A biography of the longest river in the world, the gateway and artery of a quarter of the continent, is stuffed with incident and interesting tangents, but, says Frederick Deknatel, sometimes it neglects the essentials.
Book on the Nile examines a river expansive in length, history
The Red Nile: A Biography of the World’s Greatest River
The Nile has no shortage of stories or storytellers, which might discourage most writers from undertaking "a biography of the world's greatest river". Not British travel writer and self-described adventurer Robert Twigger, who at the outset of his lively, zigzagging, often oddball tome, Red Nile: The Biography of the World's Greatest River, declares his goal "to uncover the best stories, in all their light and darkness, the stories red in tooth and claw, the more bizarre the better, the blood and the guts of this river which spills into history". If you're going to write another book about the Nile - a river whose chronicles begin with the Pharaohs and whose history, whether ancient or modern, is always being rehashed and reiterated - how else could you do it? To his credit, Twigger brings some self-restraint and humility to this epic, acknowledging he is less an original storyteller than a curator, collecting and rearranging tales and characters in order to say something new.
Twigger's Red Nile refers, initially, to the moment in early summer when, north of Khartoum, the sediment-rich Blue Nile, at the height of its flood, flows into the White Nile and clogs its clear waters, turning them briefly red. But this is only the most literal version of the Red Nile. As Twigger writes, "the stories that remain are always the most highly coloured, the most passion-filled or the most blood curdling. Naturally, their colour is red." Often he leans on the latter; among the most bloody stories retold is that of the Delta town of Mansoura, where in 1250, Baibars, Egypt's future Mamluk Sultan, slaughtered French Crusaders led by Louis IX, and their blood was said to clog the Nile south to the Mediterranean.
But it is in Mansoura, too, a few years later, that the groundbreaking physician Ibn Al Nafis, a close friend of Baibars, first accurately charted pulmonary circulation, how blood flows through the heart to the lungs and back - 400 years before William Harvey. Al Nafis wrote more than 80 medical volumes along with many more on Islamic law, theology and literature, including Theologus Autodidactus, considered the first science fiction novel. So not all of the Nile's bloody tales are gruesome. Yet many are inevitably about control and conquest, whether by ancient empires, colonial powers or modern autocrats. This is the Nile after all, the motorway, supply chain and access point to Africa from the Mediterranean, coveted by so many for so long. Among these once and would-be conquerors whom Twigger cites is the late British prime minister Winston Churchill, who in The River War stated "wrongly that the Nile drains a quarter of Africa", Twigger writes. "The real figure is a tenth. But the exaggeration has a truth - the Nile controls a quarter of Africa, perhaps more."
Though Red Nile begins as a travel book, it soon settles in as a compendium of curious histories and esoterica related, sometimes very tangentially, to the Nile. After scrapping the idea of traversing Africa's great river from source to sea by rubber boat (Twigger's preferred method of river transport in Cairo), he sets out instead on a series of short trips "at my own pace" - some undertaken by himself, though most through the past journeys of others - around the 11 countries that have the Nile within their borders. "I'd need to read as much as make miles," he admits, which proves prescient. In the nearly 450 pages that follow, the richness of the histories that he narrates turns Twigger's own travels into footnotes. Against a story that runs from the creation myths of ancient Egypt to the failed Toshka Desert "reclamation" dreams of Hosni Mubarak, Twigger's own jaunts read like contemporary sidetracks to the larger, more impressive and illuminating record of this mighty African river system whose 6,719 kilometres tell a history of the world.
