Israeli-Arab Sarhan Mahamid is Israel’s first medical clown. While he’s making sick kids laugh, he hopes he’s also breaking down a few borders.
Clowns can disco dance, speak gibberish and play sneaky tricks — all for a laugh. Because of the health benefits their humor can provide, medical clowning in Israel has become a bona fide profession, giving delight and respite to some of the sickest kids.
When Sarhan Mahamid, an Israeli Muslim from Haifa was working as a medic for a private ambulance company, a doctor — Prof. Michael Sudri at Rambam Hospital — noticed Mahamid’s special sense of humor. He recommend Mahamid to a medical clowning program, and since then he’s gone on to become Israel’s first Arabic-speaking clown, healing sick kids in Hebrew, Arabic, and gibberish. And he’s doing a lot more than just clowning around.
His work at Schneider Children’s Hospital in Petah Tikva, also breaks down borders between kids in the hospital when Arabs and Jews share a hospital room: “I can work with both Hebrew speaking and Arabic speaking kids,” says Mahamid, known by his clown name ‘Dr. Sarhio,’ given to him by one of his young patients who couldn’t pronounce Sarhan.
“At Schneider, there are both communities, and I am helping bring them together,” he says. “What did he say? What did she say? I start to translate for the kids in Hebrew and Arabic.”
While parents of sick children may carry animosity toward the Jewish or Muslim “other,” the kids that Mahamid meets in the hospital have “clean hearts.” It’s only when they grow up do things become different, he points out.
Speaking to kids from around the world
Mahamid, 37, learned to be a medical clown over the course of one year. He’s even learned in Paris with the world famous professional clown Jacques Lecoq. At Schneider, where’s he been for a year, he has met children from all over Israel, and also from Turkey, France and Switzerland, who come to the world-class facilities for treatment.
Although Mahamid is bi-lingual and does speak a little English, he has no problem “clowning around” with kids in Turkish or French. “I just speak French gibberish, or just gibberish,” he says. And some training in theater, and an attraction to comedy routines, certainly adds to his approach.
Probably one of the most memorable times in his career was when he first started clowning three years ago. Israel was at war with Lebanon, and Mahamid was sent in to cheer up the Israeli troops. “I was making the soldiers laugh,” he says. “I am a Muslim Arab, and Jewish soldiers are killing [Arab Muslims] in Lebanon, and I am making jokes.”
Despite the contradictions — a part of life in Israel — Mahamid is an Israeli, who was born in Israel: “We are medical people and don’t see people as Jewish or Muslim. In the medical profession you have to reach out to everyone,” he tells ISRAEL21c.
His “patients” range in age from one to 18.
Hoping in his small way to contribute to the peace process, Mahamid is looking forward to a time when Israel is like Europe, and his biggest worry of the day will be what cafe to sit in for coffee.
The first clown in the family
And what do his family and friends think? “I am the first Arabic speaking clown. It’s new to them. Many people like it. They say good for you! We have a new clown. They know my work gives love and inner peace to children.”
Mahamid also works in the emergency room, accompanying new charges from the moment they come to the hospital, distracting them from what could be a very scary and painful event.
The hospital staff says that Sarhan’s “easy approach and delightful tricks” give Arab families in Israel calmness and confidence.
Schneider provides life-saving medical treatments to Israeli kids and foreign ones. In some specialties, the hospital is a best in the world. At Schneider, Mahamid joins a team of 12 clowns. Each, of course, has his own bag of tricks: from colorful costumes and makeup, and gags used as a tool to be “funny.” In the process the clowns help the medical staff conduct various tests and procedures.
Maskit Shochat, a director of the Educational Center, under the Ministry of Education which supervises medical clowning in Israel says: “The addition of Dr. Sarhio to our team of hospital clowns promotes improved communication with patients and their families from Arab communities. Clowns emphasize the child’s healthy aspects and generate positive feelings at a time of adversity.”