THEO PANAYIDES meets the Arab clown, a man who is serious about his trade and not so carefree as his personas
One video riffs on Cyprus villages with funny names. Another is called ‘When Arabs Talk’, in which the clown explodes some common stereotypes – “Many Palestinians eat pork and drink alcohol. Why? Because it tastes nice!” – though also concedes that “When we talk, you think that we vomit”. Yet another is called ‘Are Cypriots Racists?’, in which the clown debates the titular question. “My answer will be in the form of a question: ‘Why do I judge Cyprus by the behaviour of one person?’… That is generalising, mana mou!” Then there are photos – like the album on Mohammed Awwad’s Facebook page of the clown (i.e. himself) with children at Kofinou refugee camp. He growls like a bear – decked out in red nose and ragged clown trousers – and a cluster of small-fry growl along with him. He tells stories, and gives piggyback rides. ‘You laugh at me, I laugh at you’ one photo is titled, a couple of the small migrant faces discreetly pixelated.
So much for videos, so much for photos. We meet in Mohammed’s studio, in a house he shares with two other artists (each has an office on the first floor, with a downstairs space for rehearsal and performance). He’s lively, volatile, not very tall, with sparkling green eyes, an explosive high-pitched giggle which erupts at intervals and a goatee that comes and goes, judging by his YouTube channel. The channel is called ‘The Arab Clown’ and Mohammed is indeed a professional clown – though of course there are all kinds of clowns. Some people hear about him “and they call me and say ‘We want a clown for our birthday’.” He pauses, then mimes putting the phone down: “Sorry, have a good day. I’m not that clown. I don’t paint faces, and I don’t let kids run after me and make balloons and look silly. I work with the kids who need it.”
You might say he’s a clown/teacher/therapist/actor. On the wall of his office are old photos from his youth in Palestine, and a theatre group based in a Franciscan college; Mohammed and friends are acting (not clowning) in a play called Everyman – which was actually quite a religious Christian play, he recalls with a chuckle (he himself is a lifelong atheist), but what the hell, “we were kids”. Back then, he was just an actor – but now, on another wall, hang his costumes, his seven characters. He’s just back from a school in Kaimakli where he did a show to promote recycling as Kyrios Kapello (Mr Hat), who also moonlights as Dr Kapello when he’s doing shows in hospitals and cancer wards. Then there’s Kyrios Alithia (Mr Truth) who wears a black nose – not a red one – and speaks the unvarnished truth (he mostly appears in shows for grown-ups rather than children), Mrs Hilda the cleaning lady with her “blonde hair, big boobs, big ass”, the incompetent Director who’s forever telling people what to do, and so on and so forth.
In Palestine he started out as an actor, born in Bethlehem to a middle-class household; his father, who passed away last year, was an agricultural engineer and staunch Communist, his mother an Egyptian-born housewife. In Cyprus he works as a clown, mostly in education – his videos too have a clear educational bent – but also in hospitals, refugee camps and drug-rehab centres. In London he worked as a teacher and drama trainer, meanwhile doing a Master’s in Theatre and Education which was where he met his Cypriot wife. “I got married to a Cypriot! She dragged me here, you think I wanted to come here?” he crows, with a burst of the high-pitched giggle. He’s been here for about six years now.
The work in London was especially arduous, something close to therapy for troubled teens. “The kids were violent. The kids were very angry and frustrated, and they felt nobody understands them. Now, we’re speaking about London,” he admits, as if to say ‘How bad can it be?’ – “but then you listen to their stories and his father is in prison, his mother is on drugs, his father is beating his mum every day… So they join these rehabilitation programmes, and we introduced theatre and art as a way of healing and understanding”. It gave him an early experience of skills he now employs as a clown, the trick of ingratiating himself with young people: “We start making fun. So he makes fun of me, I make fun of him, I’m talking their language – ‘Show me your tattoo, I have a tattoo, here I’ll show you, I got it when I was teenage’ – and they feel like this guy is not a teacher as much as, like, a friend. But from under the table you start asking them, like: ‘What would make you feel better? What would make you feel strong again?’.” That said, none of this comes easily. He’s done something similar in Nicosia, working with youngsters in drug rehab, and those kids were almost as angry as the London ones. “You’re talking, and suddenly they’re beating the hell out of each other! You end up not being a teacher. They need a person who’s like a body-builder, to separate them from each other”.
At least he had one advantage in dealing with his charges. He came to them as someone who’d spent his own childhood not in some quiet leafy suburb, but in embattled Palestine – and, at 40 years old, he’s just the right age to have been caught up in the first and second intifada of the late 80s and early 90s. “I was beaten by the occupation, I was arrested. I was shot once.”
‘Really?’ I respond, slightly shocked.
“Eh, like everybody. I mean, most of the Palestinians have a story of – of pain.”
It’s important to note that Mohammed wasn’t violent, and in fact is vehemently against the kind of protest that involves throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. “I am against that. I am totally against that, Theo,” he says earnestly. “I want the Palestinians and the Israelis to live together. My war is with the occupation, I want the occupation to be finished but I don’t want any Israeli soldier, or anybody, to die”. Nowadays he makes YouTube videos on the conflict, speaking out against atrocities like the recent truck attack on Israeli soldiers: “Guys, this is not how you free yourselves. This is wrong!”.
