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Mr President's circus.

BACKSTAGE TWO CHAIN-SMOKING clowns in full make-up thrashed out politics in a gloomy changing room. "Listen, the minister will get away with it, the judge has no proof!" argued one clown. 'No, no, people found secret files at state security proving his guilt," said the other. Koko and Timon were hotly debating an ongoing corruption trial. "Before, we knew nothing about politics, now since the revolution, they are the only thing we discuss," said Timon, a.k.a. Walid Yassin, from behind a veil of smoke.

Over 50 years ago, following an arms agreement with the Soviet Bloc, Gamal Abdel Nasser established Egypt's State Circus--the first in the Arab world. Performers were trained by Russian and East German experts, they travelled abroad--as far a field as North Korea and Canada--and sometimes won medals until the regime of Hosni Mubarak, in power since the 1980s, lost interest and cut funding for international tours.

Egypt has changed since the circus began in 1966: it went from nationalisation to privatisation, and from a single-party state to a struggling democracy. Its circus has changed too. It was burnt down in 1975 but survived fluctuating recessions, and was recently revamped. Last year's income hit record highs with the international summer circus festival of around $1 million. But while the State Circus is the biggest earner in the Ministry of Culture's performance arts division, its soul has became a forgotten governmental department.

During the March uprising, before the curfew, somewhere between the daily protests, sirens and sporadic gunfire, the show began. Ashraf, a magician, inserts knives into a box containing an ample woman. Karim in fishnet tights swings and scatters glitter from five metres above the crowd. Timon the clown performs a trick involving water and kids' noses. A woman in her 70s with feathers in her hair wraps herself in reptiles and sways with the music. Twins perform with poodles and pigeons, while acrobats vault over each other. Behind bars, Medhat Kouta, 53, in a leopard-skin shirt, dances with a big lion, then turns to the audience, smiling and gyrating to the Latin beat.


They are superstars in the ring but after the show it is as if they fade away. "The whole world is a circus, we are a small circus within it," the circus director, Mohamed Abu Leila, observed with a laugh.

It's a hierarchy inside the circus; on top are the lion tamers, followed by the acrobats, and then the clowns. It's like a convention, they explain. Family links are crucial. Mostafa Ramah, 60, a tightrope walker, watched his two children leave the circus, but he remained. His late brother Hamed, the only family he had at the circus, was decorated by President Sadat himself after achieving a balancing feat on top of the Cairo tower some 500 feet above the ground. Mostafa was the younger brother--"I joined the circus because of my brother, and I stay from stubbornness." Mostafa somehow extended his contract despite the mandatory retirement age.

Ramah joined the State Circus at 12 and has trained in everything from training foxes to wire walking. He earns $100 per month and nobody messes with him because he knows circus secrets. He has travelled to 21 countries, but not since the cutbacks.

Medhat Kouta has a small hole in his leg where muscles used to be. At 16, lions attacked him during rehearsals. His mother pulled him out of the ring. Before the revolution, Medhat travelled to Dubai to perform with his daughter, Anusa. His son, Hamada, 25, left Egypt a year ago and never wants to return. He felt neither the circus nor the audience understood his ambitious shows. He first performed with his father and lions at the age of two. These days Hamada performs with the Russian State Circus, is married to a Russian acrobat, earns $1000 per gig and feels contented. While in the Egyptian State Circus, he often substituted for his father but never had a contract. He later worked with private circuses for $180 per gig. "The circus hasn't changed since the 1970s and never will, even after the revolution," Hamada says.

Outside the State Circus, a black and white poster shows a younger Medhat putting his head in a lion's mouth while Hamada poses in the foreground of a shrine of his lions, like the ghosts of a venerable legacy.

When Egypt was a monarchy in the 1930s, Ali El Helow and his two sons Mohamed and Hassan worked in the port and watched Italian circuses coming and leaving Egypt. The El Helows were mesmerised by circus life. They eventually started working with foreign circuses and, over the years, bought animals from them and started their own circus business. However, Mohamed and Hassan split up and a lifelong rivalry took root. Each of the brothers had his own travelling circus. They were the two pioneers of big cat taming in the region.

Hassan El Helow had a daughter, Mahasen El Helow, who became the first female lion tamer in the Middle East. She joined the State Circus in the 1960s, taking little Medhat to perform with her. Like her father before her, Mahasen taught son Medhat lion taming and they performed together--mother and son. When Mahasen El Helow took a husband from the Kouta family, fame was split between the Helow and Kouta families. Generation after generation has since inherited the animals, the craft, and the rivalry.

