For Ms. el-Helw, though, lions are a family business. Her grandmother Mahassen was the Arab world’s first female lion tamer, and her father, Ibrahim, was a star of Egypt’s state-run National Circus during its heyday in the 1980s.
Her father, who married three times, had seven daughters but, try as he might, no sons. So he passed his skills, and his passion, to his daughters.
Two followed him into the ring: Ms. el-Helw, 38, who succeeded her father as a lion tamer at the National Circus, and her sister Ousa, 35, who performs at a private circus. Their aunt, Faten, and two of their cousins are also in the business, as is a sixth woman not part of the family.
“Wild animal tamer” reads the professional description on Ms el-Helw’s passport.
The once-proud National Circus, founded in 1966, has fallen on hard times. Based at a shabby tent by the Nile in Cairo, it sells tickets for $1.80 to $3.50, and draws mostly school groups and working-class families.
Its act — clowns, jugglers, snake charmers — has a tired feel, and performers complain about a lack of investment. Wealthier Egyptians prefer more innovative, expensive shows like Cirque du Soleil.
Like much else, Egypt’s circuses have closed as part of efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Last summer, though, a giant image of Ms. el-Helw adorned the entrance to a traveling edition of the National Circus, which had come to Gamasa, a working-class resort on Egypt’s north coast where women lounge on the beach in all-covering cloaks.