Rosemary Mahoney was determined to take a solo trip down the Egyptian Nile in a small boat, even though civil unrest and vexing local traditions conspired to create obstacles every step of the way. Starting off in the south, she gained the unlikely sympathy and respect of a Muslim sailor, who provided her with a skiff and a window into the culturally and materially impoverished lives of rural Egyptians. Egyptian women don't row on the Nile, and tourists aren't allowed to for safety's sake. Mahoney endured extreme heat during the day, and a terror of crocodiles while alone in her boat at night. Whether confronting deeply held beliefs about non-Muslim women, finding connections to past chroniclers of the Nile, or coming to the dramatic realization that fear can engender unwarranted violence, Mahoney's informed curiosity about the world, her prose, and her wit never fail to captivate.--From publisher description.
Rosemary Mahoney does an excellent job of depicting the experience of being a foreigner, especially a woman, in Egypt. The overly helpful and solicitous Egyptians who ask a lot of questions and the overly familiar (bordering on inappropriate) comments of Egyptian men who seem to look on foreign women as an entity wholly “other” from Egyptian or other Muslim women are perfectly captured here. I visited Egypt in 2007 – business in Cairo and then a short vacation cruising up the Nile from Luxor to Aswan – and Mahoney’s narrative brought back many memories. (If interested, I’ve posted some photos on the gallery in my profile.)
The book is about the author’s attempt to row down the Nile from Aswan to Qena, and the difficulties inherent for an American woman in doing so – from trying to buy a boat to avoiding the authorities who would prevent her from making the trip. She intersperses the story with excerpts from, and reflections on, the letters and diaries of other visitors to Egypt, most notably Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert in the 19th century. She also includes stories of her previous visits to Egypt and its various tourist destinations.
I enjoyed this book mostly because of my own experience in the country and because I could draw parallels between her impressions and mine. I think the book would also be a good source for understanding parts of Egyptian culture for people planning to travel there (current turmoil not withstanding). I expected it to be more of a memoir, to provide insight into Mahoney’s impulse to attempt a difficult journey, and to gain a better understanding of who she is and what drives her. Instead, the book is more of a straight travelogue with occasional insights into what she gained from the experience. And in that sense, the book was somewhat of a disappointment. But there were wonderful parts that certainly made it worth reading – especially the relationship she develops with Amr, a Nubian falucca (the traditional sail boat) captain who assists her at the start of her endeavor. As a person who has been blessed to travel far and wide and to a variety of interesting places, I liked and agreed with her final sentences: “Travel never makes one cheerful. But it makes one thoughtful. It washes one’s eyes and clears away the dust.”
But at times it seems that it did not know what story to tell. There was the culture story of lone woman trying to row down the Nile, being subject to the gender repression and government intervention.
At times she was as afraid of being stopped from rowing as she was for her own safety. There was the element of adventure. But is was lacking tension of a clear goal of what she was trying accomplish.
It was interesting to lay such a foreign person and foreign in the middle of a country and culture that are not very accepting of the behaviors.