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Suffering in silence: The precarious work of Egyptian circus artists

Wild animals attacking their trainers are not unheard of in the world of Egypt's circus arts. And such incidents are not the only challenges the circus faces on a daily basis

Chahinaz Gheith, Sunday 15 Jan 2017
National Circus
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Views: 5317

In December, a 25-year-old lion tamer, Islam Shaheen, was attacked by a lion in the Lion Village, an amusement park in Alexandria. The incident took place as Shaheen turned to greet the public after his show came to an end. The lion jumped onto him and grabbed him by the neck. Assistants ran to his help and he was immediately taken to a hospital. Shaheen, in a critical state, succumbed to his wounds. According to the circus spokesperson, the lion was behaving unpredictably because it was in heat.

The tragic incident has sparked debate around many similar incidents that took place over recent years, including in the Egyptian National Circus.

The incident also reopened a decades-old discussion about deplorable work conditions in the circus and for entertainment industry artists in general. Though the issue has been raised on several occasions by artists and in the media, the circus world in particular does not seem to be improving.

The Egyptian National Circus

Although the Egyptian National Circus does take preventive measures to avoid incidents, they are unfortunately frequent and remain engraved in the public’s mind.

Many people remember famous lion tamer Mohamed El-Helw, who died in 1972 during one of his shows. Despite his years of experience, El-Helw could not handle the lion Sultan, who tore him to pieces before the eyes of a horrified, helpless public.

In 1997, in the National Circus in Agouza, a lion named Tareq attacked Ahmed Soliman, who was in charge of feeding him. The young 16-year-old boy was devoured by the beast, who left no trace of him but torn clothes.

In 2004, Ibrahim El-Helw was attacked by a lion and succumbed to his wounds.

In 2014, the same thing happened once again. In the midst of his show, famous tamer Ahmed Kouta was attacked by three lions at once and was severely injured.

In February 2015, a lion attacked its trainer Faten El-Helw, during a circus performance in the city of Tanta, in the Nile Delta.

Circus artists play with emotions and play with death. Their shows are a testament to the perilous life they lead: juggling with flaming sticks or hoops or plunging their heads into a lion’s maw. Some find them brilliantly audacious; others believe they are insane or suicidal. The truth is, they are simply passionate artists who have learned to live with danger and are torn between their love for their profession and their fear of death.

Behind the mask of a clown, the elegance of a gymnast and the grandiosity of a lion tamer, hide men and women who face great troubles and precariousness after the curtain falls.

For the love of taking risks

“The world is an open-air circus and we are only a smaller circus within the first,” says Abdel-Salam, a magician at the National Circus in Agouza. “I have been working here for about 20 years. My salary never exceeds 600 pounds. With this salary, I am supposed to provide for my family and buy clothes and materials for my work," he explains.

Abdel-Salam tells us of the numerous requests for a raise in salaries, sent to the Ministry of Culture. Present salaries do not match the difficulty and risks linked to the profession. Yet artists never received any reply.

“We do not deserve this sort of negligence from authorities. The ministry only cares about the Opera and the people attached to that institution. Everywhere in the world, the circus is recognised, but in Egypt, despite its great popularity and our efforts, we do not receive any attention,” complains Abdel-Salam.

Twenty-eight-year-old tightrope walker Karim Rashed shares his opinion, and seems even more pessimistic regarding his professional future.

He speaks of his work as tightrope walker, his solitude, fear, and the four to five hours of training every day to prepare him for a five minute show.

“This job is about passion, the circus is everything to us. Unfortunately, the State does not care at all about circus artists. We are underpaid. Most of us are members of the syndicate of artists, but the money we receive is insignificant. We are not medically insured, even though we are constantly exposed to danger in our work. Only tamers are insured (up to 2,000 Egyptian pounds) in case of death or incapacity to work,” he explains.

Precarious conditions

A rise in salaries is not the artists’ only request. They further explain that rehearsal spaces are under-equipped and lack security measures.

