Back in 1960, when Cairo was under the thumb of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and needed a little culture, someone came up with the idea of starting a national circus, the first in the Arab world.
The man chosen to head it was an actor, Ahmed Salem. For nearly six years he scoured the countryside, visiting the small private circuses that once flourished in Egypt, recruiting and training the best talent he could find. Finally, in January, 1966, the Egyptian National Circus was officially born, with 60 performers putting on the first show in a tent alongside the Nile.
Today, Salem sits in his office next to the same green-and-red big top. There is a picture of President Hosni Mubarak on the wall, a Koran on his desk and two withered floral arrangements in a corner. He points out the window at the tent, where a family of acrobats is practicing for the evening performance.
"We'd like to get out of the tent and move into a real building, and we'd like to tour other Arab countries," said Salem, the circus' managing director. "But other than that, we're satisfied and very proud of what we've accomplished."
Indeed, the little-publicized Egyptian National Circus--still the only circus in the Arab world--has become this country's longest-running cultural event and has received world acclaim, winning the gold medal at an international circus competition in Monte Carlo in 1982 and the silver medal at another competition in Paris the same year.
Six nights a week, most of the 1,200 rickety steel chairs that surround the single ring are filled with Egyptians who have paid from $1.50 to $4 for a ticket (students, soldiers and policemen get a 50% discount). Vendors move through the crowd selling peanuts, lamb sandwiches and cans of fruit juice. As at circuses everywhere, there is much laughter and applause.
"The response of audiences to circuses is universal," said the lion trainer, Ibrahim el Helw, whose father was fatally mauled by a lion during a performance in 1972. "But you do find some differences in the sophistication of the audience. When I trained in West Germany, I had one act where I used a flower instead of a whip to control the lions. The crowd loved it and roared--I tried it here and it fell flat. The Egyptians would rather see the trainer be aggressive toward the animals."
Although Helw is the show's most famous star, his salary is only $250 a month, modest even in this impoverished country. Acrobats, jugglers, clowns and others may earn as little as $40 a month, and each year the government subsidizes the circus with a grant of $450,000.
It seems fitting that Egypt should have the only circus in the Arab world, because the Egyptians probably invented circuses in the first place, more than 2,000 years ago in Alexandria. And 1,000 years before that, depictions of jugglers and acrobats were being carved on the walls of Pharaohs' tombs.
According to one story, the first circus was staged by Ptolemy II Philadelphus, king of Egypt from 285 to 246 BC, who gathered animals, birds and reptiles from Africa and the Middle East and put them on parade for his people on days of celebration.
Next year, to celebrate the national circus' 20th anniversary, the Ministry of Culture is planning an international festival and will ask 35 countries to compete in a circus competition.
Why will there be no other Arabic circuses there?
In the conservative Islamic countries, the idea of a woman performing in a leotard and barelegged would be abhorrent, as would sexually integrated audiences. Security-conscious governments might also be wary of approving events that attract crowds, as a circus does. And in many other countries of this region, there is simply no tradition of humor as an art form--and little culture other than that of the desert heritage.
"The Egyptians are the only Arabs who would understand the value of laughter and having fun," said one observer.