A few years ago, an American named Rosemary Mahoney dumbfounded Egyptians by rowing 120 miles down the world's grandest river by herself, traveling in a country where bold women aren't the norm. She told her story in 2007's "Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff," which The Christian Science Monitor named one of the 10 best books of the year.
Our reviewer Marjorie Kehe praised Mahoney's "quick-silver intelligence, her sharp eyes, and her slightly astringent voice," saying she's "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."
Amid this week's events in Egypt, I asked Mahoney for insight into the people and politics of the ancient land that suddenly has the world's attention.
Q: What did you learn about the relationship between Egyptians and their government (and authority in general) during your trip?
As an independent traveler embarking on the somewhat unusual venture of rowing alone down the Nile, I had reason to meet and talk with a lot of ordinary Egyptians in the smaller cities and rural areas of the country – farmers and fishermen, shopkeepers and school kids. I spend a total of three months in Egypt and in that time I had the impression that the people of Egypt felt very distant from their own government and rather fearful of it.
The younger people I met, most of whom were unemployed, had spent their entire lives under Mubarak's martial law. They seemed both resigned to it and frustrated about the prospect of change in their country. Mubarak's government has never allowed public political discourse and certainly not public political opposition.
The overwhelming sense I had was that the people felt they had no real freedom or power over their own destiny and no faith in the government's interest in their needs. They had no choice but to yield to and obey the police and the military.
A man could be thrown in jail for supposedly showing disrespect to a foreign tourist, whether or not the tourist had any evidence of such. The government was more a force to be endured rather than one to be appealed to for assistance.
Q: A lot of Egyptians live outside the big cities. Is their world a lot different? How do you think that might play out?
In a population of 90 million people it's never possible to find a truly unified voice.
The people demonstrating in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria are young educated professionals, government workers, business people, civil servants. Because they're educated and informed they take their democratic rights and responsibilities seriously. They understand what democracy should be. They have enough faith in the democratic process and enough hope for the future that they finally dared to say no to a government that has for years not only disrespected their rights as citizens but disregarded their basic needs.
But more than half of Egypt's population lives in rural areas. The farmers and fishermen living along the Nile beyond the cities are generally less well educated and more conservative, and though they live in extreme poverty (40 percent of the Egyptian population lives below the poverty level) and their daily lives are unbelievably difficult, they are generally less vocal and less inclined to feel that they could collectively effect any great change in their circumstances.
The turmoil taking place now in Cairo and the period of disorder and instability that's likely to reign in its aftermath could, in the short term, affect rural Egyptians in adverse forms that might give rise to real resentment.
Q: What surprised you the most about Egyptians? What were you most impressed by and most discouraged by?
I was struck most by the patience and ingenuity of the Egyptian people. They are absolute wizards at finding solutions to daily problems, at fixing things we would consider beyond hope.
I was also struck by their grace and gentleness. They really seem to me to be an admirably gentle and humane people, which is why it's so astonishing to see the volume of violence and outrage on the streets of Cairo this week. Clearly it's a measure of the extreme frustration and discontent that's been building over the years.
As an American, I think I was most surprised by the level of passivity and acceptance I saw in the average Egyptian in the face of real poverty and little or no opportunity for a better life. I did wonder at that time why so many Egyptians seemed to just accept their lot without expressing anger. Obviously that has changed.
Q: I'm curious about the role of women in the current events. They seem very peripheral. Did you get a sense that they play that kind of role overall in Egyptian society?
In the Islamic world, women are naturally less visible than men. Even in Egypt, one of the most progressive of the Arab countries, women tend to live in the margins of society and to have less power than men.
Among Egyptian men the rate of literacy is 70 percent. Among Egyptian women it's only 41 percent. Those numbers alone say a great deal about how Egyptian women are valued and how they are expected to spend their time.
Education is the key to self-possession and self-direction. Control of women is an important notion in Egypt. An educated woman is more difficult to control than an uneducated one.
Traveling alone in Egypt in the smaller cities, I found it difficult to talk with women, because they were not out on the streets or in the cafes as freely as the men were. Most of them were confined to their houses.
But I personally have found that educated Egyptian women can be very strong-minded, vocal, and daring. Some of the most cogent and logical speakers I've heard speaking from the crowd in Cairo have been women.
Q. What else did you learn during your trip that might shed light on what's happening now and what may happen next?
One of the things that surprised and disturbed me most in Egypt was the level of respect and honor that was bestowed upon the foreign visitor. As I said earlier, a man could be thrown in jail for allegedly showing disrespect to a foreign tourists.
As a foreigner in Egypt, I was treated with great deference, almost as if I was visiting royalty. This is due in large part to Egypt's economic dependence on tourism. For years the idea has been that nothing should upset the foreign tourist, because that could bring bad publicity for the country.
In Egypt I often felt that I was being granted rights and freedoms and a form of respect that the locals were often not being granted, and that made me uncomfortable. I remember thinking more than once that if I were an Egyptian, I would find it difficult not to resent these privileged foreign visitors.
That reverence for the foreigner has existed in Egypt since the time of Napoleon's invasion. And yet I think that the generosity and good-will that I received from the Egyptians I met was sincere and open.
Egypt occupies a unique position in the world as the cradle of civilization. What Egypt has historically, archaeologically, culturally is extremely important to all of us. Their history is, in a sense, everyone's history. That alone seems enough of a reason for us to support and even protect the stability and well-being of that country.
It's extremely difficult to say what might happen next. I, personally, came to love Egypt and the people I met there and I can only hope that we can maintain our good relationship with them.
Randy Dotinga is a frequent contributor the Monitor's book section.