Audio, Editorial, Video

The Streets of Cairo in Coney Island from 1890s-1900s

There are surely hundreds of regional interpretations of this tune, few knows of its origin and its importance to the New York City midway and sideshows of the early nineteenth century. Best known as “The Streets of Cairo,” it is oftentimes connected to visions of Arabia and Egypt, to snake charmers, belly dancers, and other mysterious notions of Near East mysticism.

Although not quite “a place in France,” there were certain locations in New York where the fabled song came to life. “The Streets of Cairo” sideshow was constructed on Surf Avenue, Coney Island, after the success of the Algerian Village at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893.

Sol Bloom, the entertainment director of the Columbian exposition, claimed to have composed the melody as the theme for the “Algerian” performances. (The song can actually be traced back much further to the 1700s Arabic song “Kradoutja”). Because Bloom did not copyright the song, New York vaudevillian entertainers quickly purloined the tune.


Byron and Company. Show at Coney Island with a man “levitating” a woman on stage, ca. 1908.


Byron and Company. Crowd wandering through the “Streets of Cairo” show with camels at Coney Island, ca 1896.

The Victorian taste for Oriental exoticism was insatiable. It was a time of ardent ethnographic interest; the richly illustrated National Geographic Magazinelaunched in 1888 and commercial photographs of the region were sold for home entertainment in the form of stereographs and ready-made travel albums. The awe-inspiring sight of the ancient, enigmatic pyramids and startlingly divergent culture was both frightening and alluring. During a time when overseas tourism was reserved for the elite, “The Streets of Cairo” transformed the sands of Coney Island Beach into that of an Arabic desert for the middle and working classes. It is likely that the Atlantic Ocean beyond its walls was a welcomed mirage on sweltering summer days.


Byron and Company. Crowd watching a barker at the “Streets of Cairo” show at Coney Island, ca 1896.

The above photograph depicts the carnival “barker.”  Perhaps he is shouting this enticing pitch:

“This way for the Streets of Cairo! One hundred and fifty Oriental beauties! The warmest spectacle on earth! Pre-sen-ting Little Egypt! See her prance, see her wriggle! See her dance the Hootchy Kootchy! Anywhere else but in the ocean breezes of Coney Island she would be consumed by her own fire! Don’t rush! Don’t crowd! Plenty of seats for all!…When she dances, every fiber and every tissue in her entire anatomy shakes like a jar of jelly from your grandmother’s Thanksgiving dinner. Now, gentlemen, I don’t say that she’s hot. But I do say that she is as hot as a red hot stove on the fourth day of July in the hottest county in the state.”
Good Old Coney Island, Edo McCullough


Byron and Company. Woman gypsy/dancer posing outside at Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York.

“Little Egypt” became an adopted stage name for the main dancers of the “Streets of Cairo” exhibit, the most famous of whom were Farida Mazar Spyropoulos, Ashea Wabe, and Fatima Djemille. The “hootchy cootchy” they performed was a caricature of traditional Middle Eastern dance that was more like an early form of burlesque. Although under an ethnographic guise, this risqué performance was perceived as quite provocative at the time.  This oriental cliché quickly became a fad (up to 20 “cootchy shows” would be performed at one time) and “Little Egypt” attained celebrity status. Ashea Wabe made front page news when she was busted for dancing at socialite Herbert Seeley’s Fifth Avenue Bachelor Party in 1896; the scandal came to an unfortunate end in 1906 when she was found dead by asphyxiation, leaving behind a $200,000 fortune.


Byron and Company. Woman gypsy/dancer seated in her side-show theatre at Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York.

This photograph depicts a “Little Egypt” dancer smoking a Hookah in her harem. One can imagine the scent of tobacco and incense in the densely packed theatre. Even at Coney Island, the attire of the audience would have been conservative, with suit jackets and long dresses scarcely baring an ankle or wrist. In stark contrast, the dancer’s gauzy silks and potentially exposed midriff must have been startling.


Byron and Company. A woman in a carnival or side-show with three large pythons, ca 1895. Museum of the City of New York.

A precedent to “The Streets of Cairo,” female snake charmers added a touch of Eastern mysticism to the classic side show lineup. The snake charming tradition dates back to Ancient Egypt and is still practiced today at the Coney Island Circus Sideshow.


Byron and Company. Arabian Acrobats demonstrating acrobatic feats on the roof of Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre, ca 1908. Museum of the City of New York.

For those who chose not to make the expedition down to Coney Island for their Oriental fix, the uniquely landscaped roof of Hammerstein’s Victoria (42nd Street at 7th Avenue) served as an alternative. Hammerstein produced a vaudeville adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé that emphasized  the notorious “Dance of the Seven Veils” and ran an astonishing 22 weeks. The above photograph depicts the incredible feats of strength performed by Arabic acrobats, it is possible that a similar display was presented as an opening act.


Byron and Company. The operatic adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” with music by Richard Strauss, presented at the Metropolitan Opera House on January 22, 1907. Museum of the City of New York.

