Lords of the ring: bitter rivalries, danger and penury under the big top

Feature For some performers in Egypt, the circus has been their whole life. But behind the greatest show on Earth, M finds bitter rivalries, danger and penury under the big top.

For some performers in Egypt, the circus has been their whole life. But behind the greatest show on Earth, Mona Abouissa finds bitter rivalries, danger and penury under the big top. Photographs by JD Perkins Walid Yassin applies a layer of white cream around his mouth and eyes. Outside, the music is ear-splitting and the children are chanting: "Timon, Timon, Timon." "My first performance was when I was seven years old," says Walid, 30. "Anyone can be a clown, but not like someone who loves it." Walid raises his palms to his face and recites the Fatha, the opening words of the Quran. Then the white smile spreads towards his ears, the long red boots kick out in front of him and Walid enters the birthday party transformed into Timon, a juggler of rings and someone who can make water pour from the nose of a giggling child. There is excitement and much chuckling as the jokes, the sweat and the little miracles flow.

After Timon has taken his final bow, Walid packs up his props in a pink suitcase and hustles away to the National Circus where he was born and where his brothers are waiting for him. Fifty years ago, after a series of arms agreements with the Soviet bloc, Gamal Abdel Nasser established the National Circus, the first in the Arab world. Performers who had been recruited and trained by Russian and East German experts travelled abroad and received medals. The circus toured as far as North Korea and Canada until the current regime, in power since the 1980s, lost interest and cut funding.

Egypt has changed since 1966; nationalisation has given way to a more rigorous privatisation. Its circus has changed, too. A fire destroyed all its equipment in 1975, and it struggled through a recession only to undergo a recent revival. Now the National Circus is in Cairo, Gamasa, Al Arish, Asyut and Bani Suef and there are private circuses in Alexandria, Cairo and Ra'as El Bar. The National Circus makes about US$1 million (Dh3.7 million) a year and this summer's International Circus Festival made $5,700 (Dh21,000) a day. Although it is the ministry of culture's biggest-grossing performing arts division, bureaucracy has let its soul wither. It is only the vitality and devotion of its performers that keep it alive.

Behind the curtain, as the evening show is taking place, Medhat Kouta, the lion tamer, grabs my hand and shows me a small hole in his leg where the muscle used to be. "That lion saved my life. I would have died if he hadn't interfered." He is talking about an incident when he was 16. He had fallen to the floor during a training session and was about to be torn apart by frenzied lions when one of them, Tomy, jumped on him and began to maul his leg.

"Tomy fought away the other lions who tried to attack me until my mother, Mahasen El Helow, came inside the ring and took me out." In the 1930s, when Egypt was a monarchy, there were two family circuses, the Helows and the Akefs. The latter took their show abroad on tour. The Helow circus was founded by Ali el Helow. He and his two sons, Mohammed and Hassan, originally worked in the docks and were mesmerised by the Italian circuses that passed through the port. They began working with the foreign circuses, bought animals from them and then set up on their own.

But Mohammed and Hassan fell out, and a lifelong rivalry took root. Each became a pioneer in big cat taming in the Middle East, with their own travelling circus. Hassan then had a daughter, Mahasen el Helow, who became the region's first female lion tamer. She married into the Kouta family and a lion-taming dynasty began. "My mother had a strong presence... she was a superstar," says Medhat. A woman of beauty and confidence, she joined the National Circus in the 1960s taking him with her. On his 14th birthday, she gave him a lion cub called Tomy to train, and mother and son started to perform together.

Medhat, 53, dressed in a leopard-skin shirt, exudes energy in the ring. The indigestion bothering him a moment ago is forgotten. Nine lions and tigers assume their positions around their master. He grabs a whip and orders them to jump, roll and dance for him. Between tricks, he faces the audience behind the bars, and gyrates while snapping his fingers to a Latin beat. At the same time, 600km away in Hurgada, his daughter, Anosa Kouta, is performing with six lions. Hamada, his son, left Egypt a year ago and never wants to come back.

Two years ago Hamada said that "here in Egypt they only care to see a lion eating his tamer". Hamada's tongue is sharp and his ambitions high. He is now in Turkey, where his name is known from Antalya to Istanbul, and he hopes to land a contract with the Russian National Circus. His sights are also set on winning the International Circus Festival in Monte Carlo. "After the lions attacked my father and grandmother, he had four reconstructive surgeries," says Hamada, 25. "He was committed to doing a show in the National Circus and couldn't cancel, it was a governmental job. Since he couldn't move the steel platforms, he took me to perform with him instead. I was two years old.

"He would open the lion's mouth and I would put my head inside, or I would ride on the back of the lion." To Hamada, it was all a game. Now married to a Russian acrobat, Hamada does not regret leaving Egypt. He never had a contract with the National Circus and would get $180 (Dh660) a show working for Egypt's private circuses. In Turkey, he gets $800 (Dh 2,940) and in Moscow, where he hopes to move, the rate is $1,000 (Dh3,670).

It is strange to see his sister, a 22-year-old blonde with an angelic smile and a whip in her hand, behind bars with animals that could snap her in two in a second. "Up, up, up," she orders, and a lion jumps on to a pink steel platform. "My father didn't like that I painted it pink. He said lions mean black." At the end of her act, a lion snatches a piece of meat from a stick in her mouth. "Asal [sugar in Arabic]," a veiled mother behind me exclaims. Anosa sits on top of a lion and blows a kiss to the audience.

