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Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff

Review

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff

Just
over a decade ago, my husband and I visited the Middle East. Almost
immediately we were nearly overwhelmed by an abundance of
sensations and impressions of life in this troubled but strangely
beautiful region.

While reading DOWN THE NILE, I remembered anew many details and
conversations from that trip. Although we did not venture into
Egypt, the highest compliment our small Canadian group received
could apply in every respect to Rosemary Mahoney’s splendid
expeditionary account. After lovingly showing us the intricate
artistic details of the modest mosque in his hometown, our devout
Muslim guide said he’d done so because we were “not
tourists, but true travelers…brothers and sisters, making
pilgrimage.”

In a broad and fundamental sense, DOWN THE NILE also breathes
deeply with the inner pulse of genuine pilgrimage --- not the
headstrong notion of an audacious American woman, determined to row
alone down the Nile simply because it is there. In fact, Mahoney
didn’t just leap into an old wooden skiff below the
monumental Aswan High Dam on page one and arrive at Cairo 267 pages
later. If she had managed to do so, this would have been a very
different book and quite possibly not nearly as interesting.

The reality, as with everything about Egypt, was far more
convoluted, ambiguous, fascinating and frustrating than Mahoney
ever imagined. Despite already being a sensitized veteran traveler
in Muslim countries, making her way independently through the
social maze of patriarchal rural Egyptian culture was in itself a
major accomplishment. She learned very quickly, and sometimes
harshly, that the Nile is a men’s river: the closest most
Egyptian women get to it is washing clothes on its banks, while
foreign women are expected to lounge on cruise boats and watch the
scenery go by.

Against this seemingly impervious backdrop, well over half of
Mahoney’s account is taken up by the maddening and sometimes
dangerous obstacles she faced and overcame in order to merely
acquire a hulk with slabs of wood that passed for oars. Getting it
launched in defiance of local rules, customs and curiosity was
almost as daunting.

In between episodes of delight, daring and accomplishment, there
were hours, days and weeks of waiting, or searching. But with the
resilience and passion of a true pilgrim, Mahoney didn’t
waste time sulking over plans gone awry or assumptions deflated.
Instead, she continued devouring every bit of Nile-related
literature and history she could get her hands on, resuming a study
project begun back home between rowing practice trips along the New
England coast. In DOWN THE NILE she intersperses her own trip
anecdotes with those of famous 19th-century travelers, like the
meticulous and perceptive Florence Nightingale.

When Mahoney stepped out of her hard-won rowboat for the last time
in the dreary town of Qena, she had covered barely half the
distance from Aswan to Cairo. But in so many ways, it had been an
epic journey, an odyssey of personal challenge that came with the
priceless reward of deepened appreciation and understanding. From
recognizing her own unfounded biases, to seeing native Egyptians in
parts of their lives all but closed to most visitors, Mahoney has
once again proven herself the consummate traveler and humble
pilgrim. Would that all travel writers left such an unpretentious
imprint on the lands and peoples they encounter.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch (paulinefinch@rogers.com) on January 21, 2011

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff
by Rosemary Mahoney

  • Publication Date: July 11, 2007
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 031610745X
  • ISBN-13: 9780316107457