Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiffby Rosemary Mahoney
When Rosemary Mahoney took a solo trip down the Nile in a seven-foot rowboat, she discovered modern Egypt for herself. As a rower, she faced crocodiles and testy river currents; as a female, she confronted deeply held beliefs about foreign women while cautiously remaining open to genuine friendship; and as a traveler, she experienced events that ranged from the humorous to the hair-raising-including an encounter that began as one of the most frightening of her life and ended as a chastening lesson in cultural misunderstanding. Whether she's meeting contemporary Nubians and Egyptians or finding connections to Westeners who traveled the Nile long ago-Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert among them-Mahoney's informed curiosity about the world never ceases to captivate the reader.
About the Author:
Rosemary Mahoney is also the author of The Early Arrival of Dreams; Whoredom in Kimmage, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman; and The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground. She is the recipient of a Whiting Writers' Award
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Down the NileAlone in a Fisherman's Skiff
By Rosemary Mahoney
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2007 Rosemary Mahoney
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe River That Flows the Wrong Way
ON THE DAY that I hoped to buy a rowboat in Luxor, Egypt, I was awakened, as I had been every morning in Luxor, by a Koranic antiphony drifting from the Islamic boys' school next door to my hotel. With all the zeal of a Baptist preacher's, a young boy's amplified voice shrieked repeatedly in Arabic, "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his witness!" and a shrill chorus of his schoolmates howled the words back at him. I got out of bed and went to the window - at 7:00 a.m. the glass was already warm as an infant's forehead - and discovered that during the night many colorful cloth banners had been strung above the corniche, Luxor's Nilefront boulevard. In hand-fashioned Arabic characters, the banners read, "Welcome Mister President of the Government, Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, the Leader of Our Victorious and Progressive Destiny." Scores of teenage Egyptian soldiers in black uniforms, woolen berets, and white plastic spats lined the avenue in the ninety-eight-degree heat, more or less at attention, rifles at their sides, evidently awaiting the president's arrival. Profiting from a police barricade, the usually hectic streetwas, for once, mercifully quiet. Across the glittering ribbon of the Nile, the Temple of Hatshepsut and the Valley of the Kings lay blanketed in the pink morning light.
I dressed and went downstairs to the lobby, where the hotel manager and two of his employees sat shoulder to shoulder on a couch before a flickering television. All three men wore white turbans and gray gallabiyas, the traditional Egyptian gown, and, in one of the more baffling manifestations of traditional Egyptian fashion, heavy woolen scarves wound around their necks, as if against an arctic wind. No matter the time of day, the lobby of this hotel was always exceptionally dark, and through the gloom the three men looked like consumptives recuperating in a sanatorium. They were watching an American film in which jeering, sweaty-faced Confederate soldiers were busy abusing a group of morose black slaves.
With an apology for interrupting their entertainment, I asked the hotel manager why President Mubarak was coming to Luxor that day. Without looking away from the television the manager replied, "To open new hospital and sex tomb."
I studied his long brown nose, his luxurious black mustache. Surely I had misheard him. "Sorry," I said, "to open a what?"
"Hospital and sex tomb," he said dully, scratching his chin.
The hospital sounded likely enough, but the idea of a "sex" anything being publicly celebrated by the Egyptian president was preposterous. In this Islamic nation, sex, strictly forbidden outside marriage, was not a subject for public discourse or civic celebration. Human flesh, particularly women's, was to be concealed, and though in Egypt the assumption of the veil at puberty was officially a matter of individual choice, many Egyptian women wore the hijab, the veil that fully concealed the head and neck, and a surprising number wore the more forbidding niqab, a drape that covered mouth, nose, forehead, sometimes even eyes. Chaste Egyptian women were reluctant to have their photograph taken, because multiplying and displaying their image in this way was considered unseemly. Before my first trip to Egypt, I had been counseled to keep my arms and legs covered, not to wear shorts, and never to touch a man in any way except to shake hands. I had been endlessly informed by people who had experience in the matter that purity, chastity, and piety were Egypt's prevailing sentiments, and that foreign women who came to Egypt and dressed in a provocative way (there are, in fact, many who do) would be considered promiscuous, unprincipled, fair game for harassment and disrespect.
