The Best Books On The Nile

The Books I Picked & Why

Cairo: City of Sand

By Maria Golia

Cairo: City of Sand

Why this book?

Maria Golia’s witty and discerning portrait is -- hands-down -- the best book on Cairo. Golia, the author of acclaimed works on jazz, natural history, photography, and a forthcoming history of tomb raiding (!), writes about the Nile’s megacity with tremendous empathy, erudition, and – after 35 years of living in Cairo – an insider’s nuanced eye. Packed with humor and irony, it’s a book that begs to be read aloud. As I prepare for my own return to Egypt after a decade away, Cairo: City of Sand is first on my list.


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Red Nile: The Biography of the World's Greatest River

By Robert Twigger

Red Nile: The Biography of the World's Greatest River

Why this book?

Where I wrote The Black Nile as a white-knuckle current history of the Nile region, British polymath Robert Twigger took the long view to craft an absorbing portrait of the Nile, from Biblical times to the present. Twigger, whose adventures have taken him from the Canadian Rockies to Indonesian hill country to the karate dojo of the Tokyo riot police, has, with Red Nile, written a moving, cinematic masterpiece.


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Season of Migration to the North

By Tayeb Salih, Denys Johnson-Davies

Season of Migration to the North

Why this book?

As much as I love Cairo, I am happiest on the Nile in Sudan, Egypt’s tumultuous, less-trammeled neighbor. It’s in Sudan, at Omdurman, where the Blue Nile and White Nile meet in a sturdy, 30-million-year-old marriage that birthed and has sustained both Egyptian and Sudanese civilization. Set in a Nile village in 1960s Sudan, Tayeb Salih’s classic novella is a wistful, affecting story of post-colonial exile that’s been compared with the works of Franz Fanon and Joseph Conrad. Season of Migration to the North is packed with references to Shakespeare, Islamic history, Arabic poetry, Freud, and contemporary fiction. You feel at the end as if you’re coming out of a melancholy, satisfying dream.


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The Nile: History's Greatest River

By Terje Tvedt

The Nile: History's Greatest River

Why this book?

Water expert, academic, and documentary filmmaker Terje Tvedt fell hard for the Nile decades ago. His third book on the life-giving river is an expert weaver's tapestry of history, ecology, and politics on the Nile.


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In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler's Tale

By Amitav Ghosh

In an Antique Land: History in the Guise of a Traveler's Tale

Why this book?

Most of the travel writing we see is suffused with Western perspectives and assumptions. In an Antique Land shows a different kind of encounter – that of an Indian graduate student conducting doctoral research among rural Egyptian villagers in the early 1980s. A Bengali Hindu among Arab Muslims, a scholar among peasants, Ghosh (best known for his Ibis Trilogy of historical novels), is a fish out of water. Living far from Calcutta in a converted chicken coop amid fields of carrots and arugula, he contends with a marvelous cast of characters, including a part-time witch casting spells for tips; a local weaver who aspires to travel to India on donkey-back; and a smitten, one-eyed youth who kneels by night under his lady’s window to luxuriate in the sound of her breathing. It’s a place of parochialism, humor, and intense love.


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