A circus comes to Gaza _ minus lions and ladies

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The circus came to Gaza on Friday, but getting it there required its own high-wire act.

No women performers were included for fear of offending conservative Palestinians and their Hamas rulers and the high-cost of legal transport prevented animals from taking part.

The Egyptian National Circus put on the first show of its month-long visit to the impoverished coastal strip on Friday, a sign of warmer relations between Hamas and post-revolution Egypt, which is governed by the Islamic militant group's ideological parent, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Although not state-sponsored, the Egyptian circus could only come because their government loosened restrictions on the flow of passengers in and out of Gaza. More foreigners now enter Gaza, including the ruler of the resource-rich Gulf state Qatar earlier this week.

Most Gazans don't even know what a circus is and certainly can't afford the tickets.

"We've never seen a whole circus before," said Riwa Awwad, 19, who was at the circus. "I think it's going to be really surprising for most people. Gazans are famous for not liking anything and I think they'll do the impossible to entertain us."

For the children fortunately enough to see it, though, the rust-colored tent provided welcome relief from conflict and despair.

In an ironic twist, the cheery circus with its flashing lights and blaring music was held on the grounds of a notorious security prison that was destroyed during an Israeli offensive four years ago.

Watching the preparations on a recent night, about a dozen boys and girls tumbled and bounced as a red-suited fire blower shot flames out of his mouth. Bunduk the clown vied for attention, juggling while balancing on a unicycle. Another performer hurled silver knives around volunteers.

It took months to arrange the visit to the impoverished territory, where 1.6 million people live in a 25 mile-long sliver wedged between Israel and Egypt and face a punishing blockade imposed after Hamas seized control in 2007.

Aside from a brief visit in the 1990s, there's never been anything like it since Israel captured the strip from Egypt in 1967. Israeli forces and settlers withdrew in 2005.

Businessman Mohammed Faris said he remembered seeing the circus under Egyptian rule in the 1950s, when Gaza was still a liberal place with casinos and bars. He said he recalled as a child seeing men walking on nails and female acrobats flying across stage.

"It was men and women _ pretty women," he said.

Not this time around.

Organizer Mohammed Silmi said female performers had to stay behind because the circus was worried that leaping ladies in tights would offend Gazans.

He said Hamas didn't explicitly ban women but he was asked to abide by Gaza's "traditions" when he petitioned to get the circus to come.

After Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade that aimed to weaken the militants who seek Israel's destruction.

Under international pressure, it was loosened after Israel raided a blockade-defying boat and killing nine Turkish activists aboard in 2009. Key restrictions still remain on exports and importing raw materials.

All the circus equipment came through the Rafah border crossing, but expensive fees and cumbersome paperwork kept the circus from bringing lions, tigers and horses across the border.

Gaza's makeshift zoos and other merchants often bypass that problem by hauling animals through smuggling tunnels linking the territory to Egypt. In one famous scene captured on film, Gazans used a crane to lift a camel over the border fence as the animal twitched in the air in agony.

Animal welfare aside, Gaza's main zoo recently turned to improvised taxidermy to keep its deceased animals on exhibit.

The area also continues to be violent. As circus technicians were setting up their tent earlier this week, Palestinian militants were fighting Israeli forces in tit-for-tat rounds of rocket fire and retaliatory airstrikes.

Egyptian technician Khalil Gomaa, 55, jolted upon every crashing boom. He told his children he was in Jordan so they wouldn't be worried. "But I'm worried," he said.

But the circus' biggest challenge may be packing the 1,000-seater tent for the month-long visit.

A series of Palestinians interviewed didn't know what a circus was, and the tickets _ ranging from $5-$10 seats _ are too expensive for most of Gaza's traditionally large families.

Some 40 percent of Gazans live on less than $2 a day, a third are unemployed and most need U.N. donated food.

"I have never heard of a circus before," said Etimad, a 34-year-old unemployed teacher, who said it was inappropriate for women to give their full names. "But it should be cheaper so everybody can go."