Roll up! Roll up! The circus comes to this Middle East town
On Thursday 4 October, the International Circus Festival (CirCairo) launched its Cairo festivities with a public event in Abdeen Square in front of Cairo's old ruling point, Abdeen Palace.
The large space was transformed into a festive, colourful setting with an array of vivid light bulbs hanging down, some even visible from a distance as one approaches the square. CirCairo volunteers and staff stood at the gate in their red t-shirts welcoming families and young people into the event with a smile.
The atmosphere, full of joy and dance, was almost intoxicating. Before the performances commenced, typical Egyptian circus music filled the quarter, children ran around playing, jumping and dancing, spreading a positive energy among the crowd. A particularly heart warming scene was an old man dancing with a group of children, with more and more joining his 'troupe' by the minute. Photographers gathered to capture the joy.
With up to two thousand people present, the crowd presented a melting pot of ages, cultures and social classes. The setting of the event, being public and in a square associated with arts, meant that people felt comfortable letting go of the social barriers that divide them. In addition, it seems that many Egyptians have a soft spot for the circus.
Basma El-Husseiny, Director of Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy (The Culture Resource), a group which is organising the event, took to the stage introducing the performances to come, and the concept of the festival.
"We apologise for the delay," El-Husseiny said, explaining that they had been having problems for two days with the Ministry of Interior who refused to give them the permits they were promised in July. "But this is God's land, and it belongs to us, not the officials," she added.
"The street is ours and Abdeen Square is the space for arts and culture," El-Husseiny said referring to the 'El-Fan Midan' (Art is a Square) monthly public events that are organised there.
The show started with El-Darb El-Ahmar school kids. Boys and girls between the ages of 8-15 started their performance dancing to swing music, juggling bottles and plastic rings. Then, they gave a circus rendition of 'El-Leila El-Kebira' (The Big Night), the famous puppet theatre musical directly derived from the cultural setting of the moulid (a Sufi festival).
The kids turned the operetta about a night at the moulid into a performance with clowns, juggling, and a choreographed magic show. While the kids performed, and people sang along, clowns on stilts gave away balloons to eager children, and adults, in the audience.
El-Darb El-Ahmar's performance ended with a whirling dervishes show, which included illuminated dancers, three male and one female - not a typical setting for the traditional dance.
Fathers carried small children on their shoulders to see past the huge crowds, while the clowns took the children from their fathers' shoulders to hold them even higher up to see the stage.
Next on the stage was Tunisian acrobat artist Radwan Shalabawy, impressing audiences and making jaws drop with his twists and turns in the air. His impressive performance was choreographed to music, and the crowd held up their phones to record the display.
After a short break, where different circus activities were happening in the square such as fire breathing, clown marches, and aragoz (a typical Egyptian hand puppet show), Basma El-Huseiny introduced the next performance: the Egyptian circus troupe, wearing clown noses.
The troupe started with a performance by Ali El-Masry and Shiko Biko, a ventriloquist putting on a comedy show. The humour, however, lacked depth, playing on typical Egyptian jokes, and fell flat, although some people did laugh along.
Next was the magic show. Magician Fathi El-Masry started the performance by saying: "There is no such thing as magic; these are all tricks based on skill," which really did ruin the magic. The entire show was narrated in a monotonous tone, and featured a long card trick which was lost on those who were not sitting directly by the stage.
The night ended with the Belgian circus, performing acrobats, unicyclists, and juggling to live piano and saxophone.
"We live near Abdeen, so we often come to these events," said Hamed, one of the audience members, who was joined by his wife Asmaa and daughter Jannah.
"We don't go to the circus, but this is beautiful and very enjoyable," he said, adding that the family would be joining other events of the festival.