Few people (who don’t study nineteenth century diplomats and interpreters) now use the term ‘dragoman’. In the 1920s, enough were still familiar with it – through the accounts of tourists in Egypt and the Middle East – that it could be used as a metaphor for another type of ‘guide’.
The London Dragoman was a monthly guidebook and listings magazine that ran from 1927-1928. The cover of the July 1928 issue features the eponymous dragoman, in a turban and hoop earrings, with a pencil moustache above feminine lips, holding a collection of London’s most famous sights. The image is more pantomime genie than professional tourist guide. He has “London at his finger tips”.
The dragoman can “help you in any difficulty, from where to get your socks mended to advising you as to the best route to India.” He can send messenger boys to wait in queues for theatre tickets. London’s entertainments include the Zoo, with camel and elephant rides, and the opportunity to purchase “duplicate animals” (!). The theatre listings offer all sorts of escapism: a production of Dracula, “frank” social dramas, and the notorious actress Tallulah Bankhead in “the adventures of a professional dancer in Monte Carlo.” The advertisements include holidays in Sweden, the “original sea suit”, liqueur chocolates and a hairdressing salon.
Despite the testimonials printed in the magazine, the London Dragoman was wound up in January 1929, in debt. My copies of the issues of July 1927 and 1928 have been well used by their owners, whoever they were. One has ticked off sights to see, or which have been seen, such as the British Museum. The other has written inside the back cover “Faire aux Puces [flea market], Petticoat Lane London”, suggesting a Francophone tourist.
More pictures here: London Dragoman
The relief above comes from the pyramid temple of the Old Kingdom Pharaoh Sahure at Abusir, constructed in the mid-third millennium BC. Beneath a text in praise of Sahure, we find the depiction of a boat full of foreigners from the Near East, including one man captioned in hieroglyphs as ‘a’. (The arm sign representing ayin, with a kilt determinative.) This term ‘a’ appears in several forms in ancient Egyptian: ‘Aaa’ (aleph, ayin, ayin) and ‘iaau’ are variants. It comes from a root meaning to ‘babble’ or ‘bray’ like a donkey, and its meaning seems to have been widened to include incomprehensible or foreign speech.
So who are the people marked ‘a’ in the reliefs at Abusir? Opinions vary. They may be Egyptian officials in charge of relations with foreigners. They may be interpreters (Egyptian or foreign). Or – the suggestion which makes most sense to me – people who combined a linguistic role with a more general mediatory one, in trade and diplomacy
The most critical modern discussion of the term is Lanny Bell’s 1976 dissertation on Interpreters and Egyptianized Nubians, available here.
Cabinet photographs of people and places were popular souvenirs from Egypt in the late nineteenth century. These examples do not bear the name of the photographer, but Cairo in the 1880s and 90s boasted a number of photographic studios which catered to the European tourist market.
As can be seen from the handwriting, these cards were acquired by the same person. They show two tourist sites – Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria and the Tombs of the Caliphs in Cairo – but also a man in eastern dress, leaning on a stick, annotated ‘Turkish Egyptian Dragoman or guide.’
This kind of objectification of local people in ‘picturesque’ garb is common in the European and American travel literature of the period. It plays into wider and more pervasive patterns of western representation and domination of the east. (I presume we’ve all read Said’s Orientalism? Good, I’ll continue.) This card is a complicated object in so many ways: produced by an imported western technology, in Egypt, representing an Egyptian, sold to a westerner, who had him/herself had Egypt represented to them by an Egyptian interpreter. I got it on ebay.