The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

A gladiator with a satellite dish for a shield

 (J. Hammond)

We blogged before about the man who wanted to fight a lion. Unfortunately, he went ahead with his plan and our correspondent J. Hammond was there to witness it all.

Update: Now with images.

Al-Sayed al-Essawy claims to have dreamed of facing a lion since age thirteen. This weekend al-Essawy finally got his chance. The 25 year old resident of Mansoura proved to be one of Egypt’s most able showmen in creating international attention for his match. Despite arrests by the Egyptian government and international campaigns to stop the fight, al-Essawy faced the lion and in doing so fulfilled his dream.

Journalists and well-wishers were driven to a secret location on the edge of an open field a few hours north of Mansoura for the fight. After much hype, al-Essawy finally entered the cage in front of a hundred or so cheering onlookers. Al-Essawy bristled with melee weapons: a two pronged spear to keep the lion at bay, a machete strapped to one leg and a shield made from an old satellite TV dish. He yelled at the crowd to be quiet so he could focus on the lion. Al-Essawy’s facial expressions alternated between fear and bravado, even when taunting his feline opponent. He yelled at it, stuck his tongue out, and at one point poked at it with his trident. Al-Essawy’s provocations were all completed from a safe distance and at one point he sat on a green lawn chair brought into the cage for his comfort.

After a few minutes he approached the lion with an Israeli flag held on the end of his military fork. For a moment fear flashed across his face as he draped the lion with an Israeli flag. Then he abruptly left the ring to cheers from the crowd. He was hoisted on the shoulders of his friends, his mother kissed him, and there was a full clip of celebratory gunfire.

Al-Essawy timed the late afternoon fight to take full advantage of the setting sun which made for stunning photography. For a victory pose he climbed atop of the cage for a photo with a handmade Egyptian flag fluttering in the breeze as a backdrop. Turning to the mix of local villagers and al-Essawy’s own friends from Mansoura he asked, “Who is the lion now?”

When We Were Kings

Far from being “King of the Jungle” the lion seemed confused, dehydrated and possibly drugged as it stayed in one corner of the ring. The lion gave one feeble roar but largely ignored his opponent. The lion’s body showed open wounds above its right eye, on the tail and around the anus. An online petition to stop the fight attracted nearly 5,000 signatories and was aimed at the “President of the Arab Republic of Egypt.".  On Twitter some animal rights activists called on NATO to launch airstrikes against those in attendance. 

(J. Hammond)

Excepting the treatment of the lion, the performance was handled rather professionally. Al-Essawy was at all times assisted by several body-builders, who handed him weapons and dealt with the crowds. Despite billing himself as the world’s strongest man (other Egyptians might contest this), he must have lacked some degree of faith in his abilities. Men outside the cage armed with European made pistols stood ready to execute the lion if needed.

His mother dressed in all black was with him throughout the day. She gave interviews, looked after his collection of melee weapons and sat behind him as he prepared to enter the ring. She kissed and blessed him warmly prior to his brief Israel-bashing speech he gave before entering the ring. In interviews she talked confidently and with pride about her son “the lion fighter” and his strength. But, when the Egyptian TV cameras were elsewhere her face betrayed moments of worry. It was difficult to gauge to what extent she realized the fix was in.

Al-Essawy’s performance contradicted himself in several ways. After vowing to fight barehanded he entered the open-roofed cage heavily armed. At one point he claimed to have taken care of this lion for five months. At another juncture he said that this was only his second time seeing the lion.

In withdrawing from the battle, Essawy kept his original promise that the outcome of the fight was “up to the lion.” Mohammed, A local villager who had come to see the fight thought the result was just, “It was the best possible outcome no lion was killed and no human was injured.” Many locals complained the event was a farce and others believed the event would damage Egypt’s image and tourism prospects.

A large number of major media outlets covered the exhibition. Including, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, Al-Arabiya, and Egypt’s own Awesome magazine, all of whom sent correspondents or reported on the lion story at some point. Three Egyptian TV channels also made the trip from Mansoura to Cairo. This is a bit shameful given plenty of news worthy stories were happening elsewhere in Egypt. That same day sectarian clashes broke out in Upper Egypt and the day before pro-Mubarak supporters had held a violent protest in Cairo. There are plenty of real stories about Egypt’s transition to cover in Egypt (and read about) than a gladiator with a satellite dish for a shield.