The Gift of the Nile: How a River can Change your Spirit
By: John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer
It was Herodotus, the fifth century Greek attributed with the founding of the discipline of history, who purportedly said, “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.” It’s not even clear that he actually visited Egypt, but Herodotus’ phrase captures the sense that without that great river, there is no Egypt. While the Nile is managed with dams, cataracts, and canals, where it doesn’t flow, the Desert begins. It’s the only river in the world that has the audacity to cross a thousand miles of Desert and still reach the sea.
Herodotus is also attributed with having said, “If you drink from the Nile, you will always return to Egypt.” Even less traceable than the “gift of the Nile” quote, it still has a nostalgic ring. Though one may not have the most favorable view of actually drinking water from the Nile, one does so, since that is Cairo’s source of potable water.
A typical scene of the timeless Nile River in Upper Egypt
Our family had been living in Cairo for several years but was on the verge of leaving Egypt. That was in 1977. We loved Cairo, captivated by the way it took hold of one’s being through an emotional weave of different streams, historical, cultural, and personal. Cairo is the heart of the Arab world. It possesses an impressive history and culture, music and arts, Islamic theological studies, the Coptic Christian presence, politics and diplomacy, and its strong military. Equally important for our family, Cairo had a rich social life comprising both Egyptians and many different internationals.
The Nile that runs through the country is also a magnetic force that drew us and all of Egypt into its ebbs and flows, its life-giving qualities, a place—for us it was Cairo—where in the right circumstances, one could contemplate a lifetime. Having ‘drunk from the Nile’ and, indeed, returned many times to Cairo, the ‘City of One Thousand Minarets,’ we are guilty as accused. Many times I arrived in Cairo, even long after having lived there, and each time it’s somehow like returning to eternity.
Besides the perennial Nile, the growing numbers of minarets that dot the city skyline hark back to Cairo’s beginnings as a settlement with one mosque in 642 AD, the City has evolved architecturally over many different periods of Islamic influence. The minarets are always there, probably always will be. The Christians of Egypt have their churches with their crosses projecting heavenward. The number of new churches is growing at a much slower rate than mosques, however, due to a government quota on church construction.
The Nile as it flows through Cairo
As we departed Cairo, it was with some sadness for the people we would miss. It was also the Nile — which again according to Herodotus, we would sorely miss but wistfully hoped that it might even miss us. Just recalling the number of parties we’d attended aboard faluka sailboats, floating in the breezes of the great river, was a joyful memory. Observing Egyptians aboard faluka parties, I noted a distinct change in individual demeanor, as if being on the Nile relieved one of the stresses of daily life in Cairo. The popular faluka party allowed people of different nationalities and backgrounds to mingle in the joy of the moment. We imagined that if everyone else across the globe was like us, on a faluka, drifting on the Nile, the world could be saved from itself.
Mosques such as this frame the view of Cairo’s horizon as seen from the Nile
But then there were the nights in July and August during which the sailboat would barely move, as if holding us in suspense, just long enough to realize that the breeze wouldn’t come. We would sweat in the humid heat, and then have to be rowed back to life on shore, with its encumberments of family, work, and money. All the while on board, however, the musicians would drum their constant rhythms, piercing the heavy air, trying to drive away the monotony of the stillness that the Nile brought on these breezeless evenings.
This was the River’s reminder of its indomitable force, its ability to bring joy as well as other emotions.
A ‘faluka’ party on the Nile
Our family was sad to leave the Nile behind, but always joyous to see its timeless flow on numerous return visits.
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and society, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing. This article is adapted in part from his book.