No matter where you are, circuses are the same: the shrill sound of a clown's whistle, the staccato crack of whips, the smells of the great beasts and the sawdust under the Big Top. They weave a spell over child and adult alike. But in Cairo the magic is slightly stronger - a reflection, I like to think, of the fact that the Egyptians were probably the people who, 2,000 years ago in Alexandria, created circuses in the first place.
One story is that Ptolemy II Philadelphus, king of Egypt from 285-246 B.C. - who made Alexandria a leading center of the arts and sciences in the Hellenistic world - gathered a large collection of animals, birds and reptiles from all over Africa and the Middle East and began to parade them before his subjects on festive occasions.
Today, of course, the circus in Cairo is quite different. The Egyptian National Circus now is a three-ring extravaganza - with each ring under a separate tent. One tent is permanently beside the Nile, at Agouza, and the other two, during the summer months, are on tour to Alexandria, to cities along the Suez Canal and even abroad.
In some ways, the original format of the circus has changed remarkably little. The exotic animals are still there and so is Kawitschouk, Cairo's "Rubber Lady" — whose body contortions today are exactly those depicted on temple blocks carved at Thebes, today's Luxor, 3,000 years ago.
But there have been changes. In acrobatics, for example, the Egyptians today have an international reputation because of such performers as Farouk Rashid — who balances a 30-foot pole on his forehead, while his three sons, Ashraf, Alon and Zenab climb it and perform while balanced on their father's brow. Other stars include the "Helw" family, the most famous name in the Egyptian circus. The Helw family has been involved with the circus for more than 100 years, and though they include lion tamers as well as acrobats, their acrobatic feats are particularly well-known. Every night, for example, Hassan, a 10-year-old member of Muhammad Helw's acrobatic troupe, is catapulted 10 feet into the air and, after a series of spectacular midair somersaults, lands in a chair balanced on the end of a long pole.
Circus-goers, of course, see the clowns, the animal trainers and the acrobats - as well as the magnificent animals - only in costume and on display. What they don't see, behind the glitter, is the sweat of countless hours of practice, preparation and fine-tuned cooperation-the hallmarks of professionals either born to the circus or trained there.
Muhammad al-Ghohary for example, has spent all of his 45 years working with lions, tigers, elephants, giraffes and bears, and when he lifts his shirt you can see deep scars stretching across his body. ("People think lions are the most ferocious circus animals," he says, "but bears are the worst.") And today his 12-year-old daughter, Reda, is following the same trail. One night "Batta," the circus elephant, stepped on her arm midway through their act and Reda had to either quit or continue with her arm broken. She continued and the next night went on with her arm in a cast.
Batta, sadly, is the last of three elephants that used to grace the big top in Cairo; the other two were killed in a fire, along with eight lions. As a result, she still shies nervously if she gets too close to bright lights. She's also afraid of mice and on tour to Alexandria gets nervous at the sound of Nile frogs. Nevertheless, she is still an elephant, the biggest and strongest land-based creature on earth, and that means that Muhammad and Reda must always be careful. It also means that they must provide Batta with vast quantities of food; her daily menu consists of 80 pounds of sugarcane, 20 pounds of green grass, 10 pounds of oats and 60 pounds of sweet potatoes.
Clowns, of course, are also an integral part of any circus and the Egyptian National Circus is no exception; the Agouza tent features four clowns and an act sure to draw squeals of delight and laughter from children.
The clowns are"Lu-lu" (pearl), "Sukkar" (sugar), "Fustuq" (pistachio) and "Mish-mish" (apricot), and they open their act by ambling into the tent dressed as street musicians intent on"joining the circus."The Ringmaster orders the four to move on. "It is not permitted to stop here," he says. The clowns obligingly move a few steps to the other side of the ring, but the Ringmaster says: "It is forbidden to stop here also."
Consulting each other, the clowns agree "they can't stop anywhere," and decide to make a daring "jump" to the ground from the two-foot high ledge surrounding the circus ring. Holding hands for their great leap, the four clowns start counting-"one, two" - but on "three," instead of jumping, they calmly step down, in silence, and the crowd roars.
Mishmish, whose real name is Tamini Muhammad'Ali, is another performer who has spent all his life in the circus - in his young days he was an acrobat - and his daughter, it turns out, is the circus' "Rubber Lady" whose contortions are the result of training and practice since childhood.
Outside, by the lions' cages each night, another troupe warms up as they await their cue. This is Muhammad Saad's "Aswan Seven." At last, the circus band strikes up their theme, the velvet curtains sweep back and the "Aswan Seven" leap into the brightly lit ring to put on a short, fast-paced performance that their leader, Muhammad Saad, says is based on a very old Egyptian circus routine "which owes nothing to anyone."
It sounds simple: three of the seven - called "shooters" - lie down on small, padded, curved stools, their feet in the air, and "shoot" the other four - "fliers" - back and forth in the air, rather like basketballs. But it is in fact a brilliant display of timing and agility, perfected by practice: six hours a day for five years.
One result of this, says Muhammad Saad, is that the "shooters" have hard calluses the size of hens' eggs on their shoulders. "We shooters have these permanent calluses on our shoulders and backs at the point where they press against the padded stools as we 'shoot' our partners with our feet from one to the other." .
