‘Down the Nile’ by Rosemary Mahoney

April 24, 2012 at 11:36 am 1 comment

I can’t say I went into Rosemary Mahoney’s excellent Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff completely unbiased. The book may well be the first book about contemporary Egypt I’ve ever read and my first book about rowing and, sure, I’d never heard of Mahoney before picking up the book, so there are a few reasons I ought to have gone into Down the Nile with no pretensions or expectations.

But, the plain truth be told, I’m an Egyptian travel narrative junkie. I can’t get enough of them, particularly female-authored Victorian travel narratives of Egypt.

Late in her book, Mahoney quotes early Egyptian traveler Charles Sonnini, who wrote in 1777, that,

“…this frequence of travelers cannot exclude my pretension to a place among the rest, and I am not to be deterred from speaking of Egypt by the number or renown of those who have trodden the ground before me … Objects do not present themselves to all observers under the same point of view.”

And perhaps that is why I’m so drawn to the form, as much as why people throughout time cannot seem to stop writing about Egypt—objects do not present themselves to all observers under the same point of view. Egypt has, for all intents and purposes, been the same tourist destination for centuries (same sites, same ruins, same tombs, etc.), but people keep writing about it, as if the Sphinx will somehow be better understood for one more description of it.

That may not ever be true, but it is so damn interesting to hear each person’s individual experience at these places. Despite the unending sameness of these journeys (and the Victorian traveler’s time in Egypt was remarkably prescribed), no two narratives come out the same somehow. There are no two same points of view when it comes to traveling in Egypt. Egypt somehow can never be accurately captured in words. So they keep writing. And I keep reading.

Rosemary Mahoney’s book is an interesting addition to my addiction in that she is the first contemporary woman’s account of Egypt I’ve ever been tempted to read. (And by “contemporary,” I mean “post-1880.”) Throughout my studies, I have often been asked when I will follow in my subjects’ footsteps and visit Egypt. I reply, rather tartly, “Never. Have you heard what modern Egypt is like for a Western woman?”

The number of unpleasant stories I’d heard, both first-hand and in print, convinced me that traveling to Egypt nowadays was just about the worst idea in the world. (Well, maybe not as bad as visiting “The Holy Land,” also a common feature in Victorian travel narratives, but still ranking fairly high on my list of inadvisable travel destinations.) Setting aside the current political turmoil in Egypt and its associated dangers, I was assured that I’d be endlessly verbally harassed, maybe assaulted, and really I’d just be better off staying with some kind of tour bus guarded by a large man with a gun.

Rosemary Mahoney heard all this, too, but is evidently far pluckier than me and went anyway. And not only did she go, she decided it would be fun to further throw water on the detractors of women’s travel in contemporary Egypt by rowing up the Nile, quite alone, in a little fisherman’s boat. As she puts it, she was irritated by anyone saying something was impossible or just wasn’t done. Why not, she asked. And then, to answer her own question, did just what was supposedly impossible.

Down the Nile was a great book, not least because of its inspirational, I-am-woman! tone and Mahoney’s eminently readable style. But it’s also a fascinating look at the history of travel in Egypt (mainly honed in on the journeys of Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, nicely researched and presented) and a lens into understanding contemporary Egypt. It may not have convinced me that visiting Egypt is a great idea, but it made me see the reality of traveling there more clearly and provided a valuable look at modern Egyptian attitudes towards Westerners.

I’d highly recommend this book as both a wonderful of piece of travel writing escapism and to anyone seeking to gain perspective on modern Egypt. As my first foray into the contemporary country whose past I’ve studied for so long, Mahoney was a delight and one which I’m happy to urge you all to read.

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Entry filed under: Memoir/Autobiography, Non-fiction. Tags: , , , , , .

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