Finding The Tanjoui Kid
In 1983, I began each day by putting on what my mother called “The Uniform”:
I wore my father’s orange and white striped mess shirt; a red and pink flowered skirt; and a pair of white Converse high tops. The shirt smelled like my father, who was still sometimes at sea, and who I longed to get to know. The skirt was a protest, because another little girl had told me redheads can’t wear pink or red. The Converse were my first experience of haute couture – or snake oil salesmanship. I couldn’t understand how something that looked so stylish on my feet could hurt so much at the end of a busy day climbing trees, and turning cartwheels down our dead-end dirt road. Each night I resolved to shelve them forever, betrayed once more, my arches and pinched toes throbbing. Each morning, I was lured in once again by the promise of a carefree day in Converse. Around the time The Uniform could stand up by itself, it was wrestled away from me by my courageous mother, and I was demoted to overalls for the day while I waited for the washing machine to do its thing.
Of course, I wore The Uniform to my first circus.
The real circus never came so far North as our little Maine town! No, this circus was on screen, in a spy movie that my brother and I had been anticipating for months: James Bond’s “Octopussy”. In the film, the Bond girl owns a circus, through which her evil boyfriend is secretly smuggling nuclear warheads. She finds out, and confronts him. Things don’t go well, and soon, her feisty troupe of female acrobats are bouncing up over the villainous boyfriend’s white marble castle walls. I sat, transfixed, as the Bond girl’s troupe raised her up over the castle wall via a perch pole – a long, metal or fiberglass pole normally balanced on the abdomen, chest, or forehead of a base acrobat, while another acrobat, a “flyer”, climbs to the top and performs handstands. Acrobats in red spandex turned somersaults and delivered Judo chops below the Bond girl’s elegant, billowing silk scarves. I was forever changed.
Circus was the coolest thing I had ever seen,
and I wanted to join that miraculous world. But something else also happened. I was an avid reader, and so I naturally started to seek out books about the circus, and circus artists. I quickly found that those books didn’t really exist. As I lamented to my mother about my fruitless search for circus biographies, she explained to me that circus technique was passed down through families, and that the classroom for many of those children was actually the circus ring. “Perhaps,” she suggested. “They need someone to help them write about their lives.”
So it was that at ten years old, I became certain the circus was a largely undocumented culture, and I began to feel the call of my own destiny as a writer. I spent the next 35 years chasing the circus life and its stories, and working to understand what I could contribute to this magical world. I celebrated birthdays on the road, helped to raise big tops and cooked for companies of hungry artists, as I burrowed in to circus life and gathered research.
In 2010, I met my husband, Sellam, on a small show in the Northern Kingdom of Vermont. We married in 2011, in Texas, while on a larger, international tour. I paused from my work in the tear-down of the big top and the circus kitchen to pull off my hardhat and yellow safety vest, and jump into a waiting taxicab with Sellam. Inside the cab, I fretted at the folds of my hijab; in the mosque, I recited the shehada and Sellam and I held hands as the Imam pronounced us married. We jumped into the waiting cab once more, where I put my hardhat and vest back on. Back at the circus lot, I jumped out in time to help with the last bit of tear-down.
A circus wedding if ever there was one.
It wasn’t until a year later that we had a chance to honeymoon, and go home to Morocco, where I would meet Sellam’s mother, sisters, brothers, and extended family.
One evening, we were sitting on top of the ruins of the Roman baths in Tangier, in the Kasbah, and watching the sun set. Sellam waved his hand vaguely to the east, where a sprawling white marble castle glimmered in the sun.
“I make a film there, with my first troupe,” he grinned, remembering.
“What film?” I asked, and he gave me a mischievous look.
“Was a spy movie. Bond James,” he said, flipping the words around as he does so often, searching for the right combination. "Called, The Octopuss."
How could I have known that I was actually watching my future husband, Sellam, on screen, so many years ago, in that darkened cinema? Or that his own courageous journey into the circus as a child, in Morocco, would reach a stubborn, freckled girl in Maine and inspire her to document circus culture . . .
As we spend our years together, I am increasingly unsurprised by the thread of dreams, coincidence, and miracles that seem to have run through both of our lives, sometimes connected in startling ways, and eventually leading us to each other.
As Sellam would say in Darija, it was mektub . . . or simply, fate.
