The lion died, but Iranian circus still delights Iraqis

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The Independent Culture

The hapless lion and snake both died in an Iraqi heatwave, but for the jugglers, clowns, fire-eater and other circus performers, the show in ancient Babylon had to go on.

This night, under the glare of spotlights and despite the sweltering heat, entertainment-starved spectators in the war-ravaged country are glued to their seats as a daredevil roars inside the Globe of Death on a motorbike.

The Jahan (World) company from neighbouring Iran is giving many Iraqis their first-ever circus experience.

Children gasp when the circus fakir, whose firm belly has already repelled tossed knives and other sharp objects, stoically withstands a menacing nail pushed into his nose.

Each evening since early July, the open-air amphitheatre has come alive with circus performers strutting their stuff before the Ishtar Gate, one of the eight entrances to ancient Babylon, founded by Amorites in 19th century BC.

Except in the oil-rich, autonomous region of Kurdistan in the north, Iraqis have not seen a circus in their country since the 1970s, when Bulgarian, Romanian and Russian troupes would regale crowds in Baghdad each autumn.

That was Iraq's last decade of peace, before Saddam Hussein formally came to power in 1979 and pushed the country from one disaster to another.

In 1980, Saddam launched into a devastating eight-year war with Iraq; his forces invaded neighbouring Kuwait in August 1990 and had to endure the combined wrath of a US-led multi-national force; in 2003, US forces invaded Iraq and deposed the dictator, who was later tried and hanged.

Since the invasion, ordinary Iraqis have been caught in a deadly cycle of sectarian violence, in a war between US troops and opponents that include Al-Qaeda insurgents and Shiite militants.

The circus is a break from hard, dreary lives.

When Jahan was invited to perform at the Babylonian Theatre built by Saddam on top of ruins dating back to Alexander the Great to evoke the glory of Babylon, at first the circus performers refused, fearing for their safety.

They accepted only after their director travelled to the site and was satisfied of the risk.

Abu Ghaith, head of Zifaf Al-Fourat, the travel and tourism company that is behind the performance, is jubilant that he has brought circus back to Iraq.

"If I go abroad, I will be proud to say we brought circus to the Babylonian Theatre," Abu Ghaith enthused.

"The circus comes back to Iraq in Babylon," he gushed. "Look at the number of people tonight! I feel I did something for the people of the city."

This evening, between 300 and 400 spectators occupy the first rows of the 5,000-seat theatre that until 2003 hosted the Babylon International Festival, Iraq's grandest celebration of music, dance and theatre, which was dedicated to the glory of Saddam and his supposed blood link to 7th century BC Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar.

In the crowd is baby Houda, celebrating her first birthday and too young to be dazzled but still able to enjoy the colour, the movements and the music.

"My family had never been to a circus before," explained her father, 30-year-old Nabil Mohammed.

Despite the excitement on stage, there are frequent reminders that this is Iraq, and this is a circus company from neighbouring Islamic Iran.

A female cheerleader in an Islamic headscarf takes the microphone and charges up the crowd, which responds with loud applause.

They want an encore performance by the daredevil, who enters the iron orb, thunders up his motorbike and soon turns into a virtual blur, his headlight seeming like a dot of light spinning inside the sphere and speakers blaring out the song, "Eye of the tiger."

The Jahan performers are veterans who have done the odd bit of travelling, with performances in Turkey, Russia, Italy and in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The 10 performers are multi-talented: the short clown is an ace with the whip, the juggler is a specialist in unicycles of every size and the fire-eater is also a contortionist.

But not everyone in the crowd is happy tonight.

Ahmad Salah, 14, and his buddies travelled the 10 kilometres (six miles) from central Hilla in taxis to arrive at the circus.

"Tonight the animals are missing," he says sadly, referring to the fact that the circus's only lion and a snake died because someone left them out too long in the sun that afternoon, when the mercury reached 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade.

Three days before leaving for Iraq, the circus monkey was stolen, leaving the troupe with a pauper's menagerie of a bear, a clever dog and two snakes.

To ward away the evil eye, a sheep was slaughtered before Friday's opening beneath the iron-fenced entrance, next to the plywood refreshment bar.

Jahan promised it would get a new lion in order to give the audience its money's worth, at tickets costing 6,000 dinars (approximately four euros/ five dollars) for adults, half price for children.