Rosemary Mahoney is the author of “Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff,” which was among the National Book Critic’s Circles’s Best Books of 2007. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts, and Whiting Writers Award, among others.
In your book, “Down the Nile,” you undertook an amazing adventure by rowing a skiff down the Nile River. What inspired you to attempt this?
My trip was mainly inspired by my love of rowing. And when I saw the Nile River for the first time I thought it was absolutely the ideal body of water on which to row a boat. The weather in Egypt is always sunny, the river is calm, wide, and flat, and the landscape is gorgeous. Not to mention the draw of the huge history of river travel in Egypt. I confess I also was driven by an extreme curiosity about whether it was actually possible for me, an American woman, to do it. Everyone I talked with, Egyptian and otherwise, insisted that I just could not row a boat alone on the Nile. They said it was illegal, dangerous, insane, that foreigners never travel alone by boat on the Nile, and that it would just plain be too difficult. But when I looked at the flowing river I thought, well, it’s just a river more or less like any other. Why should it be impossible just because it’s a foreign country? Objectively the censoriousness about it seemed wrong to me. And the more people told me I couldn’t, the more I wanted to prove that I could.
You received a lot of concern for traveling as a woman alone in Egypt. Did you think those concerns were founded? Why or why not?
Yes, I think people’s concerns were well founded. Not because I was going to row a boat in Egypt, but because the world is always slightly more dangerous for women than it is for men, chiefly because of the basic imbalance of physical power between men and women. For me, the danger wouldn’t be Egypt or the Nile, per se, but that I might be seen as easy prey for whatever men I might meet. But that is true all over the world. A woman venturing into the world alone is decidedly vulnerable because of her inevitable status as an object of men’s sexual interest. There’s no plainer way to say it. It’s important to point out that I did this trip twenty years ago when Egypt was still under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, who was extremely West-tending and pro-American. And tourism was such a huge source of revenue for Egypt that foreigners were protected almost in the extreme and treated like royalty. At that time Egyptians would be very hesitant to attack or upset in any way a foreigner, for the consequences from the Egyptian police would be dire.
What was the most challenging part of your adventure? Was there a moment where you regretted your decision to take it on?
The most challenging part of my adventure was, without question, actually purchasing a rowboat. Egyptian men couldn’t fathom why I would want to buy such a thing, nor could they understand why anybody, man or woman, would want to row a boat just for fun. For Egyptians in general rowing is just pure labor, something you wouldn’t do if you didn’t absolutely have to. And the fact that I was a foreign woman made the whole thing more bizarre. It’s unheard of in Egypt for a woman to row a boat alone. Even for a woman to row a boat period! Egyptian women just do not do it.
How would you describe the people of Egypt? Did you find them helpful? Why or why not?
Almost without exception the Egyptian people I met were friendly, curious, kind, generous, gentle, possessed of a sense of humor, and extremely graceful. I fell in love with them and have maintained my friendships with a couple of them. Yes, in the tourist spots the men who run businesses that cater to tourists can be a bit overbearing and pushy in their attempts to get you to spend a little money in their shops, but that’s a fact that’s been true in Egypt since the time of Napoleon’s invasion. You just have to put up with it and try to ignore it.
What would your advice be for women traveling alone to Egypt?
First, I would strongly encourage women to travel alone in Egypt if they’re inclined. It is the most dazzling place, and once you’ve been there the imagery and smells and sounds of the place never leave you. And in my experience if you travel alone, you learn more and you develop a more intimate understanding of the place you’re in. The most important advice I could give any woman traveling to Egypt, alone or otherwise, is to dress modestly. I cannot stress enough how important that is. Egyptian women don’t reveal their skin for a reason. It’s important to respect the Egyptian sensibility about that, and the best way to avoid unwanted attention is to simply cover up your shoulders and thighs.
You have a number of other travel books about your time in China, Ireland, and Tibet. Which location has meant the most to you and that you feel the most connected with?
I like this question, because I think everyone who travels finds at least one foreign place that speaks to them personally, a place in which they feel really at home. That happens naturally. It’s something about a particular place that captures one’s imagination and soul. For me, the place that means the most is Greece, where I now live. The landscape, the light, the air, the history all make me feel very alive. The other place I am extremely attached to is Ireland. I’d probably be living there if the weather weren’t so gloomy all the time. But even in the rain, Ireland strikes me as the most beautiful country in the world. I really feel that.
Egypt is a constantly-changing country. Have you been back since your journey there?
I’ve been back to Egypt three times since I took my trip down the Nile. It has changed a lot politically and economically, but the fundamental beauty and mystery of Egypt has not changed. And it’s a very big country with a lot of diversity. The Nile is the most famous thing about Egypt (ok, and the pyramids . . . ) but there is also the Sinai peninsula, which is gorgeous, the Red Sea, the beautiful oases of Fayoum and Siwa in the Western Desert, and the north coast of Egypt with its stunning white-sand beaches as at Marsa Matrouh. And Alexandria, which even now retains some of its cosmopolitan/European feel. Most people who go to Egypt will plan their trip around the pyramids, the Nile cruise, Luxor and Aswan. But there is so much more to experience there.
Do you have any other trips planned for the future? How about any books in the works?
I’m now writing a book about Greece and my experiences here over the past twenty-two years. I’m doing it as a way of explaining to myself why I love Greece so much. It’s a kind of memoir of my relationship with Greece, my love of the language and the culture. It’s a very personal book as well. I drive a motorbike in Athens, where I live, and have been considering taking a long trip across Greece by motorbike using only the smallest country roads. The very thought of it thrills me …
Wondering if you should take a trip to Egypt? Here’s why it is safe to make the journey.
Header by Rosemary Mahoney.