Three years ago, Timmy Mowafi witnessed one of the strangest events to ever occur in Egypt. Until two weeks ago.
While watching the news coverage of the doomed Al-Jazeera journalists' trial, I realised Mohamed Fahmy was in fact somebody that I used to know.
It was the summer of 2011, Egypt had no leader, violence ran rife, police and security was scarce, and a man put it upon himself to fight a lion to the death.
Now, much to everyone's chagrin the man in question, 25-year old bodybuilder Sayed El Essawy, attempted to hide the fact that this act was clearly some sort of ego- and steroid-driven maniacal attempt at fame by claiming a more altruistic stance to the matter; he told the press that he was doing it to boost the country’s flailing tourism industry, which naturally was the stupidest thing anyone had ever heard, until a Gotye video sentenced three respected Al-Jazeera journalists to prison.
Now, generally speaking, when a country is in socio-political turmoil, with cases of harassment and hooliganism constantly being portrayed in the news, the last thing you want to hear as a holiday planner is that there are also juiced-up maniacs running around killing lions with their bare hands. We have the pyramids: proof of an ancient genius civilisation, a surreal man-made wonder, but killing an innocent feline? Yeah, that’s what’s going to get people to come. Can you imagine the TripAdvisor reviews? "Yeah mate, them triangles and that were great, but then I saw a guy fuck up a big cat, don't fink I'll be goin’ back anytime soon…" (Some cyclical irony being that countries like Australia are now boycotting travelling to Egypt because of the kangaroo courts... no pun intended.)
So when I was asked, after a chance meeting with Fahmy, who was working with CNN at the time, to go check out the fight for myself, naturally I said yes. I mean it's a man fighting a lion… how surreal, how brilliant. Couldn’t wait.
I hopped into a 4 x 4 with a couple of equally enthusiastic friends and followed Fahmy’s car to the eventual destination, four (or a million) hours away at a super-secret location in Damietta, stopping off at Mansoura on the way. (Funny city Mansoura; all I can recollect is a ratio of five wedding dress shops to one normal shop, and yet there was not a single woman in sight on the streets. Hmm.)
Walking into a Mansoura shawerma café, we were greeted by droves of middle aged white men with notepads and photographers, tapping away furiously on their Blackberries. It seemed much of the international press had caught wind of this story from the angle of animal cruelty and were dispatched to cover it; everyone from BBC and TIME to the Wall Street Journal wanted to know if this man was for real. He most certainly was.
Through empty crop fields, disparate brick shacks and a donkey or two, we found ourselves at a sandy opening where people began to flood in, only about one hundred or so selected press, locals and friends, and the family of the fighter.
Past the crowd, inside a colossal especially-built cage painted as an Egyptian flag, the lion bathed in the sweltering heat, clearly malnourished, scabs and scars prevalent all over his body, only half his teeth intact, barely moving an inch. The lion never had a hope in hell and cut a pathetic figure in comparison to the uni-browed, broad-shouldered El Essawy, leaning forward in a plastic chair outside the cage, building tension, staring daggers at the lion with his spear and shield as if right out of a Roman gladiator movie.
This staring contest lasted rather long whilst El Essawy soaked up the attention, grunting and roaring, performing, whilst the lion continued to lie dormant. Eventually, he rose from his seat and tentatively entered the cage, as the lion peered forward. The man was, if nothing else, an entertainer. El Essawy approached the lion, smacking the floor close to him with his spear. The lion leaped up pseudo-aggressively and the fighter jumped back out of the cage. The crowd gasped, half in awe, half in horror. This was actually happening.
This game of cat and mouse, approaching the lion and then backing off, lasted so long, that some of the journalists actually began to heckle, egging him on to get it over with. El Essawy took a deep breath, acting as if he’d just found the courage to fight for real, stepped into the cage once again, locked the door and began to encircle the lion, whose head was darting back and forth, not letting the fighter out of his sights. Then, as if this whole situation couldn’t get any weirder, he brandished an Israeli flag from his pants, waving it manically in the air.
He turned to the sea of western journalists, “Millions of children are dying every day in Gaza, and yet you come here to see a lion fight. You don’t cover the disasters in Gaza! You just want to see blood, that is all!” Wearing a kefeyah and pro-Palestinian wifebeater, he put his middle finger up to the flag, threw it to the floor and spat on it. That was an unexpected turn, I thought, as the lion continued to look on, clearly not entertained.
Shortly after, El Essawy screamed at the crowd, asking them if he should give the lion mercy, because he is merciful, and Middle Eastern people aren’t as aggressive as the West makes out or something, I’m not sure - by this point the web of ridiculous reasons as to why he’s fighting a lion became vast and absurd. Eventually he showed mercy to the half-asleep lion, backed off out of the cage and was carried off as a victor by the local village people. I was left standing in front of an empty cage in Damietta, wondering why.
Ironically, three years later the lion is free. However, a handful of the same journalists watched on in a Cairo courtroom as Mohammed Fahmy, ex-Al-Jazeera Bureau Chief, was sat in a cage… fighting a different lion. Egyptian media really is quite the circus.Err, while you're at it… sign the petition to stop big game lion hunting.