Reviewed by Liz Hall-Downs
Down the Nile – Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff
by Rosemary Mahoney
Little, Brown and Company (Hachette USA)
New York, 2007 ISBN 978-0-316-10745-7, RRP $23.99 USD
I so enjoyed this glorious little book that I wanted to start again at the beginning as soon as I’d finished it. Rosemary Mahoney’s humor and sense of adventure is only surpassed by her beautiful, evocative writing, as she describes a brave (some would say foolhardy) attempt to row the Nile alone. An experienced oarswoman and author of several previous travel narratives, Mahoney has lived in Florida and, latterly, on Rhode Island, where she regularly indulges her passion for rowing, not only for its physical benefits but also for the aesthetic pleasures of being alone in nature, floating on a wide expanse of water. She writes that she had visited Egypt before and had had the usual tourist experiences, such as taking a barge from Aswan, and that this germinated her dream to row the Nile alone.
The logistics of such an undertaking are phenomenal. Mahoney is dealing with an Islamic culture where women’s lives are circumscribed, confined to the home and family, and her greatest challenge is to find someone who will sell her a boat in which to undertake her journey. With the help of her American friend, Madeleine Stein (who speaks fluent Arabic and teaches at Cairo University, and to whom the book is dedicated) Mahoney devises an elaborate story about a fictional husband asleep in a hotel room whom she wishes to surprise with the gift of a rowboat. Even with this story, she struggles to find someone amongst the felucca captains along the river who will even allow her to take a boat out for an hour, so amazed are they that a woman would want to do such a thing. She is eventually befriended by a Nubian man, Amr, who allows her to use his rather worse-for-wear rowboat for some of the journey but insists on following her, with Madeleine in tow, in his felucca to ensure her safety. After this leg of the journey, Mahoney and Stein finally manage to purchase a skiff for Mahoney so she can at last be alone on the great river to experience it in the way she desires.
This is the bones of the story, but there is so much more of interest in this narrative. Mahoney has a marvelous eye for both landscape and people, giving the reader a sense of really seeing through her eyes. She also has a wicked sense of humor and narrates the many astonishing conversations she has with various (mostly male) acquaintances, who simply cannot fathom the ways of western women. After relating a conversation with Amr, she remarks that in this world she is: ‘Not Nubian, not Muslim, not Egyptian – these facts conspired to disqualify me entirely from the female category. What mattered for a Muslim woman could never really matter for me. In Egypt, a western woman would never truly be a woman, nor did she quite approach the status of a man; instead, her identity was more like that of a pleasant or irrelevant animal like, say, a peahen or a manatee’. Amr is adamant that ‘Nubian woman would not be doing nothing. Nothing. They should only be staying home and minding the house’ but tells Mahoney that ‘it doesn’t matter for you’. (p 113-114)
Everywhere she goes, Mahoney is accosted by Egyptian men who tell her ‘You look like an Argentine; you look like an English, a cat, a bird’, who want to accost her for money or talk about sex in a way they would never consider doing with their own countrywomen. She is told that all European women are prostitutes – by a male prostitute who sells himself to these same women and who becomes disturbed when she points out that the European women have paid sex with him because they want to, and that he, being the party who is paid, is actually the one who is the prostitute. Mahoney dresses herself in a white shirt and loose white pants, wraps a shirt turban-style around her head, and forgoes sunglasses in an attempt to look like ‘just another Egyptian man’ (p 238), and in this disguise manages to complete her journey to the point of the river beyond which safety cannot be assured – an amazing feat, given the obstacles she has to overcome. Ye, still, in the final analysis, Mahoney has to face up to the reality of her own fears and preconceptions that simply cannot be considered independently of Islamic gender roles and gender politics.
Another aspect of Down the Nile that adds to its pleasures is that Mahoney has done extensive research into the writings of earlier Nile travelers, so that, as well as receiving her impressions of the ‘creamy, coffee-colored’ Nile, we are also treated to journal extracts from previous travellers to Egypt: Winston Churchill and William Golding, nineteenth century figures such as Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, and even earlier writers such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Charles Sonnini (1790s), all the way back to The Histories of Herodotus. Thus Mahoney’s individual adventure story becomes part of a much bigger narrative, that of an ancient and revered river, rich in history and culture, that never fails to captivate.
About the reviewer: Liz Hall-Downs has been reading and performing poetry in public, on TV and radio in Australia and the USA, and publishing in journals, since 1983. She holds a BA from Deakin University (Victoria) with major studies in Professional Writing & Literature and an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Queensland. Some of Liz Hall Down’s publications include: Fit of Passion, (with Kim Downs), (Fit of Passion Collective, 1997), Girl With Green Hair, (Papyrus Publishing, 2000), People of the Wetlands, (Brisbane City Council, 1996), Mountains to Mangroves, and Mountains to Mangroves Haiku Cycle, (Brisbane City Council and Queensland Wildlife Preservation Society, 1999), Blackfellas Whitefellas Wetlands, (with B.R. Dionysius and Samuel Wagan Watson), (Brisbane City Council & Boondall Wetlands Management Committee, 2000).