Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff
She sure has gumption. That was my first impression of Rosemary Mahoney after reading a summary of the book which recounts the voyage down the Nile River that she took alone…in Egypt. Scorching temperatures, crocodiles, Egyptian men who put the ‘balls’ in ballsy, she endures all this and more to be able to follow through with the dream of rowing herself “along the 120 mile-stretch of river between the cities of Aswan and Qena,” inspired by a love of rowing.
One of the chief reasons I enjoyed this narrative as much as I did was due to Mahoney’s incorporation of other travelers’ thoughts and reflections on Egypt and its people, primarily in the 19th century. She writes how,
“Egypt in 1849 was still at the relative dawn of its popularity with European travelers: Thomas Cook’s steamship package tours hadn’t yet arrived; some Egyptians had never seen a white woman before. The novelty of the Nile experience for Edwardian travelers like Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale is best understood in light of the fact that between the years 646 and 1517 Egypt’s Islamic rulers had closed the country to virtually all outsiders.”
I’ve always known and equated Egypt as being an exotic locale but reading 19th century persons’ observations of “the other” was extremely enlightening.
As tourists aren’t allowed to row unaccompanied on the Nile for safety’s sake (tourism being the basis of the country’s economy), Mahoney’s sailing adventure would technically be forbidden. I found it ironic though that the country is so dedicated to safeguarding its tourists and preserving its money making industry, and yet the 1997 massacre of 58 tourists at Luxor’s Temple of Hatshepsut is not referred to or thought of as an act of terrorism but rather, “the accident.” Fifty eight foreign visitors are murdered by religious extremists and it is called “the accident.”
Mahoney’s search for a boat begins in Aswan, the southernmost city in Egypt, and the beginning of the Egyptian Nile (the river goes through nine other countries). It is in Aswan where she truly gains an intimate look into the lives of Egypt’s people, a glimpse of course not seen when staying primarily on the tourist circuit. Although she writes about the poverty that the people live in, in Aswan, “they (the children) had flies in their eyes and noses running with snot,” she also writes how Aswan strikes her as “Egypt’s prettiest spot.”
“Scattered with tiny green islands, the river in Aswan has the feel of a storybook oasis.”
It is in Aswan that she meets Amr, a felucca captain. Unlike most of the other Egyptian men she meets, he actually treats her like an equal on most levels, except his opinion that a white woman should not sail down the Nile River alone. She is not just a Western sex toy and he does not barrage her with sexual comments and innuendos. Instead they share frank and serious conversations ranging from the plight of the Egyptian woman to the difficult life of a felucca captain, incredibly hard work for very little pay.
The book takes place during the reign of Hosni Mubarak, I would find it interesting to read if Mahoney were to sail down the Nile again, in the post-Mubarak era. Would things be different for her? Would she have as much difficulty obtaining a sailboat as she did the first time, in a country that is now so drastically different and sadly in the throngs of chaos?