Cairo 1916: Where have all the dragomans gone?

I’ll be travelling to Cairo soon and I’ve been reading through my travel guide in preparation. Apparently, I need a reliable dragoman. Dragoman, you ask? Allow me to explain…

Being the historian that I am, I’ve forgone the latest Lonely Planet and instead turned to a book of a much finer vintage, a 1916 Guide to Egypt and the Sûdân* from the Macmillan’s Guides series. A couple of years ago Kiran and I picked up this slim, handsome volume from the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair.

If there was ever an underused source for historical information, old prejudices and past insights it is the modern day travel guide. They are the ugly cousins to the more refined and consciously-worded travelogues and historical tomes. What distinguishes travel guidebooks from their kin is that they are published on a regular basis, constantly “updated” with new and more correct information (or so they would have you believe), and contain pro forma a wealth of detail not guaranteed in travel writings and history books. And of course travel guides are as much a window into the world of their authors and intended audiences as they are to the far off places they intend to cover.

For instance, let us return to the matter of the dragoman. First, a dragoman refers to a translator, interpreter or guide and the term itself derives from the Arabic word for translator, tarjumān. Concerning dragomans, the 1916 edition of Guide to Egypt and the Sûdân states:

Dragomans – It is unnecessary for the ordinary tourist, who only stays in the big towns and makes a steamer trip up the river, to have a dragoman constantly. For sightseeing in Cairo it is better to take a guide or dragoman each day than to engage one for the whole period of stay. The charge is from P.T. 30-40 a day, according to the experience of the man and his knowledge of English. Travellers must remember that the dragoman, whether Egyptian or Syrian, dressed in European, Turkish, or Arab dress, is merely a servant, and should always ride on the box and not in the carriage. They are quick to take advantage of the slightest familiarity. (p. 5)

A helpful rule of thumb indeed– that my dragoman must “ride on the box and not in the carriage.” Another choice tip about bakshīsh (meaning a tip):

Bakshîsh would seem to be the first word the Egyptian child learns, so great is the cupidity of the tourist-spoilt Arab. Yet, however big the tip given, it is rare to find the recipient grateful or satisfied, and the traveller must not think he has underpaid because no thanks are returned. (p. 5)

Finally, concerning Mohammedanism or Islamism, the guide notes:

Polygamy is allowed by the law of the Koran, but is not frequently practised. Unfortunately the law makes divorce particularly easy. In the year 1903, while there were 176,474 Moslem marriages registered, there were 52,992 cases of divorce. The position of women under Egyptian Mohammedanism is deplorable, and is responsible to a large extent for the unprogressive state of society. (p. 23)

Text aside, the book also provides a number of attractive illustrated maps, several of which fold out. For the curious, here are the maps of Cairo:

If you ever chance upon an old travel guide, it is certainly worth a look.

Guide to Egypt and the Sûdân including a Description of the Route through Uganda to Mombasa. 7th edn. Macmillan’s Guide series. St. Martin’s Street, London: Macmillan and Co., Limited., 1916.

*According to the personal inscription at the beginning, this book once belonged to a Sophie Voorhees of Richmond Hill, Long Island, New York. Her handwritten notes indicate that she likely stayed at the National Hotel in 1924 and then the Shepheard’s Hotel in 1928. I’ve discovered quite a bit about Sophie Voorhees’s social life from the archived New York State newspapers at fultonhistory.com.

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One thought on “Cairo 1916: Where have all the dragomans gone?

  1. Pingback: Where have all the dragomans gone? | Interpreters, Hermeneis, Interpretes, Dragomans

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