09/18/2011 08:30 EDT | Updated 11/18/2011 05:12 EST

Circus Debuts In Baghdad For First Time Since Start Of War


BAGHDAD - The sword swallower had arrived, the snake charmer was ready. All that was missing when the circus got town were the lions and tigers — which, unfortunately, were delayed by customs inspectors leery of letting the exotic cats into Iraq.

Alawan Ghazi, who brought his three children to see the lighthearted show after surviving years of war, couldn't help but laugh at the irony.

"Car bombs and weapons find their way easily to Iraq," Ghazi said. "But bringing circus animals is a more difficult task here."

The cats were expected to arrive in Baghdad within weeks as the circus revs up a six-month stay in the Iraqi capital — the first since the 2003 fall U.S.-led invasion that unleashed widespread violence that has slowly ebbed over the last few years.

Now, circus manager Ghassan Mohammed is banking on the bombs to stay away and let the show go on.

After a tryout in the southern Iraqi port city of Basra — and with much success — Mohammed said he was ready to bring the circus to Baghdad. The capital has had more than its fair share of bleakness over the years, he said, and it's time to bring a little cheer to Baghdad's families — not to mention a little jingle to his own pocket.

"We felt that it is time to come to the capital now after security has improved here," Mohammed said as he checked power generators, touched base with his performers and juggled calls on his cellphone on the circus grounds in the mixed Sunni-Shiite neighbourhood of Jadriyah in southeast Baghdad.

He added: "Baghdad is a big city with fair business opportunities."

Violence is on the downswing in the capital, although deadly bombings and shootings still happen nearly every day. And the glitter of the circus still wasn't enough to convince many of the performers to take a chance on Baghdad: only 27 of the 200 whom Mohammed tried to hire agreed to come. All the performers are foreigners except one Iraqi who performs magic tricks.

Acrobat Eyvak Sopatayiv, 22, from Kazakhstan, said he worried about taking the leap.

"I used to hear a lot of news about security problems in Iraq, and I was afraid," Sopatayiv said. "But the reality is different, and it's not what I expected."

The Egyptian sword-swallower, Mohammed Atiyah, said he wants the circus to help Iraqis forget — even if for just a night — the grim past.

"Hopefully, the circus will help Iraqis forget about wars and bombings and give them new glimpse of hope and happiness," said Atiyah, 24.

Without the lions and tigers, the circus showboated acrobats on high-swinging trapezes, magic tricks and fire displays, a belly dancer with a thick snake and a tiny dog in a tutu walking on its hind legs.

"It is a very joyful experience," said Ali Hatam, 22, his face shining with excitement. "Why should other countries have a circus come to them while we cannot?"

With his three children from Baghdad's mostly Sunni neighbourhood of Mansour, Ammar Fadhil agreed that the circus was well worth the security risk.

Still, it wounded him in his wallet. Ticket prices cost about $12 for adults, half price for teenagers and free for children — a pricey night out in a country with 15 per cent unemployment and where the average worker brings home only a few hundred dollars each month.

"But it paid off," Fadhil said with a wan smile. "Everybody was happy."