Egyptian circus battles degeneration

Menna Taher, Monday 27 Jun 2011

Ahram Online goes behind the curtain to explore the working conditions of the National Circus, as well as Faten El Helw's private circus

Photo by Sherif Sonbol

Waleed Yassin, a clown, cyclist and acrobat at the National Circus, bounces his diabolo with ease, watching his partner have considerably more trouble balancing the spinning spool on the string.

“Concentrate on where it lands,” he advises the younger boy.

Yassin is not a coach, but with his encouragement and a few more tries the younger boy finally catches the diabolo in mid-air and manages to keep it rolling.

Yassin has been working in the circus since he was a child. Like many in this often hereditary profession, his father passed down many of the skills Yassin has now mastered. He is part of a new generation that has never witnessed the circus business at its peak and has little hope that the situation will improve in the future.

The wages are low, the equipment is old and tattered and there are no experts or coaches to teach the younger recruits.

“We do everything ourselves,” Yassin tells Ahram Online. “I search the Internet for new acts and I order the equipment from abroad. If we weren’t doing it nobody would do it.”

“We should have experts in gymnastics, acting and make-up,” says Yassin, “the older generation had that.”

Most of those working at the National Circus must supplement their income from elsewhere. Sometimes they work on a part-time basis at the privately-owned circus of Faten el Helw.

Yassin is an engineering graduate, but works at the circus because of his deep passion for the art form, despite the fact that he says no one appreciates it these days.

“Those who have aspirations will fall into desperation working here,” he says, “one feels paralyzed.”

Economic Victims

Egypt’s National Circus opened in 1966 under former president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The famous Helw family, who established their circus at the dawn of the twentieth century, managed the project with great success until the military defeat in 1967.

In his book, 'Whatever Else Happened to Egyptians', Galal Amin traces how the country's social and political changes affected the circus, citing two specific incidents.

The death of the lion-tamer Mohamed El Helw in 1972, after an attack by his lion, Sultan, is the first.

The writer Youssef Idris was in the audience that night and wrote an article the next day using the incident as an allegory of political defeat. In his account of the tragedy Idris also noted the worn-out costumes and equipment.

In a later incident in 2002, a tiger bit circus worker Suleiman Ashour Suleiman. The man had lived at the circus, sleeping between the lion cages with no hope of marrying on his LE 100 (less than $20) salary.

Amin writes that hunger, both Suleiman’s and the tiger’s, was to blame. He explains that the circus had been cutting costs by buying donkey meat for the lions and tigers. The cheaper, sweeter meat, fed to the animals a few days a week, tastes a bit like human flesh.

Accounts of the attack differ. Some say his leg slipped into the cage while others insist the tiger grabbed him. Suleiman Ashour’s leg had to be amputated.

While in the hospital, Suleiman worried most about being fired from the circus because of his missing limb. The incident brought needed media attention to his harrowing working conditions and the dangers he faced in such a low-paying job.

Back at the National Circus, the assistant of Loba El Helw -- arguably Egpt's most famous working lion tamer and granddaughter of the country's first female lion tamer Mahasen El Helw -- admits that his wife constantly begs him to leave his job for another.

“I’ve been coming here since I was eight with my older brother,” he says, before practicing crawling out from under a lion, “It just runs in my blood. This is what I do.”


Hopes of the descendents

Strong and big-boned, Loba El Helw is the granddaughter of Mohamed El Helw, the man who was killed by his lion Sultan in 1972. To watch Loba rehearse with the lions and tigers is to see the laws of nature defied.

Lions, roaring thunderously just moments ago, turn to frightened puppies in front of a shouting Loba, who rewards them with a small piece of meat when they jump from one foot to another on cue.

But of course, they aren’t puppies and the risk of an attack always looms.

“As a lion tamer I only get LE 500. My room in the circus is a storage room, but hopefully that will change soon,” Loba tells Ahram Online. She has dreams for the circus as a whole as well. She says there should be more experts, like nutritionists and coaches, with them in the field .

“I was taught by my father, Mohamed El Helw, when I was 11. At first I fed the lions, and little by little I started working with them,” she says.

Loba, who is at the top of the circus hierarchy, has hopes for a new era in the circus and believes that Abou Leila, the circus' current director, is the right person to lead them there.

Abou Leila, who has been managing the circus since 2009, has many plans for the future of the circus and will be hosting a festival starting 1 July, which will showcase performers from Nile basin countries, namely Kenya, Sudan, Ethiopia and Tanzania.

“I started contacting people from other African nations in order to collaborate with that part of the world,” Abou Leila says, “It is not only a business move but a political one.”

Another improvement is that for the first time the circus will be air-conditioned, a fact many working for Abou Leila love to boast about.  

El Helw family's private branch

On the other side of town, by the Shams club in Heliopolis, stands a smaller circus tent belonging to Faten El Helw.

Every summer Faten El Helw used to rent the National Circus for two months. However, as of last year, they refused to rent the big top to her. They claim to have made LE 2 million in those two months.

“There were many attempts to privatize the circus, but we refused,” says Waleed Yassin. “They also wanted us to move all the way to 6 October City because businessmen were hungry of our great location overlooking the Nile. Naguib Sawiris wanted it into a hotel and the actual circus underground! But we refused.”

There is great tension between the public and private sectors in the circus. While Faten says she believes state ownership is responsible for the circus’ decline, the circus' management say she is self-interested and wants to turn their artform into a business.

Sitting in her air-conditioned office, Faten recounts her long life working in the circus. She was married to Ibrahim El Helw and is the niece of Mohamed El Helw. She adopted the famous surname, instantly recognizable in the field, to promote her act in Egypt.

She had attended circus school since she was nine years old. She began with acrobatic work but later got engaged to the late Ibrahim El Helw and turned to lion-taming and coaching.

Faten has performed at festivals worldwide and has won many prizes, now displayed proudly in her office.

“The circus costs are very high,” Faten says, “but I always try to bring new things. I brought circus on ice and Hollywood circus to Egypt .”

Faten El Helw's circus has another branch in Saint Marc, Alexandria, as well as a moving tent.

“This job has many risks,” she says “just two weeks ago a lion wanted to attack me,” indicating her scraped arms, “But despite it all I love the art of the circus and I hope it flourishes in Egypt.”



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