GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Wearing huge floppy shoes, a duck hat and a honking red nose, Dr. Hunter "Patch" Adams and his gang of zany clowns charmed a swarm of Palestinian children Thursday.
The physician, activist and clown from Arlington, Va. was on a weeklong visit to hospitals and schools in the region, trying to bring laughter to a place of pain. It's another stop during years of touring that has taken Adams to refugee camps and war-torn cities in the Balkans, Africa, Afghanistan and Russia.
On Thursday, his funny-faced troupe, playing carnival music and handing out balloons, flowers and smiley face stickers got lots of laughs and a few shocked looks in Gaza, starting with bewildered Israeli soldiers they bear-hugged and showered with balloons at the Gaza-Israel crossing.
In his travels, Adams gives lectures to medical students and doctors on the use of humor in medicine. Most of all, he preaches peace with the gusto of a guru.
It's a medical issue, he says, because, after all, it's a doctor who must look at a starving child or a child who has lost a leg after stepping on a land mine or someone who's been hurt in a suicide bombing.
"It's as if a huge number of really stupid people are perpetuating something: you hurt me, I'll hurt you, you hurt me, I'll hurt you," he said. "Where is anyone winning?"
"Patch Adams," the 1998 movie in which Robin Williams played the title character, is a fictionalized account of his medical school days. But on film and in real life, Adams attacks the American medical establishment.
The doctor's bedside clowning became a kind of medical philosophy -- the idea that humor heals as much as medicine and machines. Angered that American doctors often turn away poor, uninsured patients, Adams, 57, has been raising money to build a hospital that won't charge charity patients in Hillsboro, W.Va.
Children at a school for the deaf mobbed the clowns in a playground, pulling at their joke noses and ghoulish grinning masks. Math teacher Bassem Qurraz said it's the first time the children have laughed together since Palestinian-Israeli violence began two years ago.
"Everybody has touched the pain," he said, explaining that many of his students know someone who's died or been hurt in fighting.
Smiles are hard to come by in a place as poor and battle-wracked as the Gaza Strip, a sandy fenced-in strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea, wedged between Israel and Egypt. Almost daily clashes between Israeli soldiers and gunmen, plus nighttime Israeli raids on refugee camps in search of militants, make this a place of funerals, rage and despair.
At another school, Nour Abu Ramadan, 14, smiled as Adams, with a purple ponytail, coaxed a thoroughly embarrassed woman wearing a headscarf to dance a jig with him in front of the students.
The ridiculous, happy scene served to remind her of the elusiveness of joy in Gaza, which she said is a tough place to grow up.
"If we smile, we smile like this," she said with a slight grin, "but not in our heart."