Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A Schmooze Award (or two) & "Down The Nile" Not A Book Review

I have been awarded the "Schmooze Award" by Lotus Reads (Thank you my friend!) and Naina Ashley (Thanks!).

About the award :- This award is for the bloggers who “effortlessly weave their way in and out of the blogosphere, leaving friendly trails and smiles, happily making new friends along the way. They don’t limit their visits to only the rich and successful, but spend some time to say hello to new blogs as well. They are the ones who engage others in meaningful conversations, refusing to let it end at a mere hello - all the while fostering a sense of closeness and friendship.”

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff (Hardcover)
by Rosemary Mahoney
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company

Travel never makes one cheerful. But it makes one thoughtful. It washes one’s eyes and clears away the dust.

With this take on Gustave Flaubert’s quote from one of his travels on the Nile, ends Rosemary Mahoney’s wonderful travel memoir about her solo trip in a rowboat down the Nile from Aswan in Egypt. While this might not seem like a big deal in itself, consider the fact that Egyptian women are never seen rowing on the Nile and tourists are not allowed for their own safety and that makes her feat all the more impressive.

However it is not this mere fact that is notable (the author is a self described loner), Rosemary Mahoney is an excellent chronicler of the sights, sounds, her feel of and for the people and places that she encounters. She has a keen eye for all these and a talent for narrating her experiences in vivid and rich layered detail. She integrates her own sense of the place very well with historical narratives from two Victorian era explorers Gustave Flaubert (more known for his novel “Madame Bovary”) and Florence Nightingale (who I only knew about for her achievements as an pioneer in nursing, something I remember from my days in school) who were also on the Nile at around the same time. The past is so seeped in to the earth of this place and is borne out in lines such as those when the author writes about being “startled by the sight of a mummy’s linen-wrapped skull and shoulders poking out from the side of a mound of dirt” and of stepping over old bones and pieces of pottery.

The author has to buy a boat to begin her rowing trip, and while that does not seem like a big deal, it is a big thing in the male dominated culture of Egypt where women are just not seen as doing certain tasks. The men do want to help her, by dissuading her from her quest with reactions that range from disbelief, to offering to row for her as that is too far for her to go. She even comes up with an excuse to make this job of buying a boat easy, coming up with the boat being a gift for a fictitious husband!

And she does tire of the constant questions, the ridicule, the banter, the haggling over money, the stares, the declaration of love, flirtation and desire to have sex with her and requests for money from most of the men that she encounters. But while this is tiring for her on one level she also feels sad for the state of some of these men for being caught as they are due to their circumstances and geography, in a culture that permits no intermingling of the sexes. And their cheap come hither is often comical and sad as the men invariably turn to talking about sex.

There are a couple of interesting conversations that she has with Egyptian men including a male prostitute Ahmed in his 20s, in Luxor whose clientele consists of mostly older women who are foreign tourists. This was very instructive in many levels and provided a glimpse in to that strange world where some Egyptian men think nothing of providing sex for money but are willing to kill an Egyptian woman who could be their sister but who may not be a virgin prior to marriage.

At the end of this book is her chilling encounter with Mahmoud a poor fisherman who pursues her one moonlit night that suddenly turns ominous after he startles her while she is asleep in her boat just before Qena her final destination. What is it that he really wants and Rosemary’s reaction to him are very instructive about the gulf between two people owing to difference in culture, language and gender.

But not all men in this book are the same, the one that stands out is Amr, a Nubian so unlike most Egyptian men in his reserved, polite manner reflected in his offer for Rosemary to take his boat, no questions asked.

The development of the friendship between the author and Amr despite their many differences is heartwarming. But despite being different he too is very much a part of his milieu for in his view women should be at home too “Nubian way from long time ago. ... Nubian woman should not be doing nothing. Nothing. They should only be staying home and minding the house.”
We get to meet his beautiful sister Hoda, who will likely be condemned to being a spinster owing to a deformed foot. Your heart will also go out to Safaa who Rosemary encounters working at a hotel (with her propensity to use the word “Crap”) who tells her “Rose, I tell you. I wish I could be free like you.

Mahoney excels at her narrative especially as she rows down the river and her description of it, the lands around it are vivid enough that you can actually feel the strength of the river, its calm and the history that it has witnessed and been a part of. The searing heat and the wild exotic birds are as very much a part of her journey, especially the heat which Mahoney brings very much to life with prose like…

The heat was borderline equatorial; it asserted a heavy downward pressure. Dogs and humans felt under duress here, flattened and exhausted and flayed. When I removed my hat, the sun had made the top of my head sting in a vivid, concentrated way – it was like having a freshly baked nail driven into my skull.

