The Irish ballet teacher working in Palestine during a pandemic
‘Every little normal thing here presents a challenge from being stopped at checkpoints to soldiers searching through tutus’
Juliet Casey teaches a ballet class in Aida Camp, Bethlehem.
When did you leave Ireland?
I left Ireland at 17, leaving school early to become a dancer. I was accepted into the Northern Ballet School in Manchester as there are no schools in Ireland offering full-time professional training in classical ballet. I'd the opportunity to work with a Palestinian theatre company during my third year.
Where do you live now?
I live in Haifa with my fiancé Fadi, who is from Jerusalem. We first met in Belgium and eventually I decided to visit him over here for three weeks. Almost four years later I’m still here. Fadi is a circus artist so his projects take him all over the country and overseas fairly regularly. I started teaching ballet and we moved to Haifa, which is a seaside city with a big Palestinian population. We also started to work together and are currently working on our first full-length performance, which will be a mixture of contemporary circus and dance.
What is it like living there?
The situation in Occupied Palestine would need a much larger space to explain, but life here can be very difficult. Injustices are daily occurrence. Gaza, the self-governing Palestinian territory, suffers from bombardment.
We aren’t allowed to go there and most people are not allowed to come out. What’s sad is that the more you see, the more normalised it becomes. A good friend of mine visited from Dublin and when she was taken on a tour around the refugee camp where we teach, she started to cry. That really made me step back and think – wow, am I really becoming so unfeeling? If I’m already feeling like that after four years, it makes you wonder how Palestinian people must feel.
Has Covid-19 affected you?
Covid-19 has really affected everyone here. We are currently in total lockdown and face hefty fines if caught more than 100m from our home. The Israeli government says it has introduced extra phone-tracking to track those who have or may have contracted the virus, but some people here think this is an opportunity for more social control. For people in the West Bank and Gaza, the virus is something really terrifying. People here know the health system is totally unequipped to deal with an outbreak, and this causes a huge amount of anxiety. I think those most hit by this are the Palestinian construction workers in Israel as they were given an ultimatum: go home and be with your family but lose your job, or stay beyond the wall and don’t see your family.
What does your day look like now?
Each day there is less and less movement. At the beginning of the outbreak I had to stop all work in the refugee camps in Bethlehem when it went into lockdown, then Nablus and Ramallah were added to that list, then Nazareth and finally Haifa. We try to stay active, but the other day we were sent home from walking to the nearby beach by police.
I’ve been keeping in touch with ballet pupils as much as possible, doing online classes and correcting videos they’ve been sending, but they are all really upset because we had been working hard since September preparing to take the Royal Academy of Dance (RAD) exams, which are now cancelled. Not everyone here has access to stable electricity, let alone wifi, so there are some groups I can’t keep in touch with at all, mainly the children in Aida Refugee Camp just north of Bethlehem.
How is it being ballet teacher in Palestine?
My work is normally great. The children are so motivated. The differences from city to city are really pronounced. The difference between teaching in Nazareth, a more well-off city in the north, and teaching in Aida Refugee Camp can feel like a bit of a culture shock.
There is not much worse than a child coming up to you, fighting back tears trying to tell you something, and all you can do is nod
I think the major thing for me is being able to communicate with the children. At the beginning I couldn't speak any Arabic, so I was just using mime and the worst part was not understanding their issues. There is really not much worse than a child coming up to you, fighting back tears trying to tell you something, and all you can do is nod and give them a hug. I’m so grateful now to be able to listen to all their stories.
Of course, the children are also extremely different. In Nazareth I teach in a proper dance school with more than 500 students and they have studios with mirrors, whereas in the camp the room I teach in is unsuitable for dance. We use plastic chairs for barres and the floor is very hard.
How has Covid-19 affected your work?
Since the RAD does not send examiners to the West Bank, the exams were supposed to take place in a school in East Jerusalem, which meant that I had to apply for permits for all the students in Nablus and Ramallah (West Bank cities). Without these permits, the students would not be allowed to cross the checkpoint in order to reach the exam. However, once the outbreak of Covid-19 began, the Israeli government completely closed off the West Bank.
People here are better equipped, at least mentally, to deal with the situation than I am. People are so used to events being cancelled, the current situation is quite normal for them
The exam has now been postponed indefinitely due to Covid-19. Every little normal thing here presents a challenge, from being stopped at checkpoints and having soldiers search through layers of tutus, to spending hours in traffic due to Israeli army roadblocks while trying to reach a city on time for a ballet class.
Ballet is not something we associate with Palestine. Is it popular?
I think ballet could be popular here and I’ve met many people who are dying to find a ballet teacher here as there are very few. It is hard to get people to grasp the concept of what ballet is, convince them that it’s not “haram” (forbidden under Islam) and that it’s not just twirling around to music.
What is the food situation there?
It is wildly different from place to place, even when there isn’t pandemic. Cities and settlements populated mainly by Israelis have zero issues with food supply, and there are a good many Palestinians who would have no trouble either. However, in small villages and refugee camps, the situation is much different. The economy here is always on the verge of collapse and a huge number of people support big families on less than €2 an hour, so I’m sure that things will become dire very soon. Obviously, in Gaza, things are even worse and I can’t imagine how desperate the situation may become.
Do you plan to return to Ireland?
I would love to, but I would find it difficult to leave the students as there would be no one to take over in many of the places I teach. As for the project in the refugee camp, we've never had any financial support and just schedule work near-ish to Bethlehem on the same days we go there in order to pay for the petrol. The limited circus equipment we do have is Fadi’s personal stock, and the ballet shoes and clothes were donated by Debbie Allen School of Dance, Dancesteps Dublin and Al Amal Organisation for Contemporary Dance.
Does being Irish count at the moment in Palestine?
Of course, as an Irish person I have a much easier time of it, but having a partner who is Palestinian does put me in a category that presents its own issues with the Israeli soldiers at checkpoints with visas. The situation is rapidly changing here due to Covid-19.
How are people there coping?
I think people here are better equipped, at least mentally, to deal with the situation than I am. People are so used to events being cancelled because of army incursions, demonstrations and the like, so the current situation is quite normal for them. My partner, like most people here, has lived through intifadas, army curfews and such things. I quickly started to feel anxious and stressed about the new restrictions, whereas he was relaxed about the whole thing.
Is there anything you miss about Ireland at the moment?
Yes! Tayto crisps, Cadbury chocolate, floury spuds, wide-open spaces, rashers and sausages ... the list goes on. I do keep a stock of sausages and rashers in the freezer. But that stock is almost depleted as I was planning to be home at Easter. I really miss everything about Ireland including my family, my neighbours and just the general feeling of being home. I think this period has really accentuated that for me.
What do you hope to be able to do when this is all over?
I hope to be able to visit my family at home. I also hope to reschedule the RAD exams, and for everyone here to return to classes safe and healthy. Coronavirus has already achieved something I thought impossible, we finally opened an Instagram account for all our work. I’m really taking each day at a time and I think we all just have to trust that things will be okay.
If you would like to share your experience of how Covid-19 is affecting you wherever you live abroad, email Irish Times Abroad at email@example.com
* This article was amended on April 24th, 2020