This story is inspired by the legend of Little Egypt, a turn-of-the-last-century dancer who has become one of the most well-known and enduring figures in the world of belly dance. While it is a work of fiction and the main characters are purely inventions of my imagination, the truth is that the identity of the original Little Egypt is still a source of debate among historians.
Many women over the years have claimed to be the original Little Egypt, and a widely accepted theory is that Little Egypt was a Middle Eastern woman who danced at the Street in Cairo exhibit on the Midway Plaisance of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Some, such as author and history professor Robert Muccigrosso, identify her as a Syrian dancer named Fahreda Mahzar— often billed as Fatima—who performed, as he writes in Celebrating the New World: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, “the genuine native muscle dance” from the Nile region, and who acquired the “Little Egypt” moniker as her backstage nickname.
Extensive research done by author and dancer Donna Carlton offers another explanation. Carlton spent years poring over records, photographs, and other documents, and never found concrete evidence that a dancer ever performed on the Midway under the name Little Egypt. That name, she argues in “Looking for Little Egypt,” didn’t become well- known until a few years after the World’s Fair closed, when Ashea Wabe, a dancer in New York who went by the stage name Little Egypt, became the focus of a notorious police investigation detailed at the time in the New York Times and in other newspapers around the country.
In that investigation, Police Captain George S. Chapman was charged with improperly raiding a dinner held December 19, 1896, by Herbert Barnum Seeley for his brother, Clinton Barnum Seeley, and other prominent men—an incident that came to be known as the “Awful Seeley Dinner”—where Wabe and other dancers were hired to perform indecent dances.
Carlton’s theory also supports what Sol Bloom, the entertainment entrepreneur largely responsible for the Midway Plaisance, states in his 1948 autobiography. He writes, “I most emphatically deny that I had anything whatever to do with a female entertainer known professionally as Little Egypt. At no time during the Chicago fair did this character appear on the Midway.”
As I’ve said, my characterization of Little Egypt is purely fictional, but the camel she meets, which leads to her choice of stage name, was inspired by something Sol Bloom purportedly said decades after the Fair while he served in the U.S. House of Representatives. A newspaper clipping held in the Chicago Historical Society Library’s collection shows that he told a reporter, via his secretary, that no dancer performed as Little Egypt on the Midway, but that it had been the name of one of the Street in Cairo riding camels. Bloom never implied the connection that I have made in the novel, but I found the comment to be compelling nonetheless.
In addition to Bloom, other historical figures who play important roles in this story are Potter Palmer and his wife, Berthe Honore Palmer, as well as Eadweard Muybridge. I have done my best to portray them accurately within the story’s framework, and incorporated documented facts about their lives, such as Potter Palmer’s precedent- setting move to the Gold Coast, Berthe Honore Palmer’s leadership of the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers, and Muybridge’s passion for his moving- picture invention housed in the Fair’s Zoopraxographical Hall.For further reading about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, consider:
- “The Autobiography of Sol Bloom” (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1948), by Sol Bloom.
“Celebrating the New World: Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893” (Ivan R. Dee, 1993), by Robert Muccigrosso.
For further reading about belly dance, consider:
Also, consider these DVDs: