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.