The Polyglot Mask: Multilingual Practices and Discourses in the Egyptian 1890s

By Olga Verlato
Submitted to Session P5362 (Topics in Arabic Language, 2018 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper aims at investigating the sociocultural and political significance of multilingual printing in late nineteenth-century Egypt. I specifically focus on the case of the Italian, Cairo-based newspaper Il Cosmopolita (est. 1890), a self-declared “polyglot” publication featuring Italian, French, English, Arabic, Ottoman, and Greek. By surveying the strategic uses as well as discursive championing of multilingualism in the publication overtime, I expose the newspaper’s implicit tension between the legitimizing potential associated with polyglot inclusiveness, and its inscription within a hierarchy of languages with Italian, and the interests of the Italian community in Egypt, at its top. This tension, I suggest, unfolded in three mutually reinforcing areas: language selection according to the imagined public, multilingual proficiency as a key site for personal affirmation, and polyglotism as a conduit for the safeguarding of Italian interests locally.

I thus demonstrate that a notion of cosmopolitan coexistence between different linguistic communities was championed by the newspaper as a viable political project aimed at contrasting the perceived jeopardy of the Italian press in Egypt and of the country’s political ambitions, in particular vis-à-vis British colonization. In fact, Il Cosmopolita attempted to build a series of shifting and at times conflicting alliances with various local linguistic groups, in particular the British administration and the Egyptian community at large. From this perspective, language selection and foreign language proficiency ultimately emerged as uniquely productive conduits for voicing political and cultural tensions in the colonial context.

As a broader historical intervention, this paper lays the basis for a systematic survey of multilingualism in colonial Egypt, and an assessment of multilingual expertise as a defining trait of the press in the country at large. Moreover, by focusing on this European, non-colonizer printing venture, I problematize a dichotomy between ‘colonizer’ and ‘colonized,’ to instead expose the intricate network of political and cultural aspirations and projects that intersected in the Egyptian fin de siècle.