Before the turn of the twentieth century, Arab actors and performers in the United States entered the financially lucrative arena of “exotic” spectacles that was fueled by Euro-Americans’ desire for “Oriental” culture and a growing global entertainment industry. Circuses, amusement parks, traveling shows, and world’s fairs offered some of these early immigrants a pathway to the United States, and work to make a living. This trend continued into the burgeoning film industry with Arab actors and actresses portraying mainly “villains.” While financially profitable, these shows simultaneously fostered U.S. Orientalist attitudes towards Arab cultures and Arab Americans’ bodies, and stereotyped the “Arab” as the exotic but backward antithesis of the “modern” American. Some performers struggled to counter this Orientalist pastiche by painting an “East” as a place of rich cultures and venerable civilizations which predate and anticipate the “West.” They also positioned themselves as uniquely able to mediate between the two places, thus aiming to deprive their audiences of the power of their condescending gaze.
Performers in front of the Streets of Cairo exhibition at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Library of Congress.
Themes from the Chicago Exposition’s Cairo Street became immersed in American culture through music and dance, solidifying stereotypical perceptions of the Middle East. Courtesy of Chicago History Museum.
As early as the 1870s, Arab performers captivated American audiences at world’s fairs. In Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis performers capitalized on Americans’ love affair with “the Orient,” objectifying their bodies and customs to create spectacles of belly dancing, Arabic singing, and “re-enactment” of public and private lives. These performances contributed to the creation of Arab stereotypes that permeated Western society and showed that Arab performers understood the Orientalist constraints they performed within to please their Euro-American audiences.
The 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago provided the first and greatest mass exposure of Americans to “Oriental” culture. There, nearly 28 million visitors walked across 690 acres of exhibitions from 46 countries. The most popular region was the collection of Middle Eastern and North African exhibits including: the Algerian and Tunisian Village, A Street in Cairo, the Moorish Place, the Persian Concession, and the Turkish Village. These concessions (many constructed and run by early Arab immigrants) responded to America’s desire for the Oriental “exotic” with “authentic” life-sized replicas of coffee houses, bazaars, Bedouin villages, and mosques. They invited visitors into their exhibits with live entertainment by belly dancers, sword fighters, and strongmen, while performers reenacted Muslim wedding ceremonies, and sold camel rides, souvenirs, and enticing street food.