Performance is about control. One evening during the lions' performance, a show went wrong. The music stopped. The audience panicked. "God help her," a woman groaned. Luba El Helow knew she could die right there in the ring. One lion tried to bite her arm. "Stay! Stay!" despite the fear, she exhorted the rebellious animals.

Never turn your back, she remembered--doing so had cost her grandfather his life. The animals, baring their fangs, were ready to pounce again. Her father, Mohamed El Helow, rushed into the ring to save his daughter. A lion clawed at his hand but eventually the tamer regained control and the animals eventually obeyed him and left the ring. The audience applauded with relief.

Luba told me later the family has no health insurance.

In 1967 Egypt lost a war with Israel, sapping the country's resources and its people's morale. Three years later a lion attacked his master--Luba El Helow's grandfather--lacerating his kidneys when he turned to greet the audience in the State Circus. He died in hospital. Sultan the lion died later.

Novelist Yusuf Idris saw the accident. Inspired, he wrote a poem where the lion's attack was an allegory for the defeated and weakened state of Egypt. The tragedy added to the Helow clan's fame.

The Ministry has been reshuffled three times since the March 2011 revolution. The current new Minister of Culture Dr Emad Abou Ghazi has said the State Circus is not a priority right now; he has his hands full restructuring his department, focusing on literature, censorship, art and film. Dr Abou Ghazi has already met with department heads and intellectuals, but the circus was notably absent.

The circus director and three magicians met to talk about addressing Minister Abou Ghazi. "We need to act immediately or we will be left behind!" said the director. "Either the minister meets us or we protest," added one of the magicians. Director Mohamed Abu Leila, is not fond of ultimatums, but he shares the concern that nothing will improve under the new regime. "We will send three magicians with a petition his way," said the other magician jokingly, "then the minister will have to come round." Everyone laughed.

Now Abu Leila is the circus director, but in 1973 he was a teenage gymnast high on a circus rush. "The feeling when you are on stage with 1,300 people watching you doing something nobody else can do, it consumes you," explains Abu Leila. "You spend four years learning a trick that will last eight minutes in the show, it is unique." Abu Leila was selected for an exchange programme between the USSR and Egypt in 1975 to study circus art, specialising in aerial acrobatics. Abu Leila doesn't perform any more, administrative work takes up most of his time, but he has never forgotten his acrobat's balance. "The circus was stronger during Nasser's regime, it was one of the five best circuses worldwide but now people don't see that circus is art!"

All the performers feel greatly undervalued by the Ministry. Abu Leila thinks independence from the state and the introduction of an independent sponsor could improve things.

During the economic stagnation of the last 20 years, the younger generation of performers have been forced to look beyond the state to supplement their meagre salaries, undertaking TV adverts, weddings, kids' birthdays, day jobs in supermarkets, stunts in movies, whatever it takes. The salary in the State Circus works out at between $90-$180 per month for a lion tamer, while in the private sector it is $1000 or more per gig. In 2010, the State Circus joined the strikes opposing the government's tough 2004 economic reforms and spiralling prices. During the 2011 revolution, the performers again joined the mass strikes that reached over two million people. Eventually their salaries were raised by 30%.

Walid Yassin says that clowning is a mirror of reality. On the stage his alter ego, Timon, can ride a bicycle backwards. But when the act is over, the make-up is removed and stained handkerchiefs are all that are left of Timon, there is Walid, who makes his own clown's outfits, travels to upscale compounds to entertain at birthdays and weddings. Two opposite lives, one lived on the stage, another behind the curtains. "I thought of leaving the State Circus, I haven't made more than $1,800 from it during my whole career. But it's like a virus in my blood--I have my friends here, I wake up and go to the circus, I lived here more than I lived at home, I love it," said the clown.


Mona Abouissa in Cairo
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Title Annotation:MOSAIC: EGYPTIAN CIRCUS: ARAB COMEDY: BOOKS; Egypt's State Circus
Comment:Mr President's circus.(MOSAIC: EGYPTIAN CIRCUS: ARAB COMEDY: BOOKS)(Egypt's State Circus)
Author:Abouissa, Mona
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:May 1, 2011
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