‘Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff’
Travel Books: Rosemary Mahoney's new book doesn't just chronicle her unlikely journey down Egypt's great river. Reviewer Julia Ross finds it also deftly explores the uncertain waters that split genders and cultures.
09.25.07 | 10:07 AM ET
At the outset of her new book, Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff, Rosemary Mahoney assures us she has no desire to die. She simply wants to row 120 miles down the world’s longest river, an unaccompanied Western woman gliding along the coffee-colored current, alone with flamingos and minarets. But the Nile isn’t just any river; local police will never allow her passage, she is told, and Egyptian fishermen might become “crazy” at the sight of a foreign woman adrift.
A year earlier, 58 tourists had been killed in a terrorist attack at Luxor’s Temple of Hatshepsut; this was no time for a foreigner to go it alone.
Thankfully, the Rhode Island-based writer isn’t easily thrown. Mahoney’s chronicle of her 1998 rowboat journey is an engaging and thoughtful travel memoir by a woman who decides to take on the Islam-West divide by way of a river and ends up turning gender and cultural biases upside down.
The idea for Mahoney’s unlikely quest takes root on a 1996 trip to Egypt, when she boards a cruise ship in Luxor and ponders the northward-flowing Nile’s unrivaled reach: “It rubbed against ten nations,” she marvels. “Some 250 million people depended on it for their survival. It had fostered whole cultures and inspired immense social and scientific concepts.”
The river’s unchanging landscape and the Islamic call to prayer linger in Mahoney’s mind for two years until, spurred by a love of rowing—a daily ritual at home on Narragansett Bay—she returns determined to row the Nile from the cities of Aswan to Qena. Immediately, her plan meets resistance: She is confronted by disbelieving Egyptian men reluctant to sell her the boat she needs, assailing her with rejoinders like, “You don’t know how. I will row you.”
Mahoney invents a story about “a non-existent husband who was perpetually asleep in the hotel” and keeps prodding. Her persistence pays off when she meets open-minded Nubian felucca captain Amr, who agrees to loan her a seven-foot skiff as long as he can shadow her up the river to ensure her safety. He doesn’t question or doubt her ability, and on this basis a friendship blooms, making for one of the book’s most enriching threads. On their first meeting, Mahoney relievedly senses a kinship: “His words carried trust and respect and were surprisingly devoid of the usual distancing banter, the jokes, the sexual innuendo, or mention of money.”
In fact, it’s Mahoney’s conversations with Egyptian men, who alternately vex, offend and surprise her, that give “Down the Nile” a real sense of discovery. Time and again, she stumbles into unusually frank discussions about love, sex, honor and what should be expected of women, both Western and Muslim. Perhaps it’s the 38-year-old’s androgynous appearance—“sunburned, greasy with sweat, wearing dirty trousers, dusty boots and a brimmed hat”—that puts the men at ease, or perhaps it’s simply the novelty of a foreign woman taking interest.
One encounter in Luxor is typical: A young man working in one of the tourist shops provides Mahoney with a detailed account of his sexual encounters with older French and German women, then admits to taking money for the service. When he subsequently labels all foreign women prostitutes, Mahoney calls him on it. “Ahmed was speechless for a long time,” she writes of the episode. “And then, slowly, he began to giggle nervously in recognition. ‘You’re right lady,’ he said, absorbing the irony of it…He looked wounded and embarrassed. ‘You are right.’”
Mahoney’s intelligence and instinct shine through in moments like these; she deftly challenges prevailing stereotypes among the Egyptians she meets but always exits the conversation without offense.
At Luxor, Mahoney sheds her river escort to row the final leg of her journey alone, and is, at last, buoyed by the solitude: “It was the happiness of entering into something new, of taking the moments simply for what they were, of motion, of freedom and of free will.” She wraps a white linen shirt around her head to simulate a turban, tucks her hair up, and slices through the water unnoticed.
Unfortunately, the moment is fleeting. The trip’s most terrifying experience rears up on her second night alone in the boat, when a local man who speaks little English bumps into her while she’s asleep. After asking for cigarettes and a camera, he tries to step into the skiff. She pushes off, he gives chase and eventually hits her up, in the middle of the river, for the equivalent of $3.
Though the outcome is benign, Mahoney’s description of the visceral fear that overtakes her—she imagines how she would defend her life with a knife—is gripping. It will strike a chord with any traveler (particularly any female traveler) who has slipped unknowingly into a marginally safe situation, late at night, in unfamiliar surroundings.
“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,” Mahoney admits at the beginning of her journey. She’s not kidding. But those trouble-seeking instincts serve readers well in “Down the Nile”; Mahoney proves an insightful guide through the uncertain waters that split genders and nations.