A row on the Nile

Posted 08.21.09

CAIRO, EGYPT | I recently joined the Egyptian Rowing Club. At least once a week I leave work and go to the Club for a row.

The ERC, situated along the Cornice in Doqqi, is one of many rowing clubs on the Nile. To the northwest by five miles is the Giza plateau where the Old Kingdom pyramids of Cheops, Kufu, Khefren, and their assorted mustabas are located. I'm not rowing exactly in the shadow of the great pyramids but they aren't far away.

The taxi to ERC goes along the Nile on the island of Gezira where I work. We pass the great mosque in Midan Kit Kat on the Giza side. Many of the old, atmospheric houseboats described by Naquib Mafouz in his Egyptian novels, still line the shore. Sometimes I row up to them -- they are only a mile or so from the club.

The club consists of two buildings: a modern glossy marble edifice with an open dining terrace and a garage-like area where some of the rowing shells are stored. Other shells are in the blue and white wooden houseboat attached to the marble building by pylons.

When I come in the boat club, I head for the houseboat looking for Magdy, one of the boat club safragis. I check with Magdy that a boat is available and that he can help me get on the water. Mohamed, the keeper of the keys, unlocks the women's locker room where I change.

When I come out, Magdy is taking the rowing 'canoe' off the stretchers for me with a helper. I carry my own oars down to the dock. Initially I didn't like the idea of someone carrying my boat and holding it while I got in. But I've changed. Am I getting philosophical or just going with the culture? Besides, the boat is a very heavy wooden lapstraked shell and the dock is high above the Nile.

The current flows north at a fairly steady pace. You could just sit and steer the rowboat easily and arrive at Midan Kit Kat not too long after someone who is rowing. I have to keep this in mind because the row against the current back to the ERC can be long and arduous.

All my years of rowing in college, at the Narragansett Boat Club, and on the Atlantic and Pacific oceans come back to me as I row alongside the banks of the Nile. Despite all the miles I've rowed alone on this river, I still like rowing with a partner better. The current whips under the bridges as I head toward Midan Kit Kat. Occasionally kissy noises from teenage boys reach me from the railings of bridges I row under. I don't have to look to know who and why.

Clumps of water lilies float by the boat. A working felucca crosses the river ahead of me, ferrying people from Gezira Island to the Giza side. I row on, entranced by the smooth motion of the oars as I push them forward and with a flick of the wrists, drop the oar blades in the water. Since I'm going with current, the pull through is easy and the oar handles are back in my lap ready to be pushed away over and over. The waves are minimal, barely a ripple to contend with.

Then, 25 minutes later, I reach Midan Kit Kat and turn around to start back to the ERC. But off the port oar is a strange black fuzzy thing in the water. I paddle closer and on closer inspection I see it is a man's wig. A toupee, perhaps?

I can imagine the circumstances of its arrival into the Nile. A man walking with his wife or girlfriend along the Nile on a hot summer's eve. A sudden gust of wind lifts up the toupee and he is cooler on top than he wants to be.

When I get back to the boat club, hot and tired, Magdy and his assistant are waiting to grab my starboard oar. I undo the port oarlock, put my right foot on the footrest and lift myself up and out of the boat. How many times have I done that over the years?

I carry my oars into the boathouse while Magdy follows with the canoe.

Kathleen Saville is a veteran rower who has lived in Egypt for many years. She teaches in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition at the American University in Cairo.

Copyright © 2009 Kathleen Saville/Log Cabin Chronicles/08.09