“Psychology, Magic and Meaning: Stories from a the Children’s Circus in Afghanistan”


With introductions aside the crowd settled in for the evening’s first lecture,“Psychology, Magic, and Meaning: Stories from a Children’s Circus in Afghanistan,” presented by Zach Warren.

Warren is average height, fair-skinned and has neatly parted bright red hair and a beard to match.  Were it not for the fact we were gathered in a bar, he could have been giving a college lecture anywhere.  He is excited and begins to explain how he began volunteering with the Afghan children’s Circus.   His story begins with him telling the audience that he started juggling in college, “because I didn’t want to do my homework and all the nerds juggled,” he said.

The first time Warren volunteered at the Afghan children’s Circus, was in 2005.  He explained that got involved with the circus through his friend Chris, whose family had a healthcare Non-Government Organization (NGO) in Kabul.  Chris found the circus one day, while walking down a city street and stopped in to juggle with the m for a little while.  With no juggling act, they asked Chris to teach them how to juggle and he suggested that they speak to the person who taught him, his friend Zach.

With the help of Harvard Divinity School  Warren when to Afghanistan, “under the umbrella of doing field work.  It was ministry, under the broadest sense of the word,” he said.  That summer he taught juggling and unicycling to about 100 kids.  “Today some of the girls can pass 10 clubs and it’s hard to find that even at the MIT juggling club,” said Warren.

According to Warren the circus is a major event in the places where it performs. He explains, it’s wildly popular with not just children, but adults and can attract very large crowds.  He referred specifically, to a performance that attracted a crowd of about 12000 people.  While this may seem strange to us,  Warren explains that, “in parts of the world that are developing and where entertainment is rare this is an incredible and special event. People will gather across religious lines, Sunni and Shia, and ethnic lines like, Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Baloch, and Kyrghyz,  and within in this event they can share in the experience.”

From Warren’s description, it seems like the circus has a special function in Afghanistan.  It not only brings people together but also enables them to bond over a common shared experience, and that is an important part of its function. “If all these people come together at one event you can create a very powerful emotional message that they’ll all remember.  The circus brings laughter and friends across division that are sustained into adulthood,” Zach said.

“How do you talk to kids about how these two groups can come together and work across differences?” Warren askedUsing circus staples like physical comedy, acrobatics and juggling they are able to talk about things like conflict resolution, empowerment and cultural differences, using symbolic representation in the circus acts.

Warren briefly described one of the acts in which a little boy who is being bullied by two bigger boys is able to pick up a weight they weren’t able to lift, and then proceeds to knock them over repeatedly as he tries to help them get up.  He said that lately, a girl has been playing the role of the little boy and that the women’s audiences go wild for this because there isn’t a lot of empowerment for women and female empowerment is an important part of their message.

“I wanted to do more,” said Zach Warren as he continued to tell the attentive Nerdnite audience about how he decided to help raise money for the circus by setting the world record for Unicycling.

With a specially constructed unicycle he headed out to the North Western United States to set the world record. “My brother, my father and I went to Fargo, North Dakota.  But, I didn’t make the record that year,” he said.  Undeterred he went back the next year, in 2006, and broke the records for the fastest mile on a unicycle, the fastest mile on a unicycle while juggling, and also set the world record for joggling, or juggling while running, during a marathon.

As he prepares for his trip to Afghanistan, this summer, he’s also trying to get a magic class started in collaboration with Magicians without Borders.  Warren is now trying to raise funds to buy supplies for the class and build interest.   Even though magic can be a tough sell in Afghanistan, he is optimistic and explained that sometimes it’s better to just show someone a magic trick, than to talk about it. “If you say to someone, would you like to see a magic trick? They will say no, no, no, that’s against Islam.  But if you show them the magic trick then they say, do it again,” he said with a big smile.

Warren played a YouTube documentary about Magicians without Borders for the audience. The documentary, was short, about eight minutes and featured both Tom Verner and his wife Janet performing for different audiences and talking about how they started their organization to bring hope, through magic to different troubled areas of the world, like Afghanistan.  In the video, Verner spoke about how magic has a symbolic meaning in many of the places they travel to. “Magic, in a wild way is sort of filled with metaphors of hope, you take a rope and cut it in half and you put it back together again,” he said.

Magicians without Borders is a non-profit that started in 2001 when Tom Verner, performed in the refugee camps of Kosovo and Macedonia and then continued to perform, traveling to places like; India, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Haiti, Balkans, El Salvador, Bangladesh, and New Orleans.  This summer Magicians without Borders is headed to the Afghan Children’s Circus to teach magic.

As the lecture came to a close there was a brief question and answer session, and Warren ran a victory lap around the bar, joggling to the enthusiastic cheers of the Nerdnite crowd.  Tonight The Awesome Foundation presented Warren with a $1000 grant to help buy props and fund this summers magic classes. “I loved the crowd, I adore the crowd,” said Warren after his talk, “I loved that everyone demanded that I juggle around the room, it was great fun.”

While volunteering to go to Afghanistan may not be for everyone it has been an important part of Warren’s life over the past several years.  I remain amazed and impressed that someone chose to go there, and has no plans to stop.   Warren confirmed in a phone interview after his lecture, “I will always be involved in the circus.”  Although his story, is not typically the kind of story we hear in reference to Afghanistan, I find it kind of reassuring.  It’s nice to hear that despite everything we know is going on in that region, good things can and do happen there as well.


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