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.
Circuses, Traveling Shows & Amusement Parks
Syrian business owners Jabour and Akoun built competing replicas of Cairo Street at Coney Island. Jabour also opened a Turkish smoking parlor, Kairo Cafe, in Brooklyn. Courtesy of New York Historical Society.
As performance entertainment grew in popularity throughout the 1870s, troupes and venues employed Arab performers as acrobats, horse riders, dancers, and actors to satiate non-Arab audiences’ fascination with the exoticized East.
Circuses like Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth and the Ringling Brothers’ Big New Parade hired Arabs, sometimes as many as 250 performers, to act out “authentic” scenes from the “East.”
Coinciding with the Chicago fair, but continuing for nearly two decades after, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World and Pawnee Bill’s Far East Show featured as many as 40 Arab immigrant acrobats and skilled equestrians in acts such as “A Group of Riffian Arabian Horsemen” and “The Real Sons of the Soudan.”
Like circuses and traveling shows, amusement parks capitalized on Oriental performances to draw crowds outside the world’s fairs. In 1894, Coney Island amusement park added belly dancers from the Chicago fair, such as the famous “Little Egypt,” because of their overwhelming popularity with American audiences.
These entertainers used their bodies and performances as a means to assert their hybridized Arab American identity. They paired their Eastern costumes and acts with the hard-working trait of the American working-class to speak of their transnational lives.
Individuals, like Marrie Bayrooty “The Greatest Whirling Dancer on Earth,” displayed impressive strength and endurance during their performances at amusement parks. This artist’s rendition adds color and character to the nationally inspired costume worn by Marrie Bayrooty circa 1908. Illustration by Erin Jester, 2020; photograph courtesy of the Khayrallah Center Archive.
Dancers at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair
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Women and children from the Arab world danced at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair as part of the Cairo Street exhibition. These women auto-Orientalized their performances to placate Western audiences.
World’s Fair Performers
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Lecturers & Sermonizers
Although most performers worked in large cities like Chicago, Atlanta, and San Francisco, others circulated through America's smaller cities and towns. These individuals delivered lectures and sermons about the "East" in churches and for civic organizations.
Born in Baalbek (modern day Lebanon) in 1886, Haidar was educated at a local English school, and later at the American Seminary for Girls located in Saida, Lebanon. In 1899, her conversion to Protestant Christianity, as well as her missionary school education, contributed to her desire to migrate the the United States. Once in the U.S., she studied at Denison University, and then received a diploma in public speaking from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where she also became the superintendent of the Baptist Mission.
Music score for “Gems of the East,” Haidar’s movie filmed near her birthplace of Baalbek. Khayrallah Center Archive.
From the 1910s to the 1930s, Haidar performed for church audiences across the United States and Canada. Often her visits to these places lasted for three days in which she would give a lecture titled “Under Syrian Stars” and perform one or two of the plays she had written concerning the Biblical characters of Naaman, Ruth and Naomi, or Esther. After 1929, her performances began to include “Gems of the East,” a moving picture show of the “Holy Land” that she and her secretary and romantic partner Lucille Burgess filmed during 1928 while sojourning near Baalbek--Haidar’s home.
In her book Under Syrian Stars, Rahme Haidar said that her motivation for giving lectures and performances was due to how little “truth” Americans knew about her homeland. While her goal was to break down negative stereotypes and falsehoods concerning the “Holy Land,” her self- or auto-Orientalization contributed to the notions of East versus West. In her performances, Rahme Haidar positioned herself as a “Syrian” princess with a 2,000-year lineage.
A map of locations Haidar performed in the United States. Khayrallah Center Archive.
Map instructions: This interactive map charts Haidar’s traveling tour across the United States and Canada
Click the map to engage with it.
Zoom in and out with the + and - symbols in the top left corner.
Each dot on the map represents one or more appearance by Haidar. The larger the dot the more performances she made at a particular location.
Click on the dots and press “Browse Features” to view individual newspaper articles about Haidar’s and Lucille Burgess’s performances. You can download the newspaper page to your computer.
Scroll through articles using arrows at the top of pop-up windows.
Released in 1922, Anna Ascends, a Broadway play and silent film, became the first silent film to feature an Arab American character. Anna Ayyoub, the title character, was cast as a hard-working, patriotic immigrant, which contrasted negative stereotypes of Arab characters portrayed in film throughout Hollywood’s “Golden Age.” Wikipedia Commons.
As the Hollywood film industry grew from its infancy to the era of silent films in the 1910s and 1920s and into the so-called Golden Age in the 1930s, Arab actors and actresses remained marginalized throughout the industry. When Arabs were represented in film, plotlines centered around stereotypical Arab villains and cultural misrepresentations of the Middle East. With the growth of television in the 1950s, these scenes flooded screens across the United States.
The Timber Queen, a silent film serial released in 1922, features Frank Lackteen as Vance in one of his earliest acting roles. In this clip, Vance, a lumberyard workman, warns Don, a farmer in love with the film's heroine Ruth, of another lumberjack's plot to sabotage Ruth's claim to the lumberyard. This scene offers a glimpse into Lackteen’s acting career, and is a unique example of a role that didn’t overtly Orientalize or racialize his character.
EXPLORE EARLY ARAB AMERICAN PERFORMANCE