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