In 1895 or so (the title page does not bear a date), the famed Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo published a “Practical Handbook for Visitors to the Land of the Pharaohs” for its clientele. Shepheard’s was the place to be for foreigners in Cairo from the mid-nineteenth century until it was burnt down in 1952, and its terrace was the place to see and be seen. Famous guests included Henry Morton Stanley, Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence.
The Handbook presents an enticing picture of the hotel and its services – it is, after all, a piece of advertising. Its terrace, the reader is told, “has now enjoyed a certain world reputation for tens of years.”
This is not because here, as perhaps in no other place in the world, during the season, so many celebrities in politics, art and science, the most eminent representatives of the aristocracy by birth as well as by money are here united in dolce far niente, nor is it because the terrace is to a certain extent the object of the pilgrimages of the élite of Cairo society, who take their 5 o’clock tea here in company with distinguished strangers; but it is because the visitor sitting in an easy chair can let a picture of oriental life pass before his eyes as in a kaleidoscope, a picture which can nowhere else be found in such variety and on such a scale.
The imagery is striking. Western visitors and residents go to Shepheard’s to mingle and to interact with ‘distinguished strangers’, on a terrace raised above and cordoned off from the street. The street life of Cairo is an Oriental scene, a picture or a drama to be observed rather than engaged with.
What, then, does the Shepheard’s Handbook have to offer travellers keen to experience Egyptian life? Some Orientalist fantasies are quashed immediately. There is, contrary to common opinion, no active slave market in Egypt. Advice is given as to the best places to see dancing girls, but the reader is warned that “In no instance do they satisfy our æsthetic tastes.” On dragomans, the Handbook cautions that “every one who is not master of the language of the country will do well, under all circumstances, to make use of the services of such a guide; he will thus save himself a great deal of time and many unpleasantnesses.” The reader is then, of course, directed to the hotel’s office for a list of approved guides.
Anyone who wants to become “master of the language of the country” is rewarded with eighteen pages of vocabulary, and some further instructions, at the back of the Handbook. The “native teacher”, available on demand from the enquiry office, will doubtless have been a much greater aid to the Arabic student than the brief details of pronunciation and grammar offered by the authors of the Handbook.