Still, you can’t live in a boiling cauldron without getting singed occasionally. Mohammed was just standing on a balcony – he was around 17 – when a rubber bullet hit him in the buttocks, bruising an area from his armpit down to his knee. At first “it’s just the pain in your ass, but then, because it damages your nerve system, it makes you numb, you stop feeling your body. Two-three days, all your body starts colouring [bruising] – and then you cannot sleep, you sleep on one side. And the pain…” The time when he got beaten was even more arbitrary: he was in school, sitting by the entrance trying to stay away from the protest going on in the schoolyard. Enraged Israeli soldiers stormed the school and grabbed whoever was closest – which turned out to be Mohammed and another boy who, to complete the absurdity, was totally blind. Why would they grab him? “They didn’t know he was blind! And they even tied our eyes so we don’t see. I was like, ‘He’s blind!’”. The high-pitched giggle again.
If Mohammed Awwad were a clown, he could laugh about such things; fortunately he is, and does. What gets hidden beneath the exuberance, though? It’s an obvious cliché to speak of clowns crying on the inside – but it’s also fair to say that he’s not as carefree as his freewheeling energy makes it seem, with some unexpected currents of fear and frustration.
For a start, even that energy is too much for some people. He talks too much, and uses his hands too frenetically. He’s always restless, wanting to do things. “I cannot sit down. I cannot go for a Starbucks or Nero for two hours. At the beginning my wife was, like, kicking my ass about it, in the end I told her: ‘Anna, stop. I cannot stay two hours in coffee shops talking with friends. We need to run, we need to find things to do!’.” He goes to bed early, around 10 o’clock, and usually sleeps a full eight hours; his energy leaves him burned out, especially after working with kids. He’s always ‘on’, which infuriates even his loved ones. “My mum, she used to be annoyed from my sense of humour. Up to now, she is! She doesn’t like the way I joke. Even my wife doesn’t. She says she looks in my eyes when there’s some situation and my eyes start, like, flickering – [because] I want to make a joke about the situation. She looks at me, she says ‘Don’t!’.” He laughs out loud: “I can’t help it. I have to!”.
He also, unsurprisingly, tends to have the traits of a man who delivers online rants on YouTube. He’s assertive, and must be quite militant about what he believes (including a fierce, meat-is-murder vegetarianism). He’s sometimes worked with students and alienated them with his constant demands to excel, whether due to perfectionism or a kind of arrogance. “Many people say I have a very high ego, and I’m arrogant,” he admits. “Many people”.
Like who, for instance?
“My wife,” he replies, with another laugh. “I broke up with my wife. Maybe one of these things was the reason why we broke up.”
I look at him, unsure if he’s joking – but he seems subdued, even rueful. Really? They broke up? When was that?
About a month ago, he replies with a nervous shrug. “We are in the process of divorcing… It’s painful. It’s painful. It’s like, it happens, you just isolate yourself for a short time – and then you say fine, what am I going to do? Continue with life.”
He’s had quite a bad year, I note gently. His dad passed away, he broke up with his wife – not to mention turning 40, which must’ve been a shock in itself. “That’s – omigod, you’re really asking me hard questions!” says Mohammed, and roars with laughter. “I’m a person who’s afraid of death,” he confesses. “I am afraid of death. I hate growing up!” Turning 40 means “I’ve finished the first half of my life – which means now I’m counting down. What did I do in my life? Did I get whatever I wanted? I didn’t. I should!”. One thing in particular gnaws at him: “I’m really searching at the moment to have a child, I really want to have a child in my life. Because I think this child is going to change the way I see myself, and I see the world”. Fatherhood looms as a symbolic rite of passage, especially now with his own father gone – though whether he plans to marry again is another matter.
In the meantime, other people’s children occupy a large proportion of his working life. Not the whole, by any means: he still acts whenever he can and is also a leading light in the Nudniks, an improvisational group that’s open to all levels (very much including non-pros) and all nationalities. But much of his work is educational and empowering, taking Kyrios Kapello and his other alter egos and teaching kids to “play silly. We need to introduce the concept that, through chaos, creativity comes”. Spontaneity is important, and not just for children. “It needs a lot of work to be spontaneous. It needs a lot of saying ‘yes’. If I tell you ‘Look, behind you there is a potato’ and you look at me and say ‘No, that’s not a potato’, what you did is you killed the idea”. Play with it instead, pleads Mohammed, open yourself to the new and build on ideas: “Don’t see problems as problems. See them as challenges”.
For an Arab, there’s an added charge to this concept – because that’s the plague of today’s Arab world, a socio-educational system (very much including religious training) that kills the idea of the new and creatively chaotic, imposing the stifling dogmas which prepare the ground for ISIS. “Palestine now is not like what I remember,” he tells me. “It’s terrifying.” For a clown – and not just for a clown – Mohammed Awwad is extremely serious about what he does.
But of course it’s fun as well – because it’s play, and play is important. Worse than the storm-tossed young migrants at Kofinou, worse even than the angry teens in rehab, worst of all are the kids in the cancer wards where Dr Kapello does his stuff. Does it work? Can he possibly cheer them up? Not all, he admits; some are just too tired, or in too much pain. But here’s the thing: sick children are always being urged – by doctors, by parents – to ‘be strong’, to stand firm. “And then the kid loses his childhood. He becomes like a warrior, to survive. And then the clown comes and says” – Mohammed’s voice drops to a soft, soothing plea – “‘Hello. It’s okay. We’re here to play. You’re a kid, and I’m a kid, and we’re gonna play’.” I’m a sponge, he adds happily, consoling the powerless by presenting them with a creature even sillier, more pathetic, more powerless. “The clown comes and says it’s okay that you’re feeling here” – he places his hand about a foot from the ground – “because the clown is here, below you. And you can throw things at me, and you can attack me, and you can be angry at me. And I’ll be OK”. I suspect he will.