Playing East: Arabs Play Arabs in 19th Century America

by Linda K. Jacobs, Mashriq & Mahjar 4 (2014), 79-110

This article explores the practice, widespread among the diasporic Syrians and North Africans of the nineteenth century, of pretending to be Arabs. “Arabs” were astute purveyors of Orientalism, both in entertainment and in trade. Syrian peddlers and merchants played the Orientalist card because they knew it would help sell their goods. In this paper, I concentrate on those Arabs who made a living entertaining Americans in the nineteenth century by dressing up. Entertainment ran the gamut from stage performance like vaudeville and circus acts to high-toned lectures, with the former being dominated by North Africans and the latter by Syrian Christians. Orientalism sold, and every Arab knew it and exploited it . . .

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