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.
My romantic impression of the Nile had been informed by the paintings of David Roberts, the nineteenth-century Scottish artist who depicted the Egyptian Nile as a lagoonish idyll of soft-sanded banks, mirror-still coves, stands of tasseled reeds, oxen lazily grazing in the shade of slender date palms, barefoot women balancing water jugs on their heads, and sails flushed pink by a tropical sun setting enormously in the distance, which distance was always punctuated by either a colossus, an obelisk, a minaret, or a pyramid. Roberts had depicted the Nile that way because that was the way the Nile looked when he saw it in 1838.
On that first trip to Egypt, in 1996, I boarded a cruise ship in Luxor, steamed southward up the river, and found on the second day out that, without my having registered the gradual change, we had somewhere along the way shed Luxor's modern urban shabbiness and glided into the precincts of a David Roberts canvas. From the luxurious deck of the ship, it struck me one evening that I was looking at an ox, palm trees, sandy banks, mirror-still coves, water jugs on women's heads, pink sails in an archaeological distance. I saw flamingos and storks, soft colors, an explosive sunset, obelisks and minarets, and now and then a ruined pharaonic temple. I saw no skyscraper and only several buildings that could be truly termed modern. But for a few power lines threading in and out of the tops of palm trees, an occasional plastic water bottle bobbing on the current, a motorized water pump, and a handful of water jugs made not of clay but of aluminum, there was little in the rural Nile landscape to suggest that nearly two hundred years had passed since David Roberts visited Egypt. Beyond Egypt's cities, the Nile was much as I had always envisioned it - a rare instance of a fantastical preconception matched by reality.
I was charmed. With a score of middle-aged Spaniards sunbathing on the large deck behind me, I leaned against the ship's railing and watched, entranced, as the Nile slipped by. The wide river and its green banks looked old and placid, inscrutable and inviting, and yet it was all as distant and inaccessible to me as it had always been. Unable to leave the ship, with its planned itinerary and guided tours, I realized I might as well be watching this wonder from behind a glass wall. What I wanted, really, was not just to see the Nile River but to sit in the middle of it in my own boat, alone.
I BEGAN ROWING some ten years ago when I lived on a small island in Maine. Forced to ferry myself over the water, I found that I enjoyed the task. Rowing was a peaceful, meditative activity, and the constant movement - the inherent mobility - of the water was enthralling. Land was stationary and always belonged to somebody. Water, on the other hand, was free. It moved and shifted and traveled. It was volatile, and when aroused it could be unforgiving. I found it frightening and a little bit thrilling to think that the water that throws itself against the coast of Kennebunkport in July might feasibly be the same particular water that laps at the crab-covered rocks in Bombay Harbor the following March. And it pleased me to realize that I could sit in a small boat and propel myself across all this hugely moving water with an engine no more powerful than my own two arms. One day I told the woman who owned the island I lived on that I planned to row across Penobscot Bay to another island two or three miles away. She protested, said it was impossible, made me promise her I wouldn't try. I promised, then did it anyway, and having successfully done it, I wanted to do more, to go farther, to row elsewhere. I rowed wherever I had a chance - in Boston Harbor and Central Park and a lake in southern France. I rowed on the Charles River in a carbuncled dinghy, while the elegant fours and eights speared by like airborne swans. I rowed on the Aegean Sea and on a pond in Oregon.
These days I live at the edge of Narragansett Bay. I row here too - up the Seekonk River one day, down to Occupessatuxet Point the next. Often I row my boat into the middle of the bay, ship my oars, and sit back to see where the tide and the current will take me. I do this, I know, not because it's peaceful but because there's an edge to it - it can be peaceful, yes, but it is never truly relaxing. I do it because there's an element of surrender in the exercise, an active acknowledgment of how breathtakingly tiny and helpless I am in the greater scheme of things, a condition that I spend the rest of my day ignoring, denying, scorning, or forgetting. It is frightening yet also liberating to admit a force far larger than our own.
