Little Egypt on the American prairie

November 19, 1996|By Andrei Codrescu

I HAD A GIG at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, a place I knew nothing about, so I put out some feelers and came up with this, by e-mail, from a friend: ''Carbondale, Illinois, is known as the belly-dancer capital of the world.''

Now, I know about this ''capital of the world,'' fetish: I used to live at one time between the garlic and the artichoke capitals of the world. You can imagine how proud we looked and smelled. So when Professor Rick Williams picked me up at the minuscule airport in Marion, I naturally asked about these belly dancers.

There was some awkwardness. ''It's true,'' the professor said, ''that this area is known as Little Egypt.'' He explained that all of Southern Illinois was known by that name, and that the school mascot of Southern Illinois was the saluki, an Egyptian breed of dog.

In addition, we were near the town of Cairo, where the Ohio goes into the Mississippi, and the towns of Karnak, Thebes, Goshen, and Dongola.

But he wouldn't touch those dancers with a 10-foot pole.

No pyramids

I looked around as we were driving: MacDonald's, Taco Bell, Exxon, Pizza Hut. No pyramids, no gauzy shapes.

But Egypt was there. There was EGYPT PHOTO, for instance, a mysterious photo shop where, I imagined, pictures were obtained by means of a photographic technique known only to the ancient Egyptians.

At the college, I gingerly probed the mystery some more. The people of Southern Illinois were known, I was told, either as Egyptians or as suckers. The mystery was growing.

Finally, an eminent historian told me that Egypt may have attached to the region during a crop failure in the 1830s when this area's crop corn survived, thus causing the neighboring counties to look upon an ancients looked upon the granaries of Egypt. It seemed far-fetched, even given the 19th century's well-known penchant for grandeur.

The explanation for ''suckers'' was even more outre: During a period of draught, the people in the region drank water by means of cane straws from crawfish holes in the ground.

A shady guy

The mythic origin of these Egyptian suckers continued to baffle me until a shady guy with sunglasses, who used to be a professor until they denied him tenure, pulled me aside and whispered: ''Little Egypt was a belly dancer famous for her performances at the 1893 Columbian exposition in Chicago.''

Aha! This famous hootchy-kootchy gal was right from around here. And it was she who taught the locals how to suck from crawfish holes with cane straws. It figures, doesn't it?

Andrei Codrescu wrote ''The Dog with the Chip in his Neck,'' now in bookstores everywhere.

Pub Date: 11/19/96

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