Le Drogman Arabe, by Joseph Harfouch, is a great little teach-yourself book for Arabic, with all the comforting grammatical patterns and useful phrases an upper-class francophone might need on an Oriental tour. This “livre utile et pratique” was designed for those who wished to gain a working knowledge of “la belle mais difficile langue arabe”.
It’s full of gems – how to order a servant to put a light in the chandelier, how to affirm that the parcel you’re mailing to Europe contains no explosives, inflammable materials, or other prohibited items – but my favourite is the section on hiring a ‘real’ dragoman.
Harfouch, Joseph (1894) Le drogman arabe, ou, Guide pratique de l’arabe parlé en caractères figurés: pour le Syrie, la Palestine et l’Egypte. Beyrouth: Libr. de l’imprimerie catholique.
A great article from the Guardian on 12 Untranslatable Words, skewering – among other linguistic myths – the old ‘Inuit words for snow’ chestnut, the concept of untranslatability, and the extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis.
Herodotus had plenty to say about the Great Pyramid at Giza (very big, very old), but like any more recent tourist in Egypt, he was led by his dragoman:
On the pyramid it is declared in Egyptian writing how much was spent on radishes and onions and leeks for the workmen, and if I rightly remember that which the interpreter said in reading to me this inscription, a sum of one thousand six hundred talents of silver was spent. (Histories II 125.)
Can we really let him get away with poor research practice like this? The ever-fabulous George Ade (In Pastures New, 1906) thinks not:
Herodotus discovered some large hieroglyphics on the face of the Pyramid and asked the guide for a translation. It is now supposed that the guide could not read. Anyone with education or social standing wouldn’t have been a guide, even in that remote period. But this guide wanted to appear to be earning his salary and be justified in demanding a tip, so he said that the inscription told how much garlic and onions the labourers had consumed while at work on the job, and just how much these had cost. Herodotus put it all down in his notebook without batting an eye.
“How much did they spend for onions and garlic?” he asked, poising his pencil.
The guide waited for a moment, so that his imagination could get a running start, and then he replied, “They cost 1600 talents of silver.”
Herodotus told his story and got away with it. … Marco Polo, Mark Twain, and all the other great travellers of history love to tell tall tales once in a while, but the garlic story by Herodotus will doubtless be regarded as a record performance for a long time to come.
I’ve become used to reading of the frustrations of European and American travellers in dealing with their dragomans – and suspecting that dragomans themselves would tell a different side to the story. Some of the depictions verge on the affectionate. The humorist George Ade, in Egypt in the early 1900s, introduces a succession of devious dragomans at each stop along the Nile (In Pastures New, 1906). These include “the wonderful Hassim” at Asiut:
If you should visit Assiut and wish to become acquainted with the very pink and flower of villainy, hunt up Hassim. Perhaps it will be unnecessary to hunt him up. He will be waiting for you, just as he was waiting for us. …
We shall remember Hassim. He surrounded his cheap trickeries with such a glamour of Oriental ceremony and played his part with such a terrific show of earnestness that he made the afternoon wholly enjoyable.
Ade admires the dragoman’s professional skill, even if it is at his own expense. In his fantasy of the Nile landscape, the river is “bordered with papyrus reeds or bullrushes, within the tangles of which lurked hippopotami, crocodiles, dragomans, and other reptiles.”
A somewhat later traveller’s account presents a not dissimilar picture, but shorn of humour and affection:
The dragomen are as pestiferous as Egyptian flies. They swarm around hotel doorways and entrances to tourist attractions, standing or squatting patiently through the long hours, but buzzing into action the instant a tourist appears.
The date of this description? 1961.
The Ottawa Herald (Ottawa, Kansas) · Mon, Jun 5, 1961 · Page 4.