I SHOULD SAY, before you get the wrong idea, that I have no desire to die. I do not want to die even if it be peacefully in my sleep in my own bed. Less do I want to drown to death or burn to death or choke to death or crash to death or have any body part of mine maimed or disfigured or messed with in any way (and especially not by a crocodile, more about which later). I am, in fact, a woman who can be driven witless with discomfort and frustration by the merest splinter, wart, cold sore, sty, hangnail, or personal insult. I am not afraid to die; I simply do not want to. Nevertheless, I am also a person who is drawn to doing physically difficult and sometimes even dangerous things. I cannot deny that I like to find myself in sticky situations, with the feeling that I've really gone and done it this time, that I'm finally sunk, that there's no turning back and possibly no tomorrow. As regards my aversion to death, I think this impulse makes sense. Death - or dread of it really - has always seemed to me to be the subtext, if not the downright text, of all physical adventure. It's a calling forth of the despised thing in an effort to stare it down, a test of how far life can push itself into death's territory without getting burned, and ultimately an effort to become inured to the inevitable prospect. Contrary to what we might expect, acceptance of our limitations and of all that lies beyond our control assuages the anxieties that arise from the misplaced responsibility we habitually and rather grandiosely depute to ourselves.
Returning home from my first visit to Egypt, I took my boat out on Narragansett Bay and imagined myself gliding alone down the Nile among the flamingos, reeds, and palm trees. For months I imagined this. On winter days, when the Rhode Island sky was gray and cold, I pulled myself across the bay and conjured what I had seen along the Nile. I fantasized about returning to Egypt, finding a boat, and heading off down the river on my own. On that first trip to Egypt, whenever I mentioned my Nile rowing idea to Egyptian people they had all said with real disbelief, Impossible! You are a woman! The river is big! Not mentioning any crocodile! And dangerous ships! And the fisherman who can become crazy seeing a woman alone! Egyptians generally thought the plan was idiotic, pointless, and dangerous, and seemed to find it inconceivable that anyone at all would want to row a boat on the Nile for no pressing or practical or, above all, lucrative reason, let alone a foreign woman, and especially when you could make the same trip lounging on a comfortable tour boat with your feet up and a drink in your hand. But sitting in Narragansett Bay, I earnestly wondered why such a trip should be impossible. The Nile was a consistent, stately river that flowed up the continent from the south while the prevailing winds came out of the north, a rare phenomenon that for centuries had allowed easy passage in both directions. Why should its location in Egypt make this river any more forbidding, inaccessible, or unrowable than any other?
Excerpted from Down the Nile by Rosemary Mahoney Copyright © 2007 by Rosemary Mahoney. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Rosemary Mahoney is the author of The Early Arrival of Dreams, a New York Times Notable Book; Whoredom in Kimmage, a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist; A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman; The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground; and Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff, a New York Times Notable Book. She is the recipient of a Whiting Writer's Award.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Simply an incredible book. One woman wants to row down the Nile in a rowboat. Along the way she explains why, and the characters she meets, what Egypt from the water looks like, and how it feels to row a boat alone as a woman. I've never read a book like it and recommend it to anybody who will listen. I also ran out and bought every other book she's written. There is plenty of dramatic tension, and the incredible presence of the boat following behind her for some of the way. This would make a fantastic movie. It gives self reliance and adventure a new definition: read this book!
The pacing, description, and fascinating narrative of this book is exceptional. You really do feel like you are with the talented author, Rosemary Mahoney, as she courageously carries out her dream of rowing the Nile. What a reader of people. How beautifully the environment is described. I was carried back in time and felt like the chips of colored pottery beneath her feet. And i was in every ripple of water she rowed. Exceptionally beautiful in every way. A must-read!
It wasnt as good as i thought
I took this with me recently on a trip to Egypt, and had the pleasure if reading it while sailing down the nile. However, I sincerely feel that while reading this deeply pensive and beautifully poetic account of one woman's journey, the reader will be transported to the river in that same small boat, meeting the same nile dwellers and feeling the heat of the Egyptian sun while embarking on the author's vivid discovery of self, strength, and an often misunderstood culture's perception of womanhood.
Do not fail to read a beautiful account of sheer courage!