Sunday, 29 October 2017

Malfuf wa Malik : Hanine and Helw the Lion Tamer, and Idris' angle

Here is Hanine el Alam, a violinist, composer and performance artiste from Lebanon - take a listen to her brand of fusion in this track called  'Arabia' - and click on her name to find out more.

Another megarambler

This is kind of a complicated non-story in a non-story in a non-story post, the usual megarambler only the rambling quotient even more ramped up. Bear with me, please.

I suppose it all started with the film.  A short film called The Chair Carrier won a prize in some festival in USA late 2010 and appeared on my feed somewhere. I watched the film and liked it (and shared it as part of my A-Z 2017 series Arabiana. Watch it here) In the credits was the name of Dr Yusuf Idris, the writer of the original short story from which the film was adapted. I filed the name away in my mind for future reference.

This was a few months before the Spring was sprung. The film went on to win a slew of prizes across the world. Later, after the President fell, it naturally cropped up regularly all through 2011 alongside words like prescient and prophetic. I might mention here that the original story was written long before the film was made.

The Lion Tamer

As I’ve said earlier, 2011 expanded my cultural horizons in myriad ways - and one of them was Galal Amin. Here's another excerpt from an essay of his –

The opening of the National Circus...was part of a wider scheme which included, among other things, theatre, ballet, folk art, and classical and Arab music institutes, and it succeeded in unearthing new talent and in attracting wide audiences, until the events of 1967 put an end to it.

Soon after the military attack against Egypt and the Israeli occupation of Sinai, the National Circus suffered a recession, as did many other aspects of life in Egypt. This derived as much from the depression and hopelessness felt by many Egyptians in the wake of the army’s rout…

In this general dispiriting climate, a tragic accident befell the most important personality of the circus and the most prominent member of the Helw family. A lion named Sultan fatally mauled the trainer Muhammad Helw as he stood in the ring before the audience. This was on the night of October 12, 1972, and it so happened, that the gifted Egyptian author Yusuf Idris was in the audience that night. In the tremendous shock of the event, Idris saw something fearsome in the human side of the tragedy, symbolising not only the state of the circus at the time, but also the political and social life of Egypt in the aftermath of the Israeli attack. He recorded his impressions in a famous essay…published in the newspaper Al Ahram a few days later. The essay had widespread reverberations of its own, because it echoed exactly what many people were feeling at the time. He concluded that the lion’s attack on the trainer was an allegory for the state of Egyptians of that time – fearful, defeated, their high ideals lost, and their dreams of heroism and glory destroyed.

 ~ Whatever Else Happened to the Egyptians, Galal Amin

Oh déjà vu 

The retelling of the circus tragedy totally blew me away - déjà vu a thousand shades deep! 

Flashback to mid-seventies, to my schoolgirl self growing up in Maiduguri, in Northern Nigeria. I read a Bengali short story in one of the annual issues of a children’s magazine, these were fat, hardbound books with a wide collection of children literature written specifically for the annuals – general fiction, sci-fi, whodunits, poetry, cartoons and what have you, published every year in Sept/Oct to coincide with the autumn festivals of Dussehra/Durgapuja, and lovingly sent to me from India through snailmail, which I would receive the following spring and duly gobble up. 

Anyway, to get back to the point – I read a short story in one of these jobs about a lion tamer who devised more and more daring acts to attract audiences, upping the ante till the audiences sat with their collective hearts in their mouth. The final climax of his act was putting his head into the lion's jaws and then his release upon command. And you can guess what’s coming, can’t you? - one evening the lion clamped his jaws down and didn’t release the trainer, the story ended there with this awful cliff hanger, with the trainer’s torso suspended from the lion’s fangs, thrashing around in agony. Quite horrifying enough to read, can't imagine what it must be like to watch.

For some reason, I instantly got it into my head that this story was connected to the events at the Egyptian National Circus, quite firmly convinced. Sadly, though I tried all sorts of ways to confirm the link, I just couldn’t, both the author and the title of the Bengali story have passed completely out of memory, total blank.   So the cast iron conviction turned out to be the usual modification of memory to suit the present and clear biases. Sigh...

