Jim Elledge in his The Boys of Fairy Town writes:
“Among the many forms of entertainment available to the fair-goers, one of the most popular acts was the performance of a belly dancer called Fatima. A hit of the Midway Plaisance, which ‘featured over a score of exotic dances,’ Fatima’s was ‘the wildest of them all.’ She danced with such ‘wild abandon’ and her movements were so lewd that the police felt obliged to step in and stop her act almost daily. As Fatima’s act grew in popularity, a rumor began to circulate. She was really a he, the gossipers claimed, a rumor that has been since verified by historian Joe McKennon.” (p33)
So is this true?
Elledge mentions McKennon as above, but not in his notes or bibliography. He does give a citation of Joe Nickell. McKennon, writing in 1972, said of the Exposition:
“Maybe he saw Fatima, the wildest of them all, over at the Turkish Village. This female impersonator when last heard of in 1933 was the father of five and grandfather of seven.”
Nickell writing in 2005 simply quotes McKennon.
There is no evidence that any dancer used the name Little Egypt at the Exposition. However the Wikipedia page on ‘Little Egypt’ assumes that one or more did and considers three candidates for being the original Little Egypt – one of whom is Fatima Djemille. Wikipedia is the only source to give her a surname, but makes no claim at all that she might be trans in any way.
The best book on North African dancing, its popularity at the Exposition and the legend of Little Egypt is by Donna Carlton, a dancer herself, and a teacher of dance. She explains that there were both authentic and inauthentic oriental exhibits at the Exposition. The inauthentic included the Moorish Palace and the Persian Palace. The latter engaged a troupe of Parisian dancers who performed to popular songs of the day. There were however three genuine exhibitions of the danse de ventre: the Turkish Village, A Street in Cairo and the Algerian Village.
The Algerian Village featured dancers from Ouled Naïl, a Berber tribe from the Atlas mountains. Modern belly dancing uses their name for a style of dance. Carlton says:
“Female impersonators of the Ouled Naïl also entertained in some cities of Algeria (It is possible that at least two impersonators came to Chicago with the Algerian Village troupe).” (Carlton p29-33)
A Street in Cairo featured the Ghawazi, although without using that term. As Wikipedia puts it:
“there was a small number of young male performers called Khawals. The Khawals were Egyptian male tradiitonal dancers who impersonated the women of the Ghawazi and their dance. They were known to impersonate every aspect of the women including their dance and use of castanets.”We have already considered the cross-dressing belly dancer Hasan el Belbeissi in 1849 who was mentioned by Gustave Flaubert. Most histories of belly-dancing acknowledge the Ghawazi influence in both style of dance and costuming. (Carlton p36-45)
So far no Fatima. Were any of these exhibits raided by the police? Actually the three authentic exhibits were not. However the Persian Palace with its Parisian dancers imitating the oriental dance was singled out and ordered to be shut down – but it was not raided. The Persian Palace obtained a court injunction, and its shows continued.
On p62 Carlton refers again to the Turkish Village Mohammed, and calls her “Mohammed/Fatima” without any explanation. Presumably Fatima was Mohammed’s drag name. Carlton then provides photographs of Fatima in Coney Island, and on the cover of The National Police Gazette.
“Some 1896 photographs provide a rare instance of a sideshow dancer who is convincingly genuine: Fatima, a Coney Island performer. Her poses are common ones in the Oriental Dance of today. Her costume has interesting authentic touches and was probably assembled by someone familiar with Egyptian jewelry and traditional Eastern symbols.”
Fatima at Coney Island
This appears to be the same Fatima who was filmed in 1897.
Elledge tells of an elderly man who returned to Chicago in June 1920, tried to get the attention of younger men and claimed to be the Fatima from the exibition – but Elledge assumes that it is a different person.
The Wikipedia page on Little Egypt claims that Fatima Djemille died 14 March 1921. Joe McKennon claims that Fatima was last heard of in 1933.
So. Is Mohammed Fatima? Is the Fatima in Coney Island 1896 the same person? Was s/he a female impersonator, or any other kind of trans. Where does Elledge get the claims of police raids and arrests?
- Joe McKennon. A Pictorial History of the American Carnival. Carnival Publishers of Sarasota, 1972: 1.34.
- Donna Carlton. Looking for Little Egypt. IDD Books, 1995. Passim. 60, 62, 78 for Fatima.
- Erik Larson. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic & Madness and the Fair That Changed America. Vintage, 2004: 312.
- Joe Nickell. Secrets of the Sideshows. The University Press of Kentucky, 2005: 49.
- Jim Elledge. The Boys of Fairy Town: Sodomites, Female Impersonators, Third-sexers, Pansies, Queers, and Sex Morons in Chicago’s First Century. Chicago Review Press, 2018: 33-4, 89-90