Laughing Together: The Unlikely Story of a Gaza Clown Who Grew Up in Israeli Hospitals

Abdallah Abushaban came to Jerusalem to learn the business from an expert. Was there bickering? Of course but now the two dream of taking their act across the region.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Go to comments
Abdallah Abushaban (R) in a screenshot from "I clown you."
Abdallah Abushaban, right, learning the ropes from David Barashi in a screenshot from "I clown you." Credit: Sasha Kapustina
Eetta Prince-Gibson
Eetta Prince-Gibson
Eetta Prince-Gibson
Eetta Prince-Gibson

Abdallah Abushaban, a 23-year-old from Dir al-Balakh in Gaza, wants to be a medical clown. Ten years ago, sick with a virulent form of cancer with no options for treatment in Gaza, he was brought to Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv. After chemotherapy that almost killed him, he was cured.

>> Get all updates on Israel and the Palestinians: Download our free App, and Subscribe >>

“I’ve been healthy since, and I’m grateful,” Abushaban says by phone. “I remember how much the clowns at Sheba made me laugh and helped me believe I could be healthy. I wanted to give something back. So I decided to be a clown.”

Abushaban speaks gently, hesitantly, in fluent Hebrew. He recently completed his BA in journalism at the Islamic University of Gaza. Unemployed, he volunteers as a clown at Rantisi Hospital in Gaza City.

“In Gaza there’s nowhere to learn to be a medical clown, and people don’t really understand what we do. So I read up on the internet and joined with a few other people trying to be clowns in Gaza. I tried to teach myself,” he says, admitting he “really didn’t know how to be a clown.”

From " I Clown You, " Documentary Film Hospital medical clown. Credit: Sasha Kapustina

“I thought making people laugh was enough. I thought just sharing the pain I had felt was enough.”

He refers to his Facebook page, where he quotes Charlie Chaplin: “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.”

On the web, he came across the site of Sasha Kapustina, 31, an American filmmaker making a documentary on Israeli medical clowns entitled “I Clown You.” Abushaban contacted her, hoping she could help him find some formal training, and she responded quickly.

“Clowns don’t judge and they make simple, truthful personal connections,” Kapustina says. “Clowning is an art of challenging the norm – and what could be more of a challenge than bringing Abdallah over to Israel to learn clowning?”

She persuaded the authorities to provide Abushaban with a six-week permit to be in Israel. She persuaded Dush (David Barashi) a clown with 16 years experience who heads the eight full-time medical clowns at Hadassah University Hospital to mentor Abushaban. And she persuaded Hadassah to provide him with a dorm room for the entire period.

Abushaban was in Israel for four weeks in early 2014, and for two weeks in March. He returned to Gaza earlier this month.

Creating disorder

Dush – he insists that while in costume he be called by that name – was intrigued by the opportunity. Interviewed in a small locker room in Hadassah children’s ward, he’s dressed in a very tight, very short nurse’s uniform and flicks a cigarette lighter.

“Yeah, it takes ovaries to come to the hospital dressed as a nurse with a cigarette lighter the week someone burned a nurse to death,” referring to the murder of Tova Karero, who was killed by a deranged patient.

“A clown is an actor. Wherever he or she performs, the clown stands for opposites. Where there is order, they create disorder. Where there is disorder, a clown creates a new order. And yet, because he seems like a buffoon, society tolerates him, even pities him. So the clown can say the most devastating things. And above all, he can find the good that is a human being,” Dush says.

“So I thought, sure, why wouldn’t I want to mentor and teach this young man?” Still, the apprenticeship between the unsure young Gazan and the mature, brash Israeli wasn’t easy for either of them.

“I have my style,” Dush says. I’m very verbal – mostly, I speak gibberish, which I can adapt to every language. I’m very in-your-face, very Israeli. I wanted to help Abdallah to be a clown and find himself. But I can only do it my way.”

From " I Clown You, " Documentary Film Hospital medical clown. Credit: Sasha Kapustina

Abushaban recalls, “When I first met Dush, I wanted to do what I wanted to do. I came to learn from him, but I didn’t want to listen to him. I made so many mistakes, but it was hard for me to listen.”

As Dush puts it, “I didn’t need Abdallah to know about Gaza. I treat children from Gaza here. I know how awful their lives are. I wouldn’t change places with him. But the fact that he comes from Gaza isn’t relevant. The fact that he has a story doesn’t interest me or the patients. I train professionals. And this is a demanding profession.”

Abushaban says he felt Dush criticized him about everything.

“I did criticize him about everything,” retorts Dush. “I had to teach him about the physical presence he makes in the room. His costume was wrong he was just wearing what he thought were clown clothes, he didn’t know how to be who he is. He thought he could clown around. That’s not being a professional clown.”

Says Abushaban, “I came with all sorts of tricks .... I thought those gimmicks were funny, and I thought I could count on them. I didn’t know how to count on myself.”

From Ajami to Odessa

Sure enough, one day the relationship exploded. “I told him I was sick of him,” Dush says.

“I told him that if he came to me to learn, then he has to learn, no shortcuts, I don’t care about Rantisi Hospital in Gaza, I don’t care about Jerusalem in Israel. I care about human beings, about our profession. You can’t be a clown based on your own sad story, but you have to be yourself. Me, I’m from Ajami,” he adds, referring to a poor, largely Arab neighborhood in Jaffa.

“I know the part of me that’s Arab. He’s from Gaza, but acted as if he’d rather be a Jew from Odessa.”

From " I Clown You, " Documentary Film Hospital medical clown. Credit: Sasha Kapustina

Abushaban responds sheepishly. “Ah, he told you about that? I didn’t know what to do. I thought he threw me out, but no, he was actually inviting me in – to be me.”

He believes that for him this was a turning point. “I had to think hard, and I had to realize that being a clown isn’t about my story,” he admits with a chuckle. “I still keep lots of tricks in my pockets, and Dush doesn’t like that.”

Back in Gaza now, Abushaban says he hasn’t had problems with the authorities for being in Israel. He was investigated by the Hamas security apparatus, which is monitoring his Facebook page, but “I’m not at all afraid,” he says. “Most people appreciate what the Israelis did for me so that I can be a better clown and give them better service.”

Yet he says sometimes he can’t help but compare Gaza and Israel. “At Rantisi, we don’t have medications, not even electricity all the time. In Israeli hospitals, people are safe. In Gaza, no one is safe anywhere. In Israel, people smile. In Gaza, nobody really smiles anymore,” he says.

“But what matters to the clown is the here and now. The immediate. Not the politics, not the region, not the comparisons.”

Abushaban and Dush stay in contact by phone and Skype. Dush wants him to go abroad to study theater: “Abdallah could get a scholarship to go abroad, since there’s no school of theater in Gaza. But he has to study, because clowning is the highest form of acting.”

But Abushaban fears that if he goes abroad to study he won’t be able to make a living when he returns to Gaza. “I work at odd jobs now, here and there. There’s no work for anybody in Gaza anymore.”

Both dream of working together as clowns throughout the region. Dush works for Dream Doctors, the Israeli clown organization. “We would like to work with clowns from Gaza, Egypt, Jordan,” he says. “Why not? With our clown humor, we can cross all the borders.”

As Abushaban puts it, “If we had a regional organization, we could all learn from each other. The politicians teach people to hate, but the clown is loved by everyone. Politicians divide people – clowns unite them.”