A while ago, I posted about a 1900s traveller’s view of a Nile landscape “bordered with papyrus reeds or bullrushes, within the tangles of which lurked hippopotami, crocodiles, dragomans, and other reptiles.”
The dragoman-reptile connection persists in a New York Times story from 1910 (Sunday 27 February, page 64: see here for full article). A wealthy man from Missouri discovers an Egypt populated by ‘natives’ who utter lines like “Ssh, excellency, the hour approaches for the sun to rise over the sand hills where the crocodile sleeps” apparently straight-faced. Tourists who fancy themselves crocodile hunters mean:
… good business for the dragoman, without whose services the traveler in the land of the Pharaohs is helpless. These men are usually Arabs or Syrians gifted with bland speech and large liquid eyes, to whom truth has no meaning and charity means any business under a profit of 60 per cent. To oblige the American millionaire the dragoman has to go forth into the sandy desert by night and bury coins and scarabs in the sand so that they will be found in the morning under the shade of the pyramids, when the rich man orders Arab boys to dig for them. Again has the dragoman to arrange by stealth for the discovery of mummies of the sacred cats buried in the tombs of Sakareh.
The tale is full of the expected local colour and Orientalist clichés. It is almost certainly fiction. The cast of characters includes a dragoman given to addressing his American client as “excellency”, a turbaned old hunter who says things like “Nile sacred river”, and a Greek cook with “a gimp in his left leg and a cast in his right eye”. The Egyptians try to fool the American with a stuffed crocodile, the cook reveals the scheme, and everyone ends up in the court house at Wadi Halfa, a building “chiefly occupied by sand flies and goats”.
The proceedings were of a most interesting character, as Mustapha Bey spoke in Turkish, Ali replied in Arabic, and the Greek cook addressed his remarks to the court in the flowery language of the Levant, while Mr. Bludso’s thoughts were unprintable in any language.