Twenty-something Ashraf el-Helw used to go to the circus as a youngster, sitting with the most deadly animals, including lions and tigers.
El-Helw’s relationship with lions has been deepening since his childhood, pushing him to be psychologically attached to the world of predatory animal husbandry, not just because he belongs to the oldest Egyptian family in the circus business which trains lions to perform.
Ashraf is the youngest among the sons of Mohamed Mohamed El Helou who is well known in Egypt for his lion shows at the circus.
After the coronavirus pandemic, young Ashraf came up with the idea of moving the circus home, to reduce the spread of the virus and at the same time continue to entertain fans.
“I wanted to keep entertaining people with circus shows as I know how stressful it has been during the coronavirus lockdowns,” Helw told Majalla, “I also know how much many Egyptian families want to go to the circus and watch some shows but they cannot. So, I decided to take the circus to their homes.”
At first, Ashraf's two older siblings, sister Bushra and brother Youssef, were amazed at the idea. Despite their long years of working with the lions, they had never turned their apartment into a venue for shows, but soon they agreed and the three of them cooperated in implementing the experiment.
El Helw’s younger brother transports Joumana, a smart and skilled four-year-old lioness, via his own car as there is a cage installed in the back sofa of the car specifically for the lioness.
This is not the first time that Ashraf is taking lions home or to other places. He has always taken the lions to filming sites or programs, and succeeded in transfers easily with different sizes of predators, whether cubs or old lions.
“Joumana was depressed after the circus performances stopped as she has been accustomed since childhood to practicing exercises and presenting performances. So I decided to do these shows at home,” he said.
At his home, El Helw has installed tables that bear Jumana’s weight so that she could walk on them. He began the experiment by signaling to Jumana to get down from the chair and move to the tables, passing over the body of the trainer’s sister, Bushra, and then returning again to the chair. The scenes were recorded in few minutes-long video clips.
Since the coronavirus, El-Helw has also transferred all of the animals to the family’s farm, which resembles their wildlife habitat.
El Helw said that he has received a lot of praise from viewers of the show, while others saw that the experience was a danger to his life and his family.
But he said, “If I had not had complete control over the experience from beginning to end, I would definitely not do it. Joumana loves me and safety is very important to me.”
Through his shows with Jumana, El Helw said that he is also trying to make it clear that no matter how fierce the animal is, it must be treated with love and there should be no violence or beating in training it.
The lion tamer also said that the shows are not intended to convey information that “it is easy to stay with the lion at home” or to encourage their upbringing in homes.
“People asked me about raising predators in homes. I do not encourage it because it can be very harmful if they are not accustomed to that and do not know how to deal with lions,” he said.
Last month, the Egyptian government took a raft of measures to prevent the spread of coronavirus. It brought forward the closing hours of Egyptian stores, malls and restaurants to 9pm to help contain the coronavirus for two weeks.
Large gatherings and concerts were banned over the same period and beaches and parks were shut between May 12-16. These measures were eased as of this month, but caution is still there out of fear of unexpected rise in cases.