“She was a Christian and they tried to kill her but there was a rock that got split in half and some shepherds disguised her or something like that,” Says Sabine, “But I’m the worst person to ask about these things.”
Halloween Christmas is today in Lebanon. It’s really called Barbara but it’s pronounced Bar Bara in Arabic. The holiday is for St. Barbara (obviously named after the quaint town of Santa Barbara), the patron saint of firemen,prisoners, and like 8 others. It’s exactly like Halloween except that it is very close to Christmas. Children go trick or treating door to door dressed as ghosts and princesses to collect candy in Santa hats.
Our falafel and sodas are placed on the table. I’m making faces at the little girl at the table next to us. She laughs coyly in Arabic as my hat drifts across my face changing my expression from happy to sad to surprised etc. A man walks by our table in a clown mask for Bar-bara. “That’s why people think they are afraid of clowns,” we agree. We also note that people aren’t really afraid of clowns but horrible clown makeup and masks. We don’t even wear noses in our Clowns Without Borders show.
It’s hip to be afraid of clowns these days. But the kids of Lebanon don’t know this. In many places they have never seen anything like this before. They don’t know how to react. For instance, Jan (pronounced Yon) has this killer diabolo routine (that’s this strange circus apparatus I don’t feel like explaining right now) that he often gets paid about 1,000 bucks for in real life. When he performs this routine for cruise ships or Cirque du Something shows the crowd goes mad with applause but some of the more rural Lebanese children just sit there gap mouthed or grinning, not knowing to scream and clap as Jan bows to silence. We understand they are awed and inspired but they express it in a different way. We can always burst them into laughter by prat falling in slow motion though. That seems to be universal.
Samantha looks up Bar-bara day on her phone. The daughter of a wealthy pagan, Barbara was locked away from the world but somehow became Christian anyway. When her father found out, he tried to kill her but God opened the wall to her new sauna and she was teleported to some shepherds who helped her. When one of the shepherds betrayed her, his sheep turned into locusts. Eventually Barbara’s father caught up to her and cut off her head but, as the story goes, he was struck by lightening on his way home. So in honor of this saint, the Christians of Lebanon decided to adopt Halloween from the U.S. (because, after all, it is a sweet holiday) and put it right next to Christmas.
“Google don’t know everything,” says Sabine. She is sure the shepherds dressed up St. Barbara in the story, hence the excuse for dressing like Frankenstein and asking for candy on her day. However, this fact was ungooglable to the satisfaction of our attention spans.
We are in Byblos, which is like the oldest city ever. People have been touching these same bricks for over 7,000 years. When they named the bible after this city, it was already almost twice as old as the bible is now. That’s pretty old.
It’s time to go to the show so with one more silly face to the little girl who won’t stop staring, we hop in our tiny red clown car to get lost a few times. Luckily Sabine is a master of what we call Lebanese GPS which basically consists of rolling down the window and asking for directions. A fun little fact: the Arabic word for where is when.
We find it. The school is tucked away in an alley off the road along the ancient city wall. The MAG truck, complete with police light bar and skull and cross bones logo, arrives shortly after us. MAG stands for Mine Advisory Group, an NGO that works to remove and dismantle mines and unexploded bombs across the world. We deliver the funny and they deliver the message. In the principals office we are offered tiny cups of thick coffee and cookies. This is the case with every school in the Arab world. One teacher is super enthusiastic and has dressed as a clown for Bar-bara. Blue-wigged, red-nosed, and huge-glassesed she takes us to the courtyard to set up.
I knot my tiny blue tie and tune the Charango. We blow up the beach balls, set the clubs, and the lasso. Sam gets her bubble mixture prepped. Sabine suddenly informs us that the coronal of the north army will be watching the show today. Sam wants to squirt him as part of her water bottle bit but we advise against it. She resolves to still squirt the underlings of the army. It’s probably good for them I don’t know. The kids begin to arrive. I wave overenthusiastically. Sabine silly-walks right up to the little ones and shakes their hands. They snicker into their hands. A tiny girl in a red coat sees me waving and runs straight for me. I get on my knees and open my arms. To my complete surprise she hugs me like a long lost uncle. My heart dissolves immediately in her tiny embrace. It’s one of those moments in life where you reach your capacity for joy and it starts spilling out your tear ducts. I reach the absolute limit of happiness the human form can feel. She sits down and I have to shake off some of that happiness in order to start the show.
We march in singing sillily. Jan stops in front and we all bump into him causing him to fall flat on his face. This first explosion of laughter
leads into our flawless, action-packed comedic experience. The army does not smile when Sam squirts them in the face but they do laugh during many parts of the show. The kids sequel with glee when Jan tosses his diabolo higher than the roof of their multistory school and catches it with a string. They rush the stage to pop Sam’s humongous bubbles. They marvel as Jan juggles standing atop my shoulders. When our beach ball enters the mine field they shout to us the three things we are there to teach. “LA TAKTEREB, LA TELMOS, BELEK FARON!” Don’t come near, don’t touch, and call immediately. We pretend to call and MAG shows up with a metal detector and bomb proof armor to save our ball.
We take a brake while they explain to the kids how to avoid being blown up by mines. It’s a hot December. Sabine says, “I stink.” with a grimace as we sit on the steps behind the audience. “So do you,” she tells me and it’s relatively true depending on your definition of stink. We have no water to drink and now it’s time to go back on. I beckon a boy of about ten to follow me back to the stage. MAG finds our ball safely a midst our pretend mine field and throws it back to us. Everyone cheers. I show the boy to pose like a superhero and teach him to juggle 3 beach balls between us. We bow with him. The crowd goes wild.
After the show the colonel approaches Sabine. He loves it and gives us his cell number saying if we get into any trouble to call him. Of course we discretely tease her about dating the army. We play the “bye” game with the kids. We say bye, they say bye, we say bye, they say bye, and repeat. Some kids are dressed in costumes for Bar-bara. They think we are their for the holiday. Exhausted and sweaty with hearts dissolved into joy we pack up to continue our mission.