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The circus returns to Baghdad, but with a few differences

For the first time in a decade, the circus — albeit an underwhelming one — is back in Baghdad. And its arrival is yet another small step in the city’s efforts at building a more normal life after the war.
Image: Circus performers rehearse in Baghdad
Performers rehearse before a show in Baghdad's first circus in 10 years. The circus has two shows a day and tickets cost $1.Mauricio Lima for The New York T
/ Source: The New York Times

The circus promoters blanketed Baghdad with fliers that showed tigers balancing on pedestals, poodles standing on each other’s shoulders and a woman dancing with a massive snake.

But when the circus finally opened here two months ago, there were not any tigers because the animals were stuck in Egypt. There were dogs, however, but they were not poodles. And the big snake, well, the snake had become sick and had to be evacuated from Iraq.

“Next week, the lions and tigers will arrive from Egypt,” one of the circus promoters, Ghassan Taha Mohammed, promised in September.

A month later, they still had not arrived.

For the first time in a decade, the circus — albeit an underwhelming one — was back in Baghdad.

A circus’ coming to town may be a routine event in most cities. But in battered Baghdad, even if it was not the Greatest Show on Earth, the arrival of the circus was yet another small step in this city’s efforts at building a more normal life, to move beyond the war, occupation and sectarian violence that made it hard for anyone to laugh, let alone marvel at dancers jumping rope.

The circus is called the Umbrella Circus. It has just one small ring, and there is not a commanding ringmaster. What it does have, though, are dancers jumping rope, a woman swinging from a trapeze (without a net, but with a harness), and a grand finale of a man clad in an Iraqi flag plunging swords down his throat.

Although the circus may not be as exciting as the advertisements, many children appeared transfixed by the sight of a large tent and the trapeze hanging over the ring.

'No animals'
Before each show, children are invited into the ring, and those brave enough are put into a harness and hoisted to the top of the tent.

A V.I.P. section of seats around the ring is often filled with children trying to get a better view of the show. Behind them, their parents snap photos with their cellphones and whistle as performers walked across broken glass and balanced on tiny cups.

“For 10 years, we haven’t seen anything like this,” said Faisil Falleh, 56, who took his family to the circus on a recent night. “I haven’t seen anything in my life like this.”

There were smiles, for sure, but also a degree of disappointment in the absent tiger and sick snake. No one seemed too upset about the absent poodles, though.

“The kids were complaining that there were no animals,” said Hadi Hazim, 34, as he made his way back into the tent one recent evening after a trip to the concession stand to buy popcorn.

“For a whole week, my kids were asking me if I would take them,” he said as he stood next to his young daughter. “I wasn’t going to take them, but they kept on asking, so I relented.”

As Mr. Hazim spoke, his voice was nearly drowned out by the sounds — not of the circus — but of helicopters that were taking off and landing in the nearby Green Zone. This remains Iraq, after all, and for now there are still about 39,000 American troops here, though they are all to exit before the end of the year. The circus offered not so much a respite from violence, but a reminder of just how odd normal has become here for Iraqis.

Although bombs still go off on a daily basis, families picnic in parks. Men go to cafes to play chess and smoke flavored tobacco. Children play soccer in the streets. And now, of course, parents take their children to the circus.

The circus, which is scheduled to run for six months, has two shows a day. A ticket costs $12. Cotton candy — called “lady’s hair” in Arabic — costs $1.

Solo act in Iraq
The tent holds 1,400, and so far the largest crowd has been about 1,000. On a typical night, about 500 people attend a show. Although the promoters are Iraqi, the dancers, trapeze artists and other performers are from various countries across the Middle East and Eastern Europe.

Earlier this year, the Ministry of Tourism helped bring the circus promoters to Baghdad after a run of shows ended in the southern city of Basra, in part, because the show was a bit too liberal for the residents, who tend to be religious.

“We have generations in Iraq who don’t know what a circus is,” said one of the promoters, Jasim Mohammed Saeed. “Right now we aren’t making profits, but we hope that the turnout will increase.”

He added: “Nobody is working in this business in Iraq. It is just us.”

For the circus’ finale, the performer draped in the Iraqi flag lay down on the floor of the ring. Another performer stood over him and dropped swords onto his stomach. The swords bounced off, apparently in a sign of how strong the man was and how much pain he could take.

Then, the man shoved a two-foot sword and several smaller ones down his throat. After about 20 seconds, he took out the swords and blew a huge fire ball into the air.

The crowd erupted in cheers.

The man then ran around the ring, and the Iraqi flag flowed off of his back.

The cheers grew louder. Then the lights dimmed, and the night’s performance was over.

This story, "Slapping at Syria, Turkey Shelters Anti- Assad Fighters," was originally published in The New York Times.