And yet, having spent a total of three and a half months in Egypt on three separate visits, I could not deny that, although I always wore long trousers and long-sleeved shirts and conducted myself as decorously and seriously and modestly as my reasons for coming here would allow, I had never visited any country in which sex had so often arisen as a topic of conversation; had never witnessed more bald nudity (including not one but two men openly masturbating on city streets, dozens of bare breasts proffered at the howling mouths of infants, men and children freely relieving themselves wherever the need struck them); had never received so many offhand proposals of marriage and professions of love from mustachioed strangers, more swaggering requests for a dance or a kiss, more offers of romantic dinners; had never been the target of more wolf whistles and catcalls and distinctly salacious whispers emanating from behind dusty clumps of shrubbery. Nowhere else in the world had a smiling stranger approached me and a friend on a busy street and said, "I want fuck you," with the idle geniality one might extend in saying, "Looks like rain."
On the hotel television a mounted Dixie soldier rattled his musket at a handsome slave and jeered, "Git workin', boy! This ain't no holiday."
The three Egyptians stared at the screen in slack-jawed wonder. Their bulky turbans were silvery in the electric blue twilight. I saw that it would be futile to try to get to the bottom of what the hotel manager was telling me about the president's visit to Luxor and went out the front door into the stunning Egyptian sunlight.
I HAD COME to Egypt to take a row down the Nile. My plan, inspired by a love of rowing, was to buy a small Egyptian rowboat and row myself along the 120-mile stretch of river between the cities of Aswan and Qena. This was a trip I'd been considering for more than two years, since my first visit to Egypt when I caught a glimpse of the Nile in Cairo and realized in a moment of deep disorientation that it flowed northward. At 4,163 miles from its southernmost source - a spring in a tiny village in Burundi - to its debouchment in the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile was the longest river in the world. It rubbed against ten nations. Some 250 million people depended on it for their survival. It had fostered whole cultures and inspired immense social and scientific concepts: astronomy, height measurement, square measurement, mathematics, law and equity, money, civic order, and police. And it flowed north, which truly surprised me. That it surprised me was equally surprising. For years I had known about the many explorers - John Hanning Speke, Richard Burton, David Livingstone, and all the rest - who had headed south into deepest Africa searching for the Nile's beginning. For years I had known that the Nile flowed into the Mediterranean Sea on the north coast of Africa and not out of it. The only explanation I can offer for my astonishment at the sight of the Nile flowing northward is a simple touch of obtuse provincialism: I had never seen a river flowing northward and therefore must not have believed in my heart that it was truly possible. (I was later comforted to learn that Pharaoh Thutmose I, who had spent years ruling life along the Nile, was exactly as obtuse and provincial as I. When he traveled to Mesopotamia in the sixteenth century BC and saw the south-flowing Euphrates River, he was stunned, describing it in his notes as "a river that flows the wrong way, so that boats go northward when they sail upstream." Similarly, he dismissed the entire Persian Gulf with the epithet, "the sea of the river that flows the wrong way.")
The north-flowing Nile that I saw in Cairo was wide and coffee colored and dumpy, with piles of trash spilling down its eastern bank with the distinct look of having been recently unloaded from a municipal truck. Some of the trash was on fire, sending into the air slender strings of fishy-smelling yellow smoke. This urban strip of river - crowded with powerboats, ferries, tour boats, private yachts; spanned by four or five great bridges; and lined with skyscrapers and luxury hotels - was nearly the very end of the great Nile River. It was understandable then that it looked worn out, congested, and a bit abused. For all its fame and legend, it looked no more or less majestic than the Ohio River creeping through Pittsburgh.
Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Mahoney
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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