Jenny Higgins teaches circus skills to women and girls in Gaza, writes Ellie O’Byrne
On July 14 last, Israeli forces unleashed their heaviest aerial bombardment on Gaza in four years, hitting more than 40 locations in one day as Hamas fired rockets into Israeli border towns.
Irish circus performer and NGO worker Jenny Higgins found herself trapped in an apartment with several of her trainees as missiles destroyed a tower block just 200 metres from the UN building where they were sheltering.
“We were surprised the windows didn’t blow out in the apartment we were in,” Higgins recalls.
She was visiting the project she founded, Gaza Women and Girls Yoga and Circus Hub, at the time. The hub uses social circus arts in a safe, women-only space, to reduce stress, heal trauma and allow women to develop physical skills and fitness.
Just weeks later, Al Mishal Culture Centre, one of Gaza’s largest training and performance spaces, was reduced to rubble by Israeli bombs.
Higgins had staged a circus performance at the centre in 2017.
She says its loss has left a devastating hole in Palestinian cultural life, not only in the loss of space to rehearse, perform and hold events, but the loss of equipment too, with theatre and dance companies losing costumes, computers and filming equipment.
Originally from Dublin, Higgins became involved in circus at Cork Circus Factory while she was studying in UCC for her MA in Human Rights.
Developing her own circus skills as an aerialist was empowering and transformative, she says: “I’ve gotten very fit and it’s given me an understanding of my own body and what it’s able to do, but it’s also given me my circle of friends and my community.”
On an earlier visit to Gaza with a circus project, Higgins noticed there weren’t the same opportunities for girls and women as for men.
There are traditional, restrictive views of women’s lives as centred around the home, there’s living with the threat of air strikes, but there’s also a high rate of gender-based violence in a pressure-cooker environment where unemployment and poverty is rife.
“The boys can do acrobatics on the beach or do parkour.” Higgins says. “There are guys doing street workout, there are guys rollerblading and skateboarding, but it’s always in public space.”
“To be resilient and live in a context like Gaza, you need a way to let go and forget.
Following a successful pilot project from January to July, Higgins now has 20 yoga teachers and 15 circus teachers trained to teach girls and women. With space a precious commodity in Gaza, they’re planning to build onto the roof of a building that houses AISHA, (the Association for Woman and Child Protection) to provide a safe space for their circus trainees.
Having faced difficulties in finding space for her own project, Higgins says she feels for the arts, theatre and dance groups whose practice is in disarray following the Al Mishal bombing.
“Palestinians are particularly resilient, and the message has been that something will be rebuilt,” she says. “That might really difficult: maybe finding another space to become an arts hub might be more feasible.”
Aileen Ferris is, like Higgins, a Dublin aerialist. She’s been teaching circus in Cork Circus Factory since she moved to Cork six months ago.
She hasn’t been to Gaza, but she visited the West Bank in the Occupied Territories last Easter, arriving on the first day of the notorious round of violence that coincided with Ivanka Trump’s opening of the new US embassy in Jerusalem.
She’s hosting a Circus Cabaret night in Cork Circus Factory to raise funds for the groups affected by Al Mishal’s bombing. Clowns, jugglers, spoken word poets, and aerialists will contribute to the evening. The proceeds will help to purchase replacements for the equipment lost in Al Mishal’s bombing.
Arts, circus and theatre might seem like non-essential humanitarian relief against a backdrop where basics for survival are in short supply, but Ferris says the loss of the Al Mishal centre has struck a chord amongst the Irish circus community.
“The arts in general is very important, because people are living a very, very dark existence in Gaza,” Ferris says.
“There’s very little hope and life is so hard: theatre and circus bring a little bit of light into that.”
Cork Circus for Gaza Cabaret Fundraiser Evening is on Saturday the 20th of October at 7pm at the Circus Factory, Centre Park Road, Cork