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.



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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.”

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Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award winning political and humor columnist who analyzes American and Middle East politics, and life in general. He is an author of several books.

"I write about three topics, the Middle East, politics and life in general. I often take my life experiences and offer them in an entertaining way to readers, and I take on the toughest topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict and don't pull any punches about what I feel is fair. But, my priority is always about writing the good story."

Hanania covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).

Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at, and at, and at He has also published weekly columns in the Jerusalem Post newspaper,, Newsday Newspaper in New York, the Orlando Sentinel Newspapers, and the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.

Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

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, Hanania 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. He was honored for his writing skills with two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. In 1990, Hanania was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times editors for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.

His writings have also been honored by two national Awards from ADC for his writing, and from the National Arab American Journalists Association.

The managing editor of Suburban Chicagoland Online News website, Hanania's columns also appear in the Southwest News Newspaper Group of 8 newspapers.

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