Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff records Rosemary Mahoney's
solo journey rowing down the River Nile - a river that flows south to north,
which intrigues her*.
Mahoney's prose is lovely: "The more I learned about the Nile, the less
forbidding it seemed. I had so often imagined rowing on the Nile that doing so
had begun to feel less like a fantasy and more like a memory that only wanted
its corresponding action rightfully exercised." Her descriptions of the scenery,
topography and animals of Egypt paint vivid pictures in the reader's mind.
Rowing the Nile alone could be a daunting task for any foreigner, but more so for a woman. While the parts of the river she traverses (from Aswan to Qena) are benign, civil unrest and Egyptian attitudes to women make it challenging. Although westerners tend to think of Egypt as one of the most westernized Middle Eastern societies, attitudes toward women are heavily influenced by the Muslim religion. Many women still wear the hijab, which covers the head and neck, some women wear the even more concealing niquab, revealing only their eyes - so Mahoney was careful to dress conservatively and took care never to touch a man in public.
Ironically, Mahoney says that she "never visited any country in which sex had so often arisen as a topic of conversation; had never witnessed more bald nudity; had never received so many offhand proposals of marriage and professions of love from mustachioed strangers had never been the target of more wolf whistles and catcalls and distinctly salacious whispers emanating from behind dusty clumps of shrubbery."
Throughout the book, men constantly tell Mahoney they are in love with her, or just want to have sex with her. She learns that Egyptian men would never say these things to Egyptian women, who are to be treated with respect, but foreign women are fair game. While in Luxor, a man tells her that some of the women coming into Luxor on the cruise ships flock to the city looking for young boyfriends, and several European women keep apartments in Luxor, that they visit three or four times a year, for the same purpose.
The attitude towards women made it difficult for Mahoney to accomplish her task. The Egyptians are a curious people, and her fear was that if people got wind of her plan to row the Nile alone, it would not be permitted. She describes the Egyptian temperament as "invariably gregarious, humorous, and welcoming" but also "spiked with a heavy dose of intrusiveness." Her descriptions of some Egyptians make them sound like stereotypical overbearing mothers-in-law.
Mahoney meets a boat owner who is willing to allow her to use his rowboat to go part of the way down the river alone, under the condition that he follows behind in another boat to ensure her safety. Amr, who treats Mahoney almost as an equal, is a most interesting person, and the book comes alive with their meeting. He lives with his elderly mother and a sister, who has a severe limp, in a small house in a remote village - with three televisions, one for each family member!
As Mahoney relates her journey down the present-day Nile she compares her Egyptian experience to the writings of Europeans who traversed the river in the mid 19th century, a time period which marked the arrival of European society in Egypt. She quotes from Gustav Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary, and extensively from the letters of Florence Nightingale (who both, but separately, spent the winter of 1849-50 in Egypt, he at 28 and she at 29 years of age - winter is the cool season in Egypt, summer being intolerably hot for European travelers). These asides were intriguing, albeit sometimes a little long, and added much to the book.
The author's journey to get in her own rowboat and finally to row alone on the Nile is fascinating. The last hundred pages of the book are the strongest because the reader becomes deeply invested in the outcome of the journey. Will she make it, or won't she? It reads like a good mystery.
Down The Nile is a successful combination of a very personal journey and a sociological study of a culture I thought I knew, but clearly did not.
*Rosemary Mahoney was intrigued by the Nile because it flows south to north. The idea that rivers flow north to south is apparently a belief that many hold to be true (perhaps because north is at the 'top' of the map and therefore rivers must flow 'down' to the bottom), but it is a fallacy. The one constant about rivers is that they flow downhill along the path of least resistance, in doing so they can and do flow north, south, east and west. The Nile is one of the most famous north flowing rivers - a fact which apparently caused some discombobulation among the ancient middle eastern people when they spread from Mesopotamia (the land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which flow more or less South-East into the Persian Gulf) to the Nile region. Equally, ancient Egyptian writings show that the Egyptians were disturbed to discover rivers that flowed in the 'wrong' direction. For example Tuthmosis I describes the Euphrates river as the "inverted water that goes downstream in going upstream."
This review is from the November 12, 2008 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
Discover your next great read here
If every country had to write a book about elephants...
Click Here to find out who said this, as well as discovering other famous literary quotes!
Solve this clue:
and be entered to win..
Visitors can view some of BookBrowse for free. Full access is for members only.
Your guide toexceptional books
BookBrowse seeks out and recommends books that we believe to be best in class. Books that will whisk you to faraway places and times, that will expand your mind and challenge you -- the kinds of books you just can't wait to tell your friends about.