Red Nile: A Biography Of The World’s Greatest River, by Robert Twigger
This book is one that has a difficult aim, and that is writing a biography of a river. What this means in practice is that the author tells a lot of interesting and somewhat sordid stories of the behavior of those who sought to control the river and its people and its water. While this book is by no means perfect, it is certainly interesting in the material that it covers, and the focus on exciting events as well as somewhat bloodthirsty stories provides a context that like many books on the subject of Egypt seeks to paint the Egyptian role in the Arab Spring as being a decisive historical event. This appears, alas, to be all too inaccurate when we look at these events with a bit of hindsight, it must be admitted. Yet although this is a bit of a shame, it may be readily admitted that the author does a good job at presenting the history of the Nile as being a long chain of violence that somewhat undercuts the author’s claims that there was anything historical decisive about the events of 2011, which is more than can be said for many such accounts.
This book is somewhat strikingly organized, with about 450 pages of written material that is divided into only six chapters, each of which is divided into numerous smaller essays. The author begins with a list of illustrations, maps, and an introduction. After this the author talks about the natural Nile (1), looking at the animals and natural history of the river and its origin. This is followed by a look at the ancient Nile (2), including a look at famine and pestilence and less savory matters. A discussion of the Nile as the river of believers (3) includes a look at heathens, Copts, and Muslims. After this comes a discussion of the extension of the Nile through histories of raw steak and the efforts of Napoleon and other Westerners (4). Then the author explores the damming of the Nile (5) as well as the more recent history of the Nile from assassination to revolution (6). As might be imagined the author tends to view the Arab Spring as being a more decisive change in Arab affairs than actually has ended up being the case, a common mistake for failed prophets. The book ends with an epilogue, bibliography, acknowledgements, and an index.
It is striking that an attempt to make a biography of a river means in practice that this work spends a lot of time focusing on human beings in less than ideal circumstances. For example, to give a short summary of the book’s interests would include a discussion of the assassination of Ramses III at the end of the New Kingdom, the assassination of Anwar Sadat, about whose half-Nubian ancestry much is made, and the love life of Napoleon in Egypt. Egypt’s history is certainly deeply interesting, and the economic wealth that could be drawn from controlling both trade routes as well as the produce of peasants and their labor for monumental projects all combined to make Egypt a desirable area to rule over and an area that has never developed a great deal of political freedom. The Red Nile as a theme of this book makes for a look at some dark history that is generally obscure to the Western reader and that offers a great deal of interesting material to reflect upon. Whether or not the reader chooses to appreciate this is up to the individual person, but most people should find at least a bit to ponder about the effect of history on the culture and mindset of a place.