The youngest lion tamer in the Middle East, she has a degree in international law. She also has a stylist, a manager and a director and, after landing a contract with the National Circus, she went solo in 2009. We are talking behind the small private circus owned by Ukranian investors. Russian performers and their children are milling around. The lights of Hurgada glitter on the horizon, one of the Egypt's modern seaside resorts.

Igor Kostyk, the circus director, says it is hard to set up a private circus in Egypt, with the paperwork and high land prices. It took him seven years to open, but he still finds himself at the mercy of the governor's moods, he says. While the Helow and Kouta families have dominated lion-taming for several generations, there have been winners and losers. In 1967, Egypt lost a war with Israel, sapping the country's resources and its people's morale. Three years later a lion attacked Mohammed El Helow, lacerating his kidney, when he turned to greet the audience. He died in hospital and Sultan the lion refused food until he died, too. Yusuf Idris, the novelist, saw the accident and was inspired to write the poem, I Am Sultan Of The Law Of Existence, in which the lion's attack on its tamer is an allegory for the weakened state of Egypt. The tragedy added to the Helow clan's fame.

In 2004, Tala'at Sadat, the late president's nephew, chose a lion to symbolise Egypt in his election campaign. He asked Hamada to provide a lion to travel with him but Hamada was then arrested by the secret police for interfering in party politics. He was later released. Over the past 20 years, as the economy has stagnated, wages for the National Circus have failed to rise. Pay for a lion tamer is between $90 and $180 (Dh330 to 660) per month and young performers have to look elsewhere to supplement their meagre salaries - TV commercials, weddings, children's birthday parties, supermarkets, whatever it takes. Despite the poor rewards, those with the circus in their blood find it hard to leave.

Mostafa Ramah, a wire walker in his 60s, watched his two children walk away, but he has remained. His late brother Hamed, with whom he performed, was the only family he had in the circus. Hamed received medals from President Anwar Sadat himself, travelled to Paris with the singer Umm Kulthum and balanced on top of the Cairo tower looking out over the capital. Mostafa was the younger brother. "I joined the circus because of my brother, and I will stay from stubbornness." Joining the National Circus when he was 12, he learnt everything, from training foxes to wirewalking. He earns $180 a month and has a fantastic memory. "Before it was better, especially during the Gamal Abdel Nasser era when there was cultural exchange. Now, a lot of performers just imitate each other," he says.

The circus has a hierarchy. Lion tamers are at the top, then come acrobats. Clowns are at the bottom. Walid, now out of his clown costume, is sitting in a Horeya coffee shop thinking about money. "Take someone working in a streetside coffee shop like this," he says. "He gets $25 a day. That can be a month's salary to someone from the National Circus. But a circus performer is aware of what he risks every time and could end up paralysed. We all know that, but we keep working in the circus."

Walid is the son of a circus cyclist - "my father once cracked his head open falling off a bicycle during the wall of death act" - and as well as being as a clown, he is one of the four Yassin Brothers circus cyclists. Last year, members of the National Circus joined a wave of strikes in protest at spiralling prices and the government's tough economic reforms. About 1.5 million workers took part, making it the largest social movement in the Middle East for 50 years, according to social scientists. Walid was there and salaries were raised slightly.

Life behind the curtains has a dark sense of humour. "I thought of leaving the National Circus," says Walid. "I don't get enough money. But it's like cancer. I can't leave the circus, I have my friends here. After school I went to the circus, now I wake up and go to the circus. I have lived here more than I lived at home. I love it a lot." Mohammed Abu Leila, the circus's director, agrees. "Do you know this feeling when you're on the stage and 1,300 people are watching you doing something nobody else can do? The feeling consumes you. You spend four years learning a trick that takes eight minutes in the show, but you are doing something unique."

Back in 1973, Abu Leila was a 17-year-old gymnast with a thick Afro haircut, high from the circus rush. He was one of four performers chosen for an exchange programme between Egypt and the USSR. "I was so happy that I didn't ask about how long I would be studying in Russia," he recalls. "I thought it would be for the summer maybe, but it turned out to be for four years. I discovered that when I was already there."

He studied circus art with a specialisation in aerial acrobatics and experienced the rare opportunity of life in a foreign country. "Those were the best four years of my life," he says, in Russian. Abu Leila no longer performs. Now administrative work and sorting out performers' complaints take up most of his time. But he never forgot his acrobat's balance, his muscles just got weaker without practice.

"The circus was stronger before, during the Nasser era it was one of the five best circuses in the world," he says. "After negligence did its work, people now just don't see that circus is art." In his view, independence from the state and the introduction of commercial sponsorship would improve the circus's condition. Walid, revealing a hint of sadness behind the clown's painted smile, says: "Forty per cent of the people aren't good enough to be in the circus nowadays. Before there was no safety equipment, there was death. Either you succeeded or you died. I wish we could achieve at least 10 per cent of what our fathers did back then."

As director, it falls on Abu Leila's shoulders to rebuild morale and help bring back the magic. He is philosophical. "The whole world is a circus, we are just a small circus within it," he says, and laughs.

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