Juggling for peace in Afghanistan

After years of covering war, a Maclean's correspondent makes a drastic change: he joins the circus in Kabul

Juggling for peace

Photograph by Adnan R. Khan

It’s easy enough to find war in Afghanistan: step out of Kabul, head south and it will most likely find you. I’ve found it often enough: chasing after the Taliban and embedding with Canadian troops in Kandahar. But finding peace, unearthing hope, is another thing altogether. It takes a firm heart to resist the temptation for cynicism, to fight the overarching feeling that every attempt to challenge war with peace is pointless and doomed to failure. It’s a common theme here in Kabul among the foreign aid workers and journalists: Afghanistan will never change; it’s hopeless.

I’ve felt myself slipping into that state of mind in recent years. After 10 years of covering the Afghan war, war had become the lens through which I saw Afghanistan. But then I had a revelation: I decided to join the circus, and everything changed.

As absurd as it might seem, there is in fact a circus in Afghanistan. The Afghan Mobile Mini Circus for Children ( was established in 2002 by two enterprising Danes: Berit Mulhausen, 47, a journalist who had had enough of what she perceived as the downward spiral of her profession, and David Mason, 46, a former dancer who arrived in Afghanistan from Pakistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban regime and decided a circus was exactly what the country needed.

“There wasn’t anything else I could think of that would be good for Afghanistan,” says Mason. “The potential for social circus to heal, utilizing all the positive resources children provide to deal with things like trauma or just to have fun, this appealed to me.” And, he adds, “Circus is amazing and surprising. It can make everyone love and have fun. It’s so inclusive and can reach so many people.”

To date, the MMCC has reached two million people throughout Afghanistan with its travelling show. Its yearly budget has blossomed from an initial start-up donation of US$1,000 to between $600,000 and $1 million from a variety of sources, affording it the opportunity to set up a permanent school in Kabul, complete with a stage, acrobatics hall, and a playground, as well as sister schools in Bamiyan and Herat. In addition to circus arts, the schools’ curricula also include reading and writing, Quranic studies, photography and media arts, as well as set and costume design and traditional Afghan dance, among other classes.

It is a vibrant place. Entering the Kabul school feels a little like stepping out of war and into a dream world where all of what Afghanistan could be, if given the chance, materializes in kaleidoscopic colours and boisterous laughter.

It’s my personal escape: once a week I arrive here to teach contact juggling—a form of object manipulation where a single ball is rolled around the body and hands with gravity-defying effect. The children are enchanted by it, flocking around me wide-eyed and bewildered, trying to replicate the tricks I demonstrate, clumsily at first but over time with the first flickers of skill.

Their eagerness to learn is typical for Afghanistan’s youth. Whenever the opportunity arises, Afghan children attack a new skill with the verve of young minds hungry for learning. “It’s amazing what Afghan kids can accomplish,” says Mulhausen. “Each year we hold a children’s shura [consultative council] that brings together our kids from Herat, Bamiyan and Kabul so they can discuss the problems they face and find solutions to them. They get more accomplished than the adult shuras.”

Still, the MMCC faces some of the same challenges as the rest of Afghanistan. Girls’ participation is an ongoing struggle. While they do attend the circus school, most are pulled out by their parents by the time they reach puberty. The circus’s top performance troupe is all male, comprised of boys who started with the school at its inception and have evolved into world-class performers. They were recently awarded a prestigious circus arts certificate by the French Embassy in Kabul, giving them the credentials they need to continue their circus training at top circus schools in Europe.

“If you see girls who are interested, please focus your attention on them,” Mulhausen tells me. “We need juggling styles that are acceptable for females in Afghan culture.”

Contact juggling has that potential, largely because it can be performed without the need for excessive body movement. In fact, the girls appear more adept at contact juggling than the boys. Their inherent skill may be gender-related: the boys at the circus play as boys will—rough and tumble, wild, attacking balls and clubs with aggressive zeal. But learning contact juggling requires patience, concentration, and painful repetition, traits Afghan girls have been forced to acquire after years of living cloistered lives. And contact juggling is an elegant art, fluid and meditative, forcing the mind inward to a private space Afghanistan’s females have occupied for decades.

One girl in particular is showing promise. Nargis, 12, started out attending my classes by sitting in the back of the practice hall, watching intently as the boys chaotically threw around their contact balls, disregarding my pleas to go slowly and calmly. Over time, I coaxed her into trying it herself. Since then, her skills have improved rapidly.

She is obsessive, a trait contact juggling demands of its novices. When all the other children have run off for lunch, Nargis remains focused on her contact ball, alone in the practice hall, repeating her butterfly, contact juggling’s basic trick. She almost has it: the ball rolling effortlessly from the cradle position on the back of her hand to her palm, sweeping over her fingertips with near-perfect contact, giving it the illusion of defying gravity. When I tell her how well she’s doing, she smiles shyly before being pushed aside by one of the boys. “Look, Adnan!” he yells, tossing the ball in the air wildly. I pat him on the head and look over to Nargis, quietly focused in her corner of the practice hall.

Other girls have taken Nargis’s lead and now my class is made up primarily of females. It’s an encouraging sign in a country where a culture devastated by war has relegated its females to obscurity. Their emergence into public life will inevitably change Afghanistan. But more importantly, it is projects like the MMCC, focused on developing the minds of Afghan children, regardless of gender, that will ultimately redefine Afghanistan. Their peace will be Afghanistan’s peace.

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