The first man to put his head into a lion's mouth was an American animal trainer  - Isaac Van Amburgh, way back in  the 1830's, and he may have been the inspiration for the story, though he did not die of mauling - one of the few lion tamers who died a natural death. Several lion tamers got injured when they put their heads into a wild cat's mouth in the 1800's, read about one here. Circus animals quite regularly maul their trainers, the story may also have been inspired by any number of other such attacks. There have been at least two more similar incidents in the Egyptian Circus itself, Ibrahim el Helw was mauled fatally in 2004 and his wife Faten was attacked in 2015, though she survived. In spite of these maulings and deaths, the Helw family have been steadfastly working as lion trainers since the 19th century.

I tried to trace that famous essay by Dr Idris too, but no luck there either, so I went and got his novel ‘The city of Love and Ashes’ and an anthology of his short fiction. I enjoyed the short stories more than the novel, but then I always have been an absolute sucker for short stories anyway. Right from schooldays till now, I'm blaming that on those annuals.


  1. I do love the places your rambling posts take me. New place, exciting places...
    Hanine el Alam's voice is haunting and her performance mesmerising.
    My sympathies are always with the lions. I am not glad precisely when they bite down on someone taking liberties with them, but I do understand their perspective.

    1. Yeah, they are doing what's natural, can't provoke an animal w/o consequences...Egypt has a problem with illegal trade in live wild animals as well.

  2. interesting ramble. And sometimes you can only poke the "bear" i.e. lion so long - it's going to lash out or chomp down. I don't blame him or her.

    1. Oh can't ever blame the animals. And the conditions under which most circus animals are housed and fed would send most humans round the bend...

  3. Hi Nila - loved reading about Hanine and listening to her work and see her artistry - talented woman. While your story and the connection with northern Nigeria to Bangladesh, to Egypt ... fascinating to learn more about - I've put Yusuf Idris into my wish list in Amazon .. one day ... thanks so much - loved all the connecting dots and information ... cheers Hilary

    1. Hi Hilary! Yusuf Idris' short stories are great - glimpses into modern Egyptian society plus sharp insights. Glad you enjoyed the megarambler :)

  4. I've heard ever since my childhood of unnamed "lion tamers" putting their heads in the lions' mouths, but having never attended a circus in my life, I've certainly never seen anyone actually do it. And now, with so many animal rights activists protesting various practices by circus folk, resulting in the idea of a circus itself slowly becoming passe, I may never get to see it happen... which is fine by me.

    1. Neither have I, and thank goodness for that! Silly idea to stuff a man's head into a wild carnivore's mouth!

      I've only been to the circus once as a tiny kid, and all I remember are the acrobats, they were amazing.

      Like you, I can't say I'm sorry that animal 'shows' are going out of fashion. About time!

  5. I enjoyed the video since I used to play violin and am rather partial to the instrument. And since I grew up around the circus and entertainment, your circus story caught my attention. The wild animal acts were never my favorites. Sticking one's head into the mouth of a wild beast strikes me as a bit wacky, but giving the crowd a thrill is what it's all about.

    One wild animal act I did think was exciting was this fellow by the name of Joe Frisco. My family worked a circus date with him in 1965. He had lions, tigers, and bears in the cage at the same time and there was constant action. It was crazy. I don't think he performed that act for long. Mostly after that I believe he worked with elephants.

    Tossing It Out

    1. As a kid it was quite common to see bears and monkeys under individual animal trainers do road side shows, a one man itinerant circus I guess. It all seemed very pointless to me, the tricks just felt odd for animals to perform. They've disappeared from the city roads long ago.

      Joe Frisco's show seems really dangerous, probably a great draw at the time, audience taste has changed since 70's/80's. Bears and felines are more difficult to work with than elephants I'd think, that's probably because India has a history of revering elephants as well as using them as transport, work and war animals. Human elephant interface is more familiar and less of a 'show.' Thanks for the mention of Joe Frisco and for stopping by.