deal. A stampede of children flocked around us some unfortunately got trampled but safely picked up. Clap, stamp, cheer, sing it was like we were to walk into a gladiatorial arena. There was a cacophony of energy circulating around the room.
The show itself was a blur but the reoccurring memory was that it was like we were at the most amazing rock concert ever. Our live band must have turned the volume up to 11 and the performers give back the energy they received like Tasmanian devil’s on strong Arabic coffee. As soon as the final Shukran (thank you in Arabic) aired a herd of wildebeest came to get themselves a piece of memorabilia.
After a short break we went back out. It wasn’t easy but something we wanted to do. Handshaking, Salam’s (hello in Arabic) but countless requests for us to give something. Within minutes we found the local men playing volley ball on an unconventional floor —rocks!!!!! And no sooner did we start watching than we had been subbed and on court. Yet again an overwhelming friendly gesture and boy did it feel special.
We arrived at the school which was lovely and the kids were fab. Our pattern is emerging now, with setting up the show and with the meeting and greeting. The show was super and afterwards we drank mint tea with them.
Our second show was a big change for the fools, as it was in a Christian school. This was our first time performing for a predominanently non-muslim audience and was interesting for us to see the differences. There were priests in the type of 1960’s garb reminiscent of those early black and white RTÉ television shows. They were an amazing audience and it was a sweet, sweet show, enjoyed by all.
Then the drive south from the very north of Jordan, bordering Syria and the Golan Heights all the way south to the border with Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but all the while staying within the frontiers of Jordan. We arrived at Wadi Rum after sunset and took a yute past the end of civilisation and into the desert. We arrived at the desert camp to the most astonishing starscape I’ve ever seen and stayed up into the wee hours craning our necks into the night sky.
Back on the road following one day off and with an early start, the haze of a cloudless morning couldn’t quite shake all the cobwebs from the van as we drove towards the Dair Alla Centre in Al Balquaa on the Palestinian border.
We arrived without much background knowledge of the situation we were entering. A small basement school next to a car mechanics and a fridge repair shop along the main drag thru town. We met the people who ran the centre and thru broken Arabenglish we set up the show. A tiny concrete yard, with 30 seats for the kids and a corrugated roof to make the space feel that bit claustrophobic.
We prep’ed as usual and marched onstage ready for some fun, but the kids that met us weren’t like those at the large schools and parks we’d performed most of our shows at. These kids were worried, even in a group they all seemed lonely and vulnerable. Wide eyes, trying to have fun, nervous and unsure. From laughing along at the show, one 12 year old child was invited on-stage for a magic routine. He just broke down in floods of tears where he sat. He left and returned later on in the show, sitting in the back laughing and then crying hopelessly in equal parts.
We kept the show running. Keeping things as gentle as possible. Luckily one larger kid, obviously the one others looked up to, loved the show.
Once he had been onstage for a routine and left as a champion all the kids were on our side. And yet they still had to look to him for reassurance from time to time.
Sometimes the period after a show is much more important than the show itself. We meet the kids, individually, happy and engaging, swapping tricks, making up quick-fire handshakes, letting them know they have all our attention, that they are important.
The next show was in Hibatuallah School, Salt City. Bus loads of kids sitting under a wide sun-bleached expanse on the crest of a hill, looking down on the city haze below. We managed to perform a 40 minute improvised set while waiting for more and more busses to arrive. Squeezed together under the shade of a few trees 200 kids clapped their way thru the routines, while a slim guy in a huge suit walked where he liked filming us on a camera big enough to justify his extensive shoulder pads.
The final show of the day was back in the capital on an astro-turf football pitch in Prince Hashim Park. The show was a favour for Al Hashimi Al Shamali, a local youth centre that had hosted our rehearsals and made a special request for the show having watched us the previous week. These kids here were definitely not timid or unsure. From the surrounding high rises, they were older, in the first stages of projected bravado and dodgy moustaches. They were joined by plenty of families. The lads were soon converted as well, especially once Simon began a flawless football routine and finished with one ball balanced on his head, juggling 3 others.
We finished. We packed up. Said our thanks. Loaded into the van and sat in silence for a while. Contrasts.
Barren dust, endless grit, rocky outcrops in the distant haze. Cold winds and stark features, bedouin men, faces worn in the desert, all standing round smoking ciggarettes and laughing warmly at us. Pale Irish gringos having a very late breakfast at the last outpost before the emptyness that stretches all the way before us to Iraqi border.
Around the corner is a packed school. We are here not so bright but very early, to perform for their kids and those of 2 other schools located somewhere in the vast vacinity of this morning. The school, Al Mraigh, is run, as so many are, entirely by women who greet us gladly. And so, full of a deep fried falafel, chips and salad breakfast we run the show in the full glare of the desert and all is well.
Afterwards we meet the kids, pose for photos and are thrust screaching babies by veiled mothers with trigger happy camera phones. Con and his gravity defying hair is always one of the main attractions for the kids, however at this particular show it is the Principal of the school who turns out to be one of Con’s biggest fans as she insists on posing for a few photos with him and his hair alone.
Once all is packed up, and we’ve had a chat and some tooth melting chai it’s on to the next school, Al Taybih, where thankfully we’ll be performing an indoor show. Not many schools are as remote but few have the kind of breath taking view Al Taybih showcases. Built onto the side of a steep mountain and looking down into the gigantic Wadi Massa canyon below, the school has a welcome charm.
The kids were ready and waiting and enjoyed every moment of the show, clapping and shouting along without any encouragment and even following us the whole way back to our changing room once we had finished.
Emerging 5 mins later expecting to be mobbed we were surprised to find the whole school had completely emptied, even the teachers had gone home. And so with a day off the next day we packed up, said goodbye to the cleaning lady and followed the trail that led down into the desert.
Our thanks to Culture Ireland, UNICEF, Save the Children, Abdullah the driver, Simon, Kim, Will and Con for being so generous, Colm for organising and directing, Margot and Peter for supporting, but most of all the children who made this 26 venue tour so memorable.