December 2007

Aysha Somasundaram

nonfiction

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

“Rowing was a peaceful, meditative activity, and the constant movement -- the inherent mobility -- of the water was enthralling. Land was stationary and always belonged to somebody. Water, on the other hand was free. It moved and shifted and traveled.”

Rosemary Mahoney’s Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff is a travelogue recounting her experience rowing down the Nile. It is also a multifaceted narrative -- one that simultaneously pays homage to the nineteenth century European and American travelers to Egypt and comments on current conditions. Not only does Mahoney repeatedly reference the experiences of Florence Nightingale, Gustave Flaubert, and Amelia Edwards but excerpts of their correspondences, diaries and published accounts of their travels in Egypt often bookend Mahoney’s own observations.

Mahoney writes with forceful precision when discussing her fixed determination to row down the Nile, her attempts to procure a boat, her frustrations, the inevitable resistance (in part, deeply imbedded sexism) she meets with, her persistence and the experience of rowing the stately river: “When I shut my eyes, the day that had just passed loomed in front of me, the flashing green water, the palms, the broiling sun, the constantly changing color of the sky, the flapping oars and slightly rocking little boat passing down the corridor of the Nile… Above me the stars were so bright that the sky seemed to tremble with the ice-blue weight of them.” The lyricism of her writing approached poetry at times.

In some respects, Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff is an enthralling account and an adventure story where the real life heroine/protagonist/writer perseveres and accomplishes the task she sets for herself, leaving naysayers silent in her wake. But this is not Mahoney’s only objective; she offers a running cultural commentary on the Egypt she encounters. She attentively revisits her interactions with Egyptians -- largely male with an occasional woman tossed in for good measure. Her observations center on the outward perception of her as somehow exempted (“free” is the term repeatedly used by Egyptian men) from the constraints and rigors of chastity that appear to define the lives and conduct of the average Egyptian women.

Mahoney find herself alternately sexualized and treated as an honorary, if vulnerable, male subject to confidences and queries about sex and intimacy which often appear both crude and peculiarly innocent. Every now and then, she hones in on an aspect of a cultural dialectic which is compelling, even counterintuitive. For instance, briefly, Mahoney describes the flesh trade in Luxor where European women and gay men rent hotel and apartment and purchase the favors of willing Egyptian men and boys. She also briefly discusses the treatment and cultural stereotyping of Nubians. More often, though, her descriptions offer little insight into the contradictions of Egyptian society or she appears content to comfortably straddle stereotypes.

Perhaps what perturbed me the most is the readiness with which Mahoney embraces her lineage as a successor to travelers (especially Nightingale) with unapologetically colonial perspectives -- who railed against others for looting a culture while happily pocketing their own share of trinkets, whose perspective on Egypt alternated between studied appreciation and condescension. In one particularly troubling passage, Mahoney describes Nightingale as “democratic” -- because coupled with her racist diatribe describing Arabs as “an intermediate race, they appeared to me, between the monkey and man, the ugliest, most slavish countenances” with a criticism of “her beloved Anglican church.” An uncritical view of Nightingale as “interesting, daring and intelligent” conveys only part of her legacy.

Mahoney might argue that her narrative does not pretend to serve a broadly comprehensive social commentary. Perhaps not, but to borrow briefly from her own admissions, the project of rowing down the north flowing Nile, might have originally appeared forbidding not because the Nile’s waters are not navigable. Context -- the river’s history, its locale and lore -- all lent to the appeal of the endeavor and also to its difficulty. Inasmuch as you cannot travel down the Nile without discussing the nation in which resides or the men and women peopling its shores, you cannot halfheartedly undertake describing either.

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff
Little, Brown and Company
ISBN: 978-0-316-10745-7
273 pages