In 1907 the Near East dance fad attempted to cross over from sideshow to center stage when the Metropolitan Opera presented Richard Strauss’s interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. It was the most elaborate and expensive production to date, costing nearly $20,000. The famous belly dance and kissing finalé was considered a disgrace and the show closed after the opening night, and would not be performed at the Met again for twenty-seven years.  The  New York Times  headline bluntly states the reaction of the upper class: “How the Audience Took It: Many Disgusted by the Dance and the Kissing of the Head.”


Byron and Company. Beggar among the crowd on Surf Avenue, Coney Island, ca 1896. Museum of the City of New York.

As the first wave of British and French colonialism came to an end,  the tawdry cultural stereotypes of the Middle East lost popularity in the sideshow  circuit.  Although the Hootchy Cootchy show faded from view as if an apparition, American culture remains deeply entranced by the melody. The next time you hear the infamous tune, peer through the “hole in the wall” to old New York and, if possible, allow yourself to be seduced by Little Egypt.


Mayors and residents of France drives away nomadic caravans installed illegally without waiting for the court decisions.

Last week at Guérande, a small town in France, near Nantes, the mayor deputy, Mr Christophe Priou has threatened to resign in order to protest to the illegal installation of 150 families on a football field.

In May, “about 50 people” in Montévrain, located two kilometers from Disneyland, near Paris, responded to a call on Facebook of mayor Robache Christian in front of what he described as a “savage invasion”.

The mayor of this village of 8,700 inhabitants tried to prevent the installation of 150 evangelical Gypsy caravans in the municipal park.!UAhl2Pg4vH7Bg/

Editorial, Video

Where the streets have no name…


The municipality of Iasi, a North East town of Romania, wants to demolish the tower of flats where few people lived there in pure misery. Most apartments have no doors and no windows, and residents are without running water, the sanitation being defective.

According to representatives of the City Hall of Iasi, the block is in an advanced state of decay.

Evacuation of residents began late last week, and the City Hall has ordered those standing there illegally to leave the apartments.

The evacuated residents said that they have no other place to live and the Iasi City Hall offered them no alternative.

“I have four kids, what do I do now? I went to the town hall several times to ask them for a shelter, but no one helped,” the said Mary N., one of the evacuated family.

Please watch the video here.

Editorial, Video

Actrices somos a lo mejor una vez al mes, pero gitanas somos toda la vida – Part 4


Una casa para Bernarda Alba, una historia insólita de superación y aventuras narrada por sus propias protagonistas.

Ocho mujeres gitanas del barrio chabolista de El Vacie, en Sevilla, han saltado a la fama a raíz de la representación teatral de “La Casa de Bernarda Alba”, de Federico García Lorca. Sus vidas han cambiado, pero ¿Hasta qué punto lo han hecho? ¿Cómo es el recorrido entre la marginación y la popularidad?

El sevillano asentamiento chabolista de El Vacie es el más antiguo de España. En él viven más de novecientas personas. Cuando los responsables el grupo teatral Atalaya –que cuenta con el Premio Nacional de Teatro – iniciaron el proyecto ‘Teatro Imarginario’ para trabajar con diferentes sectores marginales de la sociedad, visitaron una por una todas las chabolas de El Vacie buscando las ocho mujeres que interpretasen la obra de Lorca.

Si ya ha sido un gran reto que esas mujeres sin experiencia diesen vida a los personajes lorquianos, el verdadero logro ha estado en superar las circunstancias personales de cada una, porque casi ninguna sabe leer ni escribir. ‘La gente me decía, tú está loca ¿cómo vas a hacer una obra de teatro con estas mujeres ágrafas? Y es mucho más emocionante,.. es como capturar un trozo de vida’, dice Pepa Gamboa, la directora de la obra.

Actrices somos a lo mejor una vez al mes, pero gitanas somos toda la vida

‘Una casa para Bernarda Alba’ hace el seguimiento del éxito incontestable que consiguieron, los premios y reconocimientos y las giras previstas. Pero el documental también recoge la situación contradictoria en la que viven esas ocho mujeres. ’No comemos del teatro, nuestra vida es la de siempre, comemos de la chatarra. Actrices somos a lo mejor una vez al mes, pero gitanas somos toda la vida’, dice Lole del Campo, que en la obra da vida a Martirio.

El papel de los hombres

También resulta interesante el papel de los maridos y padres de las actrices. Mientras Francisco, el padre de Isabel, valora positivamente el dinero que su hija lleva a la casa: “casi todo el dinero me lo da a mí y eso nos viene bien”.

Otros, como Manuel, el marido de Rocío, no está tan contento. ‘Mucho rollo, las mujeres están siete u ocho días de vacaciones y yo me tengo que quedar con los niños’, dice.

Después de viajar, volar por primera vez, conocer ciudades y gentes y asomarse a un mundo diferente, vuelven a sus vidas y sus chabolas, donde las necesidades siguen siendo las mismas. “La gente nos dice que hemos cambiado… y ha cambiado como la gente nos mira y nos trata….pero cuando nos vamos de gira, los maridos se quedan en las chabolas y cuando llueve tienen que sacar el agua a cubos”, explica Rocío Montero, la mujer que encarna a Bernarda Alba.