That summer of The Uniform, Sellam was 17, and had been away from home for nearly 5 years. The small plastic bag containing homemade bread and a pair of jeans from his mother was long a memory: He had traveled from Morocco into Spain, on to Europe. His circus “contract” was a spit and a handshake; he had since been traded to a different circus, entrusted to a trainer and guardian who restricted his successes even as he mercilessly pushed him to excellence. Naturally curious and exceptionally talented, Sellam longed to move beyond troupe work as an acrobat: He wanted to learn the art of handbalance, trapeze and straps. Afraid that he would develop a solo act and become too valuable to contain, the trainer forbid learning new disciplines. But Sellam was awake: He was a child of the circus, street-smart and above all, an artist who would not be stopped. After midnight, when the generators were shut off and the circus slept, Sellam crept into the circus ring and practiced by candlelight.
He would go on to work in over 26 different circuses, performing in all variety of acts: Handbalance; swinging, duo and flying trapeze; aerial silks; the Wheel of Death; knife throwing. Sellam became an artist in the true circus tradition: Multi-faceted, facile, and expert. Eventually, he was brought to the US to coach a small, premiere youth circus, where we met. As soon as I encountered Sellam's soulful eyes and extraordinary voice, I knew I needed to help write and share his story.
We were 100 pages in to his memoir and talking with a publisher when the opportunity to open our school appeared. Soon, by default, I became the Director of Operations for The Sellam Circus School, as I worked alongside Sellam to bring our dream to life. On any given day, I can be found negotiating performance contracts; scheduling rigging inspections and installment; teaching an acrobatics class; or crafting a social media experiment . . . By necessity, Sellam's book and its publisher were put on the back burner while we diverted our energy to building a strong and vibrant circus school.
I told myself, later . . . later, we can start this again.
Meanwhile, I established the CircuStories project with the vision to not only share Sellam’s story, but to find and document other stories of the circus experience – especially those in danger of being lost, as the elders in our circus community grow older.
Recently, we were approached by a dear friend and filmmaker who was curious about Sellam’s journey into the circus. As we shared stories and Sellam’s path across the globe unfurled, we began to understand, together, that there is no “later” for this story: The time to tell it is now. Sara pitched the concept of a documentary, and for the first time, Sellam has felt ready to tell his story, in its entirety, on film.
Beyond the details of Sellam’s personal story, another theme has emerged: The place of Moroccan circus culture, both within Morocco, and the global circus community. Increasingly, we find that telling the story of the Moroccan circus tradition accurately also means telling the story of indigenous artists struggling within a post-colonial social structure. Moroccan acrobats are highly respected in the circus world; their tumbling technique, honed on the sand beaches, is dynamic, precipitous and explosive. They summon power on a bare floor, or in the loose sand, that is nearly unimaginable. Yet, they are historically undervalued, underpaid and “othered”, both in traveling circus companies, and within their own country, where support can often be awarded to foreign circus companies, while native Moroccan organizations are passed over. We realized that beyond telling Sellam’s story, we had an opportunity to draw attention to a passionate desire within the Moroccan circus community, to be recognized as legitimate artists.
We began filming with the working title of “An Audience With The King”, with the audacious idea to gather an artist community around us, and make a pilgrimage to Morocco. Our goal was to lobby for a meeting with King Mohammed VI and advocate for the establishment of a Moroccan National Circus School. We thought this was really crazy, and we loved the idea.
It turns out that a childhood acrobat friend of Sellam’s also had the same, crazy idea, and has recently been working to organize a festival for just this purpose. News of the festival has traveled quickly throughout the Moroccan circus community, and Sellam is now coordinating with the organizer to attend this historic festival, which will see over 1,000 Moroccan acrobats, from teenagers to 90-years-old, travel to Tangier on August 17th. A festival of this scale, and with this intent, has never been attempted before.
We are scrambling to raise funding to send Sellam and a modest film crew to Tangier to capture these acrobatic troupes – and voices of the Moroccan circus culture - many of whom may truly never be seen again.
You can help us.
Like what you see? Let us know!
Click "like" and leave comments - shout out to us! Even better? Consider contributing a tax-free donation to CircuStories! Your support will help to send our film crew to Morocco in August of 2019, to document this historic event, and gather rare footage of the elders in the Moroccan circus community, some of whom will likely be making a final pilgrimage to their home, to reunite with their brothers and sisters in the circus world.