“For me, this is the best place to be a clown,” said Roberto, an Italian clown who, along with four brightly-dressed colleagues, had just entertained the children of Cordoba primary school in Hebron’s Old City.
“It situations where there is a lot of tension, children need…” Roberto breaks off here to make expansive hand gestures – not because he is back in clown mode, but because I’m stretching his English to its limits.
“A release?” I suggest.
“Yes!” he says. “A release.”
That was just what they got. For forty minutes, the French and Italian clowns leapt over barriers of language and culture, wordlessly whipping the children into gales of laughter with nothing more than red noses, an accordion, and a tendency to fall flat on their faces.
For children in Hebron’s Old City, which is occupied by 2,000 Israeli soldiers and 500 hardline Jewish settlers, release can’t come often enough. They grow up learning things children shouldn’t be taught: divisions, restrictions, exclusive identities, and the constant prospect of violence.
At the entrance to Cordoba school, which nearly closed a few years ago because its pupils were so afraid of routine attacks by settler children from a nearby Jewish school, pictures drawn by the students show their daily reality: soldiers, guns, separation walls and barbed wire.
Earlier this summer, settlers painted ‘Death to Arabs’ in huge letters across the outside wall of the school. The graffiti, which has since been blacked out, ruined artwork that was put there to make the school more inviting. The importance of this shouldn’t be underestimated for children who have to pass through military checkpoints and risk abuse from soldiers and settlers just to get to classes each morning.
So, what does a clown make of all this?
Roberto, who has worked in Kenya, Argentina, the Ukraine and problem towns in southern Italy, is not an ordinary clown. Having been invited to the West Bank by Psychologists for Human Rights, he and his colleagues have been entertaining children in hospitals, refugee camps, and schools. They have also been holding workshops giving Palestinian children a space to explore their emotions through humour.
Removing his red nose, Roberto is serious for a moment.
“When you are clowning,” says Roberto, “you are clowning with humanity. There are no borders, no politics, no ideologies. You are making a direct connection.”
Then he says goodbye and, with his fellow humourists, climbs into a taxi, leaving me considering one of the most hopeful, human sentiments I’ve heard since I’ve been here.