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In Kabul, A Juggling Act That Offers Joy For Afghan Kids

Morning traffic in Kabul can be punishing enough as it is. But on a recent day, there's an extra element clogging up the streets, a scene you don't see on a typical day in the Afghan capital.

It's a parade of about 100 young boys and girls, dressed in colorful T-shirts and headscarves, and they're all juggling — everything from tennis balls and batons to things that look like big Whac-A-Mole bats. They're proceeding down the street, some on foot, some on stilts, some on unicycles. They've attracted a bit of a following as people are coming out of their houses to watch the parade. Some are smiling; others appear confused by the procession.

The parade snakes its way around the neighborhood and back into the compound of the Afghan Mobile Mini Circus. There's something that looks like a giant birdcage for acrobatics and a stage and performance area for the circus' 350 students.

Zach Warren is an American volunteer with the group.

"The circus is free. Anyone can come, as long as they maintain a certain GPA in school," he says. "And right now we are witnessing the national Afghan circus championships, which include primarily juggling competitions."

Students at the decade-old Afghan Mobile Mini Circus for Children warm up before the juggling championship in Kabul.
Sean Carberry / NPR
Students at the decade-old Afghan Mobile Mini Circus for Children warm up before the juggling championship in Kabul.

This is the eighth annual national juggling competition, and the kids — seemingly levitating balls and pins — are the winners of preliminary rounds in seven different provinces.

The tournament begins with the A group. They're the oldest boys in the competition, teenagers, many sporting thin mustaches. These kids are good – some juggling five balls for minutes on end. There are points for endurance and tricks, which elicit cheers from the kids.

Warren, an expert juggler himself, helps with the scoring. He describes some of the tricks as the contestants are juggling four tennis balls: There is the shower, columns, under the leg, and leading a ball on a string.

Zahid Rahman, 12, says juggling is teaching him about shapes and angles, which he says will help him be a better engineer when he grows up.

Hawa Gul, 11, of Kabul juggled five balls in the competition that day. As much as she likes juggling and the circus, she hopes to be a lawyer someday.

Warren says the main goal of the circus is to instill self-confidence in the kids.

"And if you can establish that it doesn't matter what field they go into, any field they're going to be more competent in," he says.

Mortaza, a 16-year-old from Herat, says his father encouraged him to get into the sport. He practices two to three hours a day, and he hopes to be a professional juggler. Mortaza (it's common for Afghans to only go by one name) placed third in last year's tournament.

"It's a great opportunity for the youth in Afghanistan, and it's nice that I'm seeing people from different provinces and from both genders," he says.

Fahim Fayaz has worked at the circus for nine years. He started as a volunteer, worked his way up to teaching and is now an administrator.

"Afghanistan is a traditional society, and the girls are here until the age of 14, 15, and 16," he says.

Fayaz says when the girls reach their middle teens, it becomes unacceptable for them to mix with the boys. He says in the 10 years the circus has been open, they've never received any threats because they follow social customs. And parents are happy to have their kids in the circus rather than roaming the streets after school.

The award ceremony finally begins while two young boys continue an endurance competition to the side of the stage. They have been juggling pins for two hours nonstop and are in tears from the strain.

They don't even flinch when 14-year-old Samim from Kabul, who also only goes by one name as is customary, is declared the winner of the A group. He's awarded a used bicycle — a girl's model.

In second place is Mortaza from Herat. He wins a new suitcase.

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