Some characters are so well known they appear encased in a diorama, like the Victorian explorers searching for the source of the Nile, from John Hanning Speke and his partner in exploration, Richard Burton, to David Livingstone and Henry Moore Stanley. While breaking these figures out of their familiar and well-worn biographies is futile, Twigger succeeds with a few surprises about others. A nine-metre high statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps, the French developer of the Suez Canal, stood at its Mediterranean entrance in Port Said until 1956, when, in Twigger's words, it was "blown off its plinth by enthusiastic Egyptian patriots". Tossed in the scrapyard of the Suez Canal Company, de Lesseps' outsized likeness now stands "in a sort of gravel viewing area surrounded by old cable drums and scrapped heavy-lifting material". De Lesseps' descendants paid for this makeshift memorial, the scrapyard supervisor tells Twigger, since returning it to its empty plinth was politically unpopular, but so too was selling it abroad. "So, in a true Egyptian compromise, the man who brought Egypt its fourth-largest source of revenue resides in a place of oily engines, rusty remains and broken pipes."
Twigger's retelling of Muhammad Ali's notorious 1811 slaughter of the Mamluks, the slave soldiers who had ruled Egypt since the 13th century but ceded power to the Ottomans in 1517, is distinguished by its own historical curiosity. Though 499 Mamluks were killed in Cairo's Citadel that night, Twigger notes the legend of the one that got away, the 500th Mamluk who stayed in bed and then fled Cairo with his life. He reportedly ended up in Jaffa, after he slipped out of Egypt via Rosetta and a fishing boat through Cyprus. According to Twigger, "his family lived there until 1948, when they escaped again, strangely, back to Egypt". What is his source? As he writes: "I know this story because the sole descendant of the one who escaped told me."
Though lively and accessible, Twigger's writing can veer into a kind of chatter that undermines his epic. Moses, leading his people away from the "bad, old Pharaoh", sees the approaching Egyptian chariots: "Time for Moses to call a friend." The Victorian explorer Richard Burton is introduced as "not the one married to Cleopatra - Liz Taylor - but the other one". I doubt anyone mixes them up. The Sultana Shajar Al-Durr, who ruled Egypt during the early days of the Mamluk dynasty, is placed in a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. It goes on, as in this passage on Cleopatra: "In life she and Mark Antony had partied hard, very hard … Somehow one is reminded more of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love than the rulers of a great country." Who besides Twigger is reminded of that? He otherwise excels at building a grand if rambling narrative out of sharply crafted anecdotes and snippets of history that are scholarly but not stuffy, with plenty of self-deprecation. But these asides are just cloying. This isn't to disparage the quirks and eccentricities that buoy what could be another long and familiar tale. In one satisfyingly bizarre chapter, Wild Swim, Twigger turns the text over to an old friend and Reuters war correspondent who has agreed to swim across the Red Nile - that is, where the White and Blue rivers converge at Khartoum. The friend, having found himself in Khartoum "by chance", had "agreed to a bout of wild swimming far beyond my meagre capabilities". Suffice to say, Johnny West succeeds in his crossing - but not without a few surprises along the way - and in typical English fashion, notes that he is back at his hotel in time for breakfast.
The confluence of the White and Blue Nile is a "moment, in time and place" that Twigger turns into a sweeping but muddied metaphor for the Nile's long history. By following every available link of geography and history, some clarifying basics, like chronology and complete portrayals of certain people and events, get carried away in the current. Take the story of Muhammad Ahmad, the self-declared Mahdi who fought the British and the Ottoman-Egyptian khedive for control of Sudan from 1881 to 1885. Twigger devotes a thrilling chapter to the Mahdi's sword, which once belonged to the 16th-century Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who seized Tunis from the Ottomans in 1535. When Tunis returned into Ottoman hands in 1574, the sword was sold as booty to a Tuareg chief and over the centuries it made its way via various tribesmen across the Sahara, its French inscriptions never fading. The Mahdi got it as a gift from the Sultan of Darfur. "In a sense it was a crusader's sword," Twigger writes, "and using it against the English, who backed the Turkish Egyptian ruler, was seen by the Mahdi as right and fitting." But Twigger never explains who the Mahdi really was - he never even provides his real name - only that he was "the 'mad Mahdi'" who commanded an army of dervishes. Such essentials, it seems, are lost in all of Twigger's storytelling.
Frederick Deknatel, a regular contributor to The Review, writes for The Nation, the Los Angeles Review of Books and other publications.