Arabs at the 1893 Columbian Exposition

Arabs at the 1893 Columbian Exposition

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Arabs at the 1893 Columbian Exposition

By Ray Hanania

One of the first Arabs that many Chicagoans and Americans came to know may have been the make-believe character, Gamal El Din El Yahbi.

El Yahbi was a character created by the sponsors of the 1893 Columbian Exposition to help Americans experience the excitement and culture of the Arab World. El Yahbi “owned” an elegant home that was located in the center of the “Street in Cairo” which was one of the main attractions of the 1893 Columbian Exposition and located at the center of the fair’s Midway Plaisance.

Cairo Street, as it was informally called, was a composite of many different images that a visitor might have seen while visiting Cairo, Egypt and other Arab countries in the Middle East. It reflected the lifestyles of the early 17th Century Arabs and was designed by Max Herz, the official government architect for the Khedive of Egypt.

1893 World Columbian Exposition. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia. Looking west from peristyle court of honor and grand basin 1893.

1893 World Columbian Exposition. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia. Looking west from peristyle court of honor and grand basin 1893.

This reconstructed Arab city feature many amazing details, and included a Mosque (a Muslim house of worship) with its massive doors and ornamentation. It was built to the precise dimensions of an existing Mosque in Cairo, the Mosque of Abou Bake Mazhar, minus the towering Minaret where the Muezzin would call the faithful to prayer.

The street itself was lined with other buildings and storefronts with their balconies and ornate facades, portals and mosaic designs, over looking a fountain and open air market filled with tethered camels and donkeys that fairgoers could ride.

Cairo Street also featured the Tomb of Thi, a monument to the 5th Dynasty (3800 BC), the Temple of Luxor of the age of Amenophis III and Rameses II (1800 to 1480 BC), mummies (1700-1710 BC) and the Tomb of the Sacred Bull, built under Ptolemies (260 BC).

The population of “Cairo Street” consisted of 180 “Egyptians, Arabs, Nubians and Sudanese” and the many storied home of Gamal El Din El Yahbi, described as a “Mohammedan of the time,” was a highlighted feature.

(The term “Mohammedan” is an antiquated term that is viewed as being derogatory today and is not used.)

There were 61 merchant shops on the street, selling souvenirs. Each day they would offer two performances.

Sword dancers and candle dancers performing the Dans Du Ventre, are accompanied by musicians. There are conjurers, astrologers, fortune tellers, snake charmers and entertainment of all descriptions.

The most popular was “Little Egypt,” the nickname of Fahreda Mahzar, who danced the “Hootchie Coochie” dance (or belly dance). She was actually Armenian Arab, and was only one of a dozen dancers who performed under the same stage name at the time. Her dance was performed despite protests from Chicago’s Board of Lady Managers. William B. Gray memorialized Cairo Street in his song, She Never Saw the Streets of Cairo, with these the lyrics:

“She never saw the Streets of Cairo, on the Midway she had never strayed;
“She had never seen a Hootchie Coochie, poor little innocent maid.”

A pamphlet prepared for fairgoers concluded, “When the Columbian Exposition shall have become a thing of the past and its memories hazy with the flight of time, it there shall be one spot which shall remain brighter than all the rest, that one will be its beautiful Cairo Street, in the Midway Plaisance.”

This post has already been read 449 times!

Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award winning former Chicago City Hall reporter and Columnist who began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He covered Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992 (Mayor Daley to Mayor Daley) and has expanded to writing for newspapers around the world focussed on Middle East and American politics.

Hanania loves to write about American Arabs in politics, and focuses on Arab life in America.

Currently, he writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at He writes on American politics for the Des Plaines Valley News, Southwest News-Herald, The Regional News newspaper and the Reporter Newspapers. He also writes for the online websites and (Illinois News Network at

Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Hanania began in journalism as an activist publishing Chicago’s first English-language American Arab Newspaper “The Middle Eastern Voice” from 1975 through 1977. In 1976, he was hired by the Chicago community newspaper The Southtown Economist (Daily Southtown) and in 1985 was hired by the Chicago Sun-Times and covered Chicago City Hall for both. In 1993, he launched the “The Villager” Newspapers which covered 12 Southwest Chicagoland suburban regions. In 2004, he published “The National Arab American Times” monthly newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East ethnic food stores in 48 American States.

Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media;In 2009, he received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. Hanania has also received two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and in 1990 was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.

Hanania’s writings have been published in newspapers around the world. Formerly syndicated by Creators Syndicate, Hanania also has written news, features and Opinion Columns for Al Jazeera English, the Jerusalem Post,, Arab News, Saudi Gazette, Newsday in New York, the Orlando Sentinel, the Houston Chronicle, The Daily Star, the News of the World, the Daily Yomimuri in Tokyo, Chicago Magazine, the Arlington Heights Daily Herald, and Aramco Magazine. His political columns are published in the Southwest News-Herald and Des Plaines Valley News, Regional News and Palos Reporter newspapers in Chicagoland. Hanania is the President/CEO of Urban Strategies Group media and public affairs consulting which has clients in Illinois, Florida, Michigan and Washington D.C.

Hanania is Palestinian Christian from prominent Bethlehem and Jerusalem families. His wife and son are Jewish and he performs standup comedy lampooning Arab-Jewish relations, advocating for peace based on non-violence, mutual recognition and Two-States.

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