“Outside of shows, we have to cover the floor in multiple layers of tissues and sponges in order for the acrobats and trapeze artists to practice without risking death if they fall,” explains Wael Al-Guereissi, whose performance is called “The Silver Hoop.”

He adds that they have previously requested, on several occasions, the constant presence of a doctor, but to no avail. “The doctor only comes twice a week; he doesn’t have an ambulance either. And those in charge ignore us completely. Several of my colleagues have been attacked by lions during their show or during rehearsals, and we were unable to save them, sometimes due to the time lost waiting for help.”

“One time, a tamer was bitten by a lion and lost a foot. We put the foot in a bag, and took the injured man to the hospital in a taxi,” claims Al-Guerissi, adding that the circus needs restructuring from inside and out. “The outer appearance of the circus has greatly deteriorated. The chairs, decor, walls and even lighting need to be checked and improved if we want to attract the public,” he adds.

The time has come to feed the lions. “Each lion eats approximately 30kg of meat every day and they only eat once a day,” explains a guardian. These are the instructions given by tamers to allow the animals to be more agile during the show. “We make sure the lions eat enough, because a hungry lion can easily become dangerous. This is why a tamer always needs to make sure the lions have finished their meal,” he adds.

A few steps away, Louisa Hakim stands surrounded by snakes and as comfortable as if she were among her loved ones, showing no sign of fear. “I am used to doing my show with Indian snakes, because they are not venomous. Their strength is concentrated in their muscles, which are extremely powerful,” she explains. The reptile needs to eat 15 live pigeons a month, a budget of about 675 Egyptian pounds.

Louisa, who has been working at the National Circus for 50 years, wants to save the profession which she feels is dying out. Acrobats, jugglers, tamers and magicians, she says, have become very rare occupations. “There is no new generation to pass on the legacy to, especially since the circus school was closed,” she explains. “We are going to disappear one after the other. There are only a few young artists left, all children of our colleagues. It is essential for the circus school to reopen so we can send those young artists abroad like we used to, so that they can learn, gain experience, and come back to work here,” she adds.

A forgotten world

Sayed Ismail’s book, The History of the Egyptian Theatre, explains the roots of the Egyptian circus can be traced back to 1869, but Hassan Al-Helw was the first to form a circus troupe in Egypt, in 1889. The traveling circus went on a tour of moulid celebrations (religious festivities). In 1960, the circus was nationalised and attached to the Ministry of Culture. Another turning point in the history of the circus was Ibrahim El-Helw’s departure for Germany in the 1970s, where he prepared his doctorate on circus arts and notably lion taming. Upon returning to Egypt, he took charge of the National Circus and passed on his knowledge and legacy to his cousins.

“The government then took an interest in the circus. They invited Russian experts and sent Egyptian artists to work in the ex-Soviet Union and in China. At a time when the Russian circus was known for its acrobats, Egyptians were known to be the greatest tamers,” proudly adds Louisa Hakim.

“In 1978, a circus school was opened and the National Circus became one of the most famous in the world, but the school was closed due to negligence on authorities’ part. We try to initiate young people and children into the circus arts, but we cannot pay them more than 200 pounds per month, which is obviously not enough to survive.”

Galal Osmane, manager of the National Circus, recognises the deplorable state of work conditions. “For years now, the circus has faced severe budget cuts. This field is completely neglected by the ministry who constantly reduce the budget for international tours and artists’ salaries. Some performers had to leave Egypt to find decent work conditions and traveled to Russia, Turkey, or even China,” he explains, while maintaining that he is currently studying the situation to find suitable solutions.

“I know the words 'studying the situation' do not inspire confidence, but for two years now, I have been trying to put in place a development plan by involving sponsors and advertisers. The circus has been able to collect a EGP3 billion budget for the last festival. The law, which prohibits the work of minors, is actually one of the major problems at the moment. The circus is an exceptional case, where children can sometimes participate in certain numbers or begin training at an early age,” says the manager, who hopes the National Circus will one day rise to its former glory.

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