JOHN YDSTIE, host:
In Afghanistan, children have little time to play. If they're not in school, boys and girls are usually working in stores hawking gum, washing cars, or begging in the streets. But in one Kabul suburb, teachers and performers are trying to restore fun to kid's lives, circus style.
NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from Kabul.
(Soundbite of children)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: It's rehearsal time inside the Plexiglas dome and everything is in motion. Tennis balls, juggling clubs, even plastic plates spun on long sticks that girls like Fariya balance in their teeth.
FARIYA: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: She tells me she's six. She brags that she can spin the plate for 10 minutes. Then she scurries off to join two-dozen other Afghan girls running to and fro in bare feet. The chaotic rehearsal ends abruptly and the girls line up for their next act. This time it's a song about Afghan kids delivered in Dari, Pashto, and Hazaragi, all widely used languages and dialects here.
(Soundbite of music)
NELSON: Welcome to the Afghan Mobile Mini Circus, where child are the attraction and audience rolled into one. It's more than a show. The circus, located inside a muddy brick compound, is also a before-and-after school program, a playground, and a school. There are 44 different subjects taught here to 350 children who attend for free. Classes like Islamic Studies, embroidery, animation, even radio and computer science.
Founder David Mason says when they take their show on the road, it's to educate as much as to entertain. They teach life-saving subjects, like recognizing and avoiding land mines, or the importance of washing one's hands. All of it with slapstick humor and crazy props like giant hands made out of foam and silk.
Mr. DAVID MASON (Founder, Afghan Mobile Mini Circus): The circus is something happy and is all the time up and beautiful.
NELSON: Mason himself is an enigma. Of Iranian-Danish descent, he's the epitome of wanderlust. Before starting the circus, he used to teach salsa dancing and Argentine tango in Denmark and Australia. His first foray into Afghanistan was in 1988, when he lived with the Mujahedeen. Mason says he was doing research. He refuses to divulge more. After the fall of the Taliban, Mason felt compelled to return. He says he wanted to bring hope for Afghan children. He wanted to bring them a circus.
Mr. MASON: You have what a circus is, focusing on what you have instead of what you don't have, in many cases paper to make paper mache to make a puppet show out of it.
NELSON: He took his life savings and went to Pakistan in early 2002. But no aid agency would sponsor him. He says they wanted to build clinics and schools. The idea of a circus just didn't fly.
Mr. MASON: So I had to come here alone. And coming here alone, I have nothing, no relation with no organization. And in many ways I had al-Qaida profiled.
NELSON: Not surprisingly, Mason was arrested when he arrived here in April 2002. Afghan agents interrogated him. They let him go, but he says he was followed for a while. He launched the circus in a cargo container. Danish freelance journalist Berit Muhlhausen, who co-directs the circus, made sure word of the performances spread. Donations began trickling in. Soon they rented a home in a Kabul suburb.
Per Afghan and Islamic tradition, girls and boys are taught in separate classrooms where they sit on the floor. The 14 Afghan teachers and performers who work for the circus are paid a modest $200 a month. About half of them travel to provincial villages to perform in schools there. Mason says it's too dangerous to let students travel there.
But the children do perform overseas. Fariya's brother recently returned from Japan. Their sister, Parisa, went to Germany and Denmark. A trip to California is planned in 2008. Parisa, who is 11, has big dreams. She wants to be a cardiologist.
PARISA (Performer, Afghan Mobile Mini Circus): (Speaking foreign language)
NELSON: Such self-confidence is new among poorer Afghans, especially girls. It's something head teacher Zahera Popal Delavarzadeh is particularly proud of.
Ms. ZAHERA POPAL DELAVARZADEH (Teacher): (Through translator) Under the Taliban, the girls had to stay in their houses, and now they can study. I always encourage them to work hard because they now can.
NELSON: Mason says he'd like to start his brand of circus in other countries. But for now, he's got his hands full keeping the Afghan version afloat.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.
(Soundbite of music and children singing)
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