Egypt brings a circus to Gaza minus lions, tigers and women

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — The circus came to Gaza accompanied by blaring music, juggling clowns and fire blowers — but getting it there required its own high-wire act.

No female performers were included lest they offend conservative Palestinians and the Gaza Strip’s militant Hamas rulers, and the circus’ lone lion and tiger were left behind because of the high cost of transporting them legally into Gaza.

The Egyptian National Circus put on its first show of a monthlong visit to the impoverished coastal territory on Friday, a sign of warmer relations between Hamas and post-revolution Egypt, which is governed by the Islamic group’s ideological parent, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although it is not state-sponsored, the Egyptian circus made the trip only because the country’s government loosened restrictions on the flow of passengers in and out of Gaza. More foreigners now enter Gaza, including the ruler of the resource-rich Gulf state Qatar earlier last week.

Once in Gaza, the Egyptians faced an unusual situation — most Palestinians here don’t know what a circus is.

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Adel Aly, 47, of the Egyptian National Circus walks the tightrope for ... more >

“I think it’s going to be really surprising for most people,” said Riwa Awwad, 19, ahead of the opening night.

“Gazans are famous for not liking anything, and I think they’ll do the impossible to entertain us,” said Ms. Awwad, who came with her extended family to the fairground Friday.

In an ironic twist, the cheery circus with its flashing lights was held on the grounds of a notorious security prison that was destroyed during an Israeli offensive four years ago.

For the Gazans fortunate enough to see the opening show, it was a welcome relief from conflict and despair. The fairgrounds were packed with excited children in new clothes, women in glittery headscarves, others in black face veils, and men in suits and freshly pressed shirts. Families snacked on pumpkin seeds.

They hollered and cheered as a tightrope walker wiggled his hips and belly-danced on a thread suspended above the ground. A performer hurled silver knives around volunteers. A red-clad fire blower shot whooshing, yellow licks of flame out of his mouth. Two clowns dressed in yellow and blue bumbled and fumbled as they tried to juggle, delighting children.

It took months to arrange the visit to the impoverished territory, where 1.6 million people live in a 25-mile-long sliver wedged between Israel and Egypt and face a punishing blockade imposed after Hamas seized control in 2007.

Aside from a circus’ brief visit in the 1990s, there never has been anything like it since Israel captured the strip from Egypt in 1967. Israeli forces and settlers withdrew in 2005.

Businessman Mohammed Faris said he remembered seeing the circus under Egyptian rule in the 1950s, when Gaza was still a liberal place with casinos and bars. He said he recalled as a child seeing men walking on nails and female acrobats flying across stage.

“It was men and women — pretty women,” he said.

Not this time around.

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