The Aswan Seven have traveled with their famous act to Hungary, Romania, Sweden, Denmark, England and France, and with the Aeros Circus in East Germany. "During our German tour we discovered that Nadia, a lithe little 'flier' and the wife of Shaker Abbas, one of the team's three 'shooters,' had become pregnant. What were we to do? And in the middle of a tour?"
Nadia, herself, decided she would go on "flying" as long as she could. The German circus doctor pleaded with her to stop, but all he got in reply was: "You don't understand, doctor, we must teach the little one who is coming to be ready for us." At that point the Aswan Seven began calling themselves the "Aswan Eight" - though mystified German audiences could still count only seven performers.
In 1980, the Aswan Seven - or eight -appeared with the Ringling Brothers' circus in America. "Ringling's," says Muhammad Saad, "always searches the world for three acts-of-a-kind to appear simultaneously in their three-ring circus. But in our case they could not find one-letalone two—like ours, and so Ringling's told us that for the first time in its history we could go on alone."
Muhammad Saad of the Aswan Seven is a Helw, and so is Muhammad, the acrobat. Others include IbrahimHelw, who handles lions at Agouza, and Mahasen and Mehta Helw, who work in another famous lion act in one of the circus' other two tents.
Of Moroccan origin, the Helws go back to Ali al-Helw of Marrakesh, who sent his two sons, Hassan 'Ali and Muhammad 'Ali, to Damietta in northern Egypt to work as agents for the importation into Egypt of ship laborers. But Hassan, who had once worked in a circus, began to import more than laborers for ships; he also began to bring in fire-eaters and acrobats from his native Marrakesh. A big man, and very strong, he also began to appear nightly in a Damietta music hall as a Strongman who ended each performance by holding a cannon in his arms as it was fired.
Since his son also turned out to be strong, Hassan engaged a Russian to train the boy as a wrestler. Later, the son became champion of Egypt and father and son formed a traveling circus. To assist them, they brought to Egypt an American lady called Madame Masarino who performed with a lion - the beginning of a Helw love-affair with lions.
One day Hassan presented himself to a visiting Moroccan circus. He explained he was good at training lions and horses and that he was the champion wrestler of Egypt. The Moroccans said they had enough animal acts, but could use him as a wrestler. Hassan explained he didn't want a job; he wanted an elephant. He got it, and then, with two lions bought from the Cairo zoo, enlarged his own circus. Since he also maintained his position as the wrestling champion of Egypt, the king, pleased with his exploits, gave him the title of "Bey." He became Hassan Bey Ali Hassan al-Helw.
As the years went by, however, running circuses became difficult and by the 1960s, competition from cinema and television - to say nothing of rising costs for animal food, transportation, costumes, advertising and salaries - were making it economically impossible for the private circus in Egypt to continue. Hassan Bey's solution was to seek help from the new Ministry of Culture which, under Dr. Tharwat Okasha, was already forming a new symphony orchestra, a ballet school, a puppet theater and a sound and light show at the Pyramids. The result was that Dr. Okasha decided to add the circus to his program.
Pursuing this, the ministry began to gather the best acts in Egypt and bring them together, and in the 1960s invited three Russian experts from the famous Moscow Circus School to help put together a new National Circus. Since then, the National Circus has never looked back. Today it is the most successful show sponsored by the Egyptian Entertainment Authority.
Though the third tent, under Mahasen Helw, is part of the National Circus, this remarkable woman insists that her act still follows the traditions of the old Egyptian Circus as developed by her famous father, Hassan Bey. She herself began in her father's tent when she was four years old as a tightrope walker and acrobat. The 20 lions in her tent belong to Mahasen personally and she and her 19-year-old son, Mehta, have created an animal act unique in circus history: into a cage with 10 lions, they bring a donkey, a dog and a monkey.
Nowhere else in the world, she says, has this been attempted - and there's even more to come. She's planning to add a snake and a crocodile.
Under the cloak of the Egyptian National Circus then, the Helw's circus exploits continue: the precarious tumbling of Muhammad Saad's Aswan Seven, the daring flights of Muhammad Helw's acrobats, and Muhammad's, Ibrahim's and Mahasen's lions in three different tents.
All the acts, to be sure, are difficult and dangerous. But the animal acts are the most dangerous. One night, in the 1970's, Ibrahim Helw's father, Muhammad Ali al-Helw, was ordering his lions back into their cages when one turned, moved behind him, rose on its hind legs, grasped Helw in its paws, threw him to the ground, biting and clawing. Muhammad, the eldest son, drove the lion back, but three days later his father died from the wounds.
Still, the show goes on. Ibrahim, with 10 lions and a tiger, cracks two whips to get his animals to walk a tightrope, jump through burning hoops and, towards the end of the performance, to participate in a grand finale. Ibrahim kneels in front of one of the lions with a bit of food in his teeth and the lion eats from his lips. At this, the crowds clap and gasp in amazement. Man and beast, performing together, have again aroused fear, wonder and excitement - as the circus always has for 2,000 years.
John Feeney, writer, photographer and film producer, writes regularly for Aramco World from Cairo.