Bellucci Circus is roaring success in Egypt despite red tape
Outside the centre of Cairo, off the road to the right just before you get to the 6th October Sporting Club, a large tent was set up, signs were erected, and on 28 January, the Bellucci Circus raised the curtain and welcomed the audience into their world.
Ahram Online sat down with Waleed Galal El-Sharkawi – who brought along lion cub and star of the show Bondoa (hazelnut in Arabic) – to talk about the show's success.
El-Sharkawi is an Egyptian lion trainer who resides in Rome, Italy. He joined the Bellucci circus troupe over a decade ago.
The circus dates back over a century; the son of a pharmacist, Armando Bellucci, fell in love with a circus artist named Maria Lelli, leading to the creation of what would become one of Europe's most successful troupes, according to the company.
According to media reports, the Bellucci Circus has been touring Egypt under the auspices of the Egyptian Tourism Authority for a year as part of the body's initiative to revive the country's tourism industry.
El-Sharkawi, however, denies such claims.
"A year ago, we headed by ship from Rome to Syria, but due to the ongoing unrest in the country we couldn't land in Damascus," El-Sharkawi recalls.
According to El-Sharkawi, the Bellucci troupe decided to detour to Egypt instead. They landed in Alexandria and as El-Sharkawi explains, the troupe was held aboard ship for two months, as authorities rejected their entry into Egypt.
"We tried everything to convince them to allow us to present our art," he told Ahram Online.
"I don't understand a government that says that it is for economic development, especially in tourism when, in fact, it does nothing of the sort," he said.
The troupe was eventually given leave to enter Egypt and put on shows.
As far as support, security, and arrangements for the troupe, none were provided and publicity was minimal, says El-Sharkawi. In fact, "we are the ones who find locations, get permits and everything else needed to continue with our shows," he said.
Since arriving in Egypt, Bellucci Circus has visited the cities of Banha, Tanta and Ismailia, until managing to get to Cairo.
"Authorities in those governorates, unlike in Alexandria and Cairo, were more than supportive and eager to bring artistic development to the locals," he told Ahram Online.
Bureaucratic problems with an assigned location in Nasr City led the troupe to their new location in a development on the outskirts of Cairo, 6 October City.
Work has now spread among the locals and shows for the next few weeks are sold out.
Since starting their performances on 28 January, the troupe has been putting their two-hour show on twice a day.
"It is the surprising size of the audience in the cities we have visited that has made us stay this long, despite all the obstacles we have faced since we landed in Egypt," said El-Sharkawi.
Bellucci Circus is popular with younger audiences and adults alike. The show involves acrobats, trapeze acts, clown shows, belly dancing and fire hoops, in addition to their animal shows, in which Bondoa stars.
"Of course we couldn't travel from Italy with our trained animals. We had to resort to the ones here," El-Sharkawi says, explaining that professional animal trainers find it easy to work with animals trained by other people, especially lions. "They don't have to be yours," he states.
In addition to the lions, tigers and birds, the show has taken on some local flavour, with belly dancing acts.
"We included the belly dancing sketch in our schedule as we want to show Egyptians how our folklore has reached out to Europeans, as well," said El-Sharkawi.
The audience the circus attracts is very mixed; high-end cars mix with less expensive models in the car park during the show, and public transport drops off more eager customers, accompanied by their children.
"We have people from all over the city coming to watch our shows. Even those from Ismailia who couldn't make it there followed us here," El-Sharkawi comments.
The Cairo shows will wrap up at the beginning of March, but "due to several requests from schools and universities in the area to come for exclusive shows, we will extend our stay for two more weeks," El-Sharkawi confirms.
"Thanks to the audience support that we receive everywhere, I am pleased to say that our revenues here are greater than those in Europe."
Following Cairo, the circus will head to Assiut in Upper Egypt, where they will perform for some time. "We still haven't decided on the exact duration as we are still arranging the visit but we will announce it soon."
"It is a shame that this country is led by a government that does know how to utilise such events and artistic approaches for its own benefit, and that Egypt continues to create obstacle to any progress," he comments.
By Farah Montasser