Down The Nile: Alone In A Fisherman’s Skiff, by Rosemary Mahoney
Did the author do something interesting enough to warrant having a book published about it? After having finished this book, I’m still not sure that it was essential. To be sure, this book is not actively offensive, even if the author is not the most sympathetic of figures, especially given her fear of violence when a poor father on the Nile asks her for money at night while she is canoeing downstream, which prompts the abrupt end of her trip and some soul searching and reflection about her own fears. I suppose if I would have known more about the author (or found her more likable), then I suppose I could have considered anything she wrote about anything to be reason enough to appreciate the book, like I do with the travel books of someone like John McPhee, for example. Yet although the author is certainly witty and she is certainly well-read about the travelogues of people going along the Nile–Flaubert and Florence Nightingale are mentioned particularly often, I just couldn’t see what the big deal was about rowing and floating downstream along the Nile within Egypt, or why someone got paid to write a book about such a mundane sort of trip, especially given that she isn’t the most appealing of protagonists in such a travelogue to begin with.
This book is thirteen chapters long, and that is probably far longer than it needs to be. The author begins with a historical look at the Nile and what made it compelling throughout history (1). After that the author takes a look at Aswan, right at the dam that prevents one from traveling without hindrance into Sudan and tries unsuccessfully to get a boat there (2). The author looks at the first small boat in Egypt and sees it as a chance to travel as she wishes downstream (3), and then takes a look at the cataract islands that are close to the high dam (4). After making a deal with the owner of the small boat, she spends some time at Elephantine getting to know the dour Nubian who rented the boat to her (5) as well as getting to see the complex relationship that her crippled sister has with some other young women who appear to be spoiled elites (6). The author then flies down the Nile with a protector and another traveler (7) before dealing with the complexities of etiquette on the river (8) and spending a night in Silwa (9). At Luxor she manages to buy a boat of her own (10), which requires as bit of negotiating (11), and soon she finds herself alone in the Nile thinking about the place, its people, and her own fears of running into Nile crocodiles (12), before ending the trip after having a frightening experience with a poor beggar on the river (13) who is taking his sons on some sort of night journey.
The not particularly compelling narrative of a not very interesting journey by the author takes about 275 pages, which only makes one want to read about Flaubert’s and Nightingale’s journeys to Egypt, because they were at least interesting, and they make for the most interesting parts of this particular story as well. Good writing springs from good reading and the author gets at least half of it right. The real problem with this book isn’t so much that the author took a somewhat dull trip down the Nile and wrote a book about it, but rather that she is both too credulous of the people around her and too wrapped up in her own identity. The author seems to think herself a feminist and finds herself upset that as a Western woman she is denied the sort of restraint that Egyptians (especially Muslims) give to their women or the sort of respect that she seeks. Instead she has a series of arguments with people where she tries to push her view of life onto them and finds herself in increasingly hostile interactions with Egyptian men, not all of whom are very threatening, until at last she decides to leave.