I enjoyed reading this book and the part that I got bogged down was the part where the author seems to take forever to find the boat, but now that I look back I think I was feeling what the author felt as she was badgered and tired by the countless questions from the fishermen about why she wanted a boat.

The distance Mahoney covered and how she did it may not rank up there in terms of solo adventures, but I found that the well worn adage “Focus on the journey, not the destination” to be particularly true after reading this fine book.


Asha said...

Enjoy the award!! Happy Diwali!:))

Sanjay said...

Hey Asha.. Thank you and you have a very Happy Diwali too!

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Sanjay!

Wow, what a woman! At the best of times I wouldn't want to row a boat across a river but in a country that is so foreign to me and not woman-friendly at all it would be a definite no-no. But many women travelers thrive on doing something new, something different, something adventurous and I suspect this is what pushed Mahoney along. Did she mention why she chose to row a boat down the Nile and not some other river?

I think you're right about Mahoney being a loner...I have a book of hers here (I think it's the one she wrote before "Down The Nile") where she travels to 6 different sacred sites to find the root of belief among modern pilgrims. I haven't read it yet, but your description of her writing makes me want to.

This is a terrific review Sanjay and I can tell this book is more than just a travel book, she clearly examines gender relations and local traditions together with the impact they have on local Egyptian life. I will be looking for a copy!

Sanjay said...

Hey buddy, how are you? Thank you for your wonderful comment.Truly quite a woman. Although she rowed about a 180 mile stretch given all the circumstances that you mention the feat is truly remarkable.
But you truly asked a wonderful question about her motivation and I had to go back and look at the book to find the answer. :-) Other than her love of rowing, she had a romantic impression of the Nile formed by the paintings of David Roberts 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...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." This was how Roberts saw the Nile in 1838.

In 1996 the author took a cruise up the Nile and once she was past the urban shabbiness of Luxor she felt as if she was in a David Robert's canvas. And that is where she was completely charmed.

I hope that answers your Q. :)
And truly given her abilities as a write I am sure the book you have must also be a wonderful read and as you state she does chronicle Egyptian life remarkable well bringing it alive in the pages of her book through her words.

Thank you again for your comment!

Ash said...

Its well-deserved :)

Aditi said...

ohh sounds like an interesting book

happy diwali

Milan - zzz said...

Recently I was speaking with my (girl) friend who came from Egypt and she laughed when I asked her if she has any "problem" on the streets of Cairo because she's a woman.
"Of course not" she replied.
Well maybe because she was obviously a tourist.
yeah very brave move and magnificent achievement but would that be possible for some local woman? Hardly.

I'd love to read this book but more because of the glimpses of relation between genders (it's often only a peak of an iceberg). Will look for it.


Beenzzz said...

Congratulations on the Schmooze award, Sanjay. I wish you a happy Diwali.

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starry nights said...

Amazing what one woman can do in a male dominated world.sounds like a good read.Happy diwali to you and your family Sanjay.

Sanjay said...

@Ash. Thank you!

@Aditi.. Thank you. Wish you a happy Diwali too.

@Milan. Thank you for your comment and stopping by. How interesting what your g/f said. It is possible she did nto encounter what the author did if she was doing the usual tourist thing.

@Beenzzz. Thank you so much. A happy Diwali to you as well.

@Starry. Your put it really well. Thanks. Happy Diwali to you and your loved ones as well!

Fuzzylogic said...

Congrats on the award Sanjay and here's wishing you and your family a wonderful Diwali!

Id it is said...

One lonely and frightening journey that must have been given it was a woman doing it!
Wonder why she decides to undergo this physically taxing and mentally sapping voyage...there's my hook for wanting to read the travelogue; thanks for posting Sanjay.
Doesn't her feat remind you of Laleh Sedigh, the race car driver from Iran?

Id it is said...

On a different note...sorry for the delayed reply to your comment (made me rethink my stance) on my 'heritage' post.

Ash said...

Happy Diwali to you and yours!!

indicaspecies said...

This traveler is active, she went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience.

You have written a very good book review and having come across Egyptians, Nubians etc in real life, I am now fascinated with the book. Hope I can catch hold of it.

Congratulations on the Award.

priya said...

Congrats to you on that award.

Happy Diwlai to you too.

Anali said...

Congratulations on the award and I hope you had a Happy Diwali!

Coffee-Drinking Woman said...

Oh, this sounds like an excellent book. I'll look for it at my local library (but I'm not holding out hope, I may need to resort to a bookstore...)