"I have always resented imposed constraints, hated all the things people said one should and should not do," confesses Rosemary Mahoney in Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff. "A woman shouldn't ... A man wouldn't ... People were always conjuring up a wall and telling you to stay on your side of it."
If there ever were a chance to buck "imposed constraints" by doing something that almost no one else thinks is a good idea, rowing 120 miles down the Nile as a lone female in a tiny boat would be it.
In a country where an unescorted woman may be hassled crossing the street and on a river where grindingly poor fishermen and farmers jockey for space with enormous cruise ships, there is almost no good reason to undertake such a project. Except for one: "the pure love of rowing," insists Mahoney, who writes convincingly of the joy she finds in the surprising power of her own two arms.
Add to that a passion for the Nile. "The Nile was the longest river in the world," writes Mahoney. "It rubbed against ten nations. Some 250 million people depended on it for their survival. It had fostered whole cultures and inspired immense social and scientific concepts." What adventurous memoirist – particularly one seeking a topic for her next book – would not wish to ride on its back?
That Mahoney is adventurous is by now a matter of record. In earlier books she tells of tracing on foot the routes to some of the world's great religious shrines ("The Singular Pilgrim") and serving her Peace Corps years in China ("The Early Arrival of Dreams"). In "A Likely Story: One Summer with Lillian Hellman," she also tells how, at the age of 17 she offered herself as a housekeeper to Lillian Hellman, the heroine she had never met – an impulse that proved both supremely brave and surpassingly foolish.
But even more essential to the success of "Down the Nile" are Mahoney's quick-silver intelligence, her sharp eyes, and her slightly astringent voice.
This is a woman who doesn't suffer fools gladly. Yet at the same time she is patient and generous enough to allow people and things to show her their best – and they frequently do.
As it happens, Mahoney needs all the patience she can summon. At least half of the book is about her struggle to buy a boat. She is a woman on her own with a purpose that makes no sense to anyone else in Egypt. She doesn't have the necessary permits, a row boat is too tiny a craft for the wake of cruise ships, and a woman alone on the river is an unthinkable concept. No one will sell her a boat.
But her delay brings an unexpected blessing. While she waits, she meets Amr, an Egyptian who finally who says of her plan, "It is a good idea." He is also a unique character who reveals himself to be every bit Mahoney's equal in wisdom, self-possession, and independence. Amr makes her departure possible, but it is with some reluctance that she finally takes her leave.
"Down the Nile" is studded with small, sensitive portraits that reveal much about the land beyond the landscape.
Egypt is a country, she tells us, in which sex outside marriage is "strictly forbidden." And yet, she says, "I had never visited any country in which sex had so often arisen as a topic of conversation."
She relates continual encounters with Egyptian men who assume that, as a foreigner, she is somehow immune to offense and so talk to her freely and endlessly of sex. This is tedious beyond belief, and yet Mahoney offers enough cultural context to help us glimpse the loneliness, frustration, and – sometimes – just plain curiosity that lie behind such encounters.
The women who make appearances in the book are also skillfully depicted. Amr's sister, Hoda, whose crippled foot sets her apart from her marriage-obsessed friends, and Safaa the hotel clerk who likes but cannot love her lackluster husband are small but hauntingly evocative portraits.
And the Nile itself is a powerful presence. When Mahoney finally arrives on a tranquil stretch of the river, alone in her tiny craft, she wants to sing with happiness, "a rare, raw, immediate sort of happiness." She rows with "the water passing close beneath the hull of my boat ... swilling around my oars." As she describes the river ("quiet, opaque" with its "creamy coffee color") and its residents and surroundings (the birds who move with "freedom and authority ... clumps of water hyacinth ... ancient mud houses painted mustard yellow"), readers will want to sing as well.
Not all of Mahoney's journey is lovely. She experiences fear in its most primal form and comes face to face with sadness and want in multiple guises.
But she is well companioned throughout. As she journeys she mentally companions with Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale, both of whom made their own trips down the Nile in 1848. Mahoney quotes freely from their travel journals and brings their wit, wisdom, and 19th-century wonder along with her.
In the end, of course, it is Mahoney whom we confront alone in the small skiff, and were she not a desirable companion this journey might be a torturous one indeed. But fortunately her skill and wit as a guide are sufficient to atone for any discomfort involved, and most readers will end up grateful for the chance to have tagged along.