The best books on floating down the Nile

Rosemary Mahoney Author Of Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff
By Rosemary Mahoney

Who am I?

When author Rosemary Mahoney took a solo trip on the Egyptian Nile in a seven-foot rowboat, she discovered modern Egypt for herself. As a female, she confronted deeply-held beliefs about foreign women while cautiously remaining open to genuine friendships; as a traveler, she had experiences that ranged from the humorous to the hair-raising--including an encounter that began as one of the most frightening of her life and ended as a chastening lesson in cultural misunderstanding.  Whether she's meeting contemporary Egyptians or finding connections to Westerners who traveled the Nile long ago, Mahoney's informed curiosity about Egypt never ceases to captivate the reader.


I wrote...

Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff

By Rosemary Mahoney,

Book cover of Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman's Skiff

What is my book about?

Rosemary Mahoney was determined to take a solo trip down the Egyptian Nile, even though civil unrest and vexing local traditions conspired to create obstacles every step of the way. Starting off in the south, she gained the unlikely sympathy and respect of a Muslim sailor, who provided her with both a seven-foot skiff and a window into the culturally and materially impoverished lives of rural Egyptians. Egyptian women don't row on the Nile, and tourists aren't allowed to for safety's sake.

Whether she's confronting deeply held beliefs about non-Muslim women, finding connections to past chroniclers of the Nile, or coming to the dramatic realization that fear can engender unwarranted violence, Rosemary Mahoney's informed curiosity about the world, her glorious prose, and her wit never fail to captivate.

The books I picked & why

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Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour

By Gustave Flaubert, Francis Steegmuller (translator),

Book cover of Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour

Why this book?

In November 1849, Gustave Flaubert and his friend Maxime du Camp hired a boat and crew in Alexandria, Egypt and set off on a three-month trip up the Nile. At that time a trip on the Nile was still an extremely unusual and exotic adventure for Europeans. This book comprises Flaubert's letters to his mother and his friends back home in France. Flaubert was a man who deeply disliked his own country, had a longtime love of things oriental, was interested in the baser aspects of humanity, and was capable of writing to in a letter to a friend that women generally confused their cunts (his word) for their brains and thought the moon existed solely to light their boudoirs. 

You'll find here Flaubert's amusing descriptions of Egypt's bazaars, temples, and people, as well as his graphic and honest (possibly even exaggerated) descriptions of his sexual experiences in Egypt's numerous brothels. The book actually reveals as much about Flaubert's personality and psyche as it does about Egypt.


Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849-1850

By Florence Nightingale,

Book cover of Letters from Egypt: A Journey on the Nile, 1849-1850

Why this book?

If you, like me, have imagined Florence Nightingale as selfless, holy, good, unworldly, prim, and therefore probably very dull, this collection of her letters from Egypt will completely dash that perception. Nightingale was ferocious. Purely by coincidence, she set off on a three-month cruise down the Nile during the same week as Gustave Flaubert. Though the two apparently never met in their travels, they had many of the same experiences and visited the same places within two or three days of each other. Of the two, Nightingale was in fact the more daring and the more acute in her observations and judgments. 

She was brilliant, widely traveled, extremely well-educated, and had an absolutely wicked sense of humor that in these pages will surprise and delight you. Where Flaubert was emotional, sometimes melodramatic, superstitious, and occasionally fearful, Nightingale was tough-minded, unsentimental, and rational. In places where Flaubert chickened out, Nightingale just hiked up her skirts and welcomed the challenge."


An Egyptian Journal

By William Golding,

Book cover of An Egyptian Journal

Why this book?

At the age of seventy-two, William Golding, British author of Lord of the Flies, set off on a trip down the Nile with his wife and an Egyptian guide. Golding had long had a burning passion for Egypt, stating that ". . . for the last sixty years I must have read every popular book ever written about Egypt." But as his journalistic observations illustrate, there was still so much more to be learned by personal experience. I love this book for Golding's wry, gentle sensibility, his cozy erudition, his intellectual warmth, his wisdom about life and interpersonal relationships in general, and his wonderful sense of humor. I laughed aloud at many points in this book.


An Account Of The Manners And Customs Of The Modern Egyptians

By Edward William Lane,

Book cover of An Account Of The Manners And Customs Of The Modern Egyptians

Why this book?

When Edward Lane's exhaustive account of his two-year sojourn in Egypt was published in London in 1836, it met with such fascinated demand that its first printing sold out in two weeks. The book has never since been out of print. Lane, who was fluent in Arabic and an expert in Egyptian history, was one of the early British scholars to immerse himself in Egyptian life. I mean truly immerse himself by dressing like and living with Egyptians. At that time Egypt still remained a great mystery to the western world, essentially because nearly a thousand years of Arab rule had prevented foreigners from traveling there. 

Lane's patience and curiosity allowed him to witness Egyptian life in the early 19th century in intimate detail and in ways no other traveler had been able to do. The book is a font of strange and quirky detail, such as the use of hashish and Cannabis indica throughout Egypt. Though it was illegal, hashish could be got at coffee shops and smaller private shops called masheshehs, which were exclusively for the sale of hashish "and other intoxicating preparations." Among other fascinating nuggets of information Lane explains that in Egypt the Arabic word hashshasheen, which means "users of hemp," was often applied to "noisy and riotous people," and that during the Crusades the name hashshasheen was given to Syrian warriors who used mind-altering drugs to confuse and disarm their enemies. This was the origin of the word assassin. You'll find in these pages countless surprising revelations like this.


The Histories

By Herodotus, Tom Holland (translator),

Book cover of The Histories

Why this book?

No, it isn't boring and dry. Believe me. Herodotus, the ancient Greek writer, geographer, and historian is said to have traveled in Egypt in approximately 450 B.C. In his travels, he compiled extensive notes on his observations and experiences and came to the conclusion that Egypt was highly impressive but also incredibly strange, if not downright weird. Flip to page 319 of this book (my version of it anyway) and you will find Herodotus's examples of the way in which Egyptians do everything in reverse of the rest of the world: ". . . the women buy and sell, the men abide at home and weave; and whereas in weaving all others push the woof upwards, the Egyptians push it downwards. 

Men carry burdens on their heads, women on their shoulders. Women make water standing, men sitting. They relieve nature indoors, and eat out of doors in the streets, giving the reason that things unseemly but necessary should be done in secret, things not unseemly should be done openly... Everywhere else, priests of the gods wear their hair long; in Egypt, they are shaved... The Egyptians are the only people who keep their animals with them in the house.  Whereas all others live on wheat and barley, it is the greatest disgrace for an Egyptian so to live; they make food from a coarse grain which some call spelt. They knead dough with their feet and gather mud and dung with their hands. The Egyptians and those who have learnt it from them are the only people who practise circumcision. The Greeks write and calculate by moving the hand from left to right; the Egyptians do contrariwise, yet they say that their way of writing is towards the right, and the Greek way towards the left."

Herodotus's accounts are so captivating and fantastical that the contemporaneous historian Thucydides accused him of lying and fabricating for the sake of an entertaining story.  Historians and archaeologists have since proven that much of what Herodotus wrote was fact.


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