Rowing the Nile: A Soothing Respite in a Chaotic Metropolis

CAIRO – Sunset is when the Nile comes alive in Cairo, the party boats sparkle like Vegas, the couples linger in the wind on the Qasr el-Nil Bridge, and the riverside cafes clink with commerce long after most cities are asleep .

At 6 o’clock in the morning, when the rest of them have gone home, the rowers come to Cairo, which few know: no traffic, no crowds, little chaos. Even the birds are audible at this time of the morning, when the city’s car horn battalions are just groggy competition and winter fog fades the five-star hotels along the coast. In the boat, the rudder blades smear and scrape the river like knives over cream cheese. Rhythm replaces thoughts: dip the oars. Push with your legs. Withdraw. To repeat.

“Being out on the water early in the morning, thinking about nothing but following the person in front of you – it gets you out of town,” said Abeer Aly, 34, who founded the Nile Dragons Academy rowing school in central Cairo . “A lot of people think about their shower problems. I think of mine as I row. “

Ms. Aly’s problems these days don’t include a lack of business. Just a few years after the school opened in 2013, it had a waiting list of hundreds of people; There are now so many cairenes interested in amateur rowing that half a dozen water sports centers offer courses along the river.

The Nile gave birth to Egyptian civilization thousands of years ago. Its muddy waters give agricultural riches that build an empire and still sustain it. Cairo residents can have coffee at a floating restaurant or take a one-hour cruise on a felucca. Nile water flows from their taps and grows their food. But the mornings on the river are the closest most rowers have ever brought to the water itself.

“When people hear me row, they say, ‘Row? Where? Said Nadine Abaza, 43, who started rowing three months ago at ScullnBlades, a rowing school near her home in Maadi, an affluent suburb of Cairo. “You see it going across the Nile, but you don’t see it as something you can do.”

For most of the Cairenes, the river without which their land would not exist has become mere landscape. Provided it can be seen.

A waterfront promenade, the Corniche, once allowed drivers to travel from Cairo’s southern foothills to its northern expanses without breaking the view of the river.

But in much of central Cairo, private clubs and restaurants built on the riverside or permanently parked on stationary barges over the past four decades have hidden the Nile from everyone but those who can pay. Many prime locations include military, police, and judicial organizations.

Granted, there are other reasons to stay away from a river that collects sewage, garbage and other pollutants for miles before it flows greenish-brown and at times sharply into Cairo. The rowers share the water not only with police boats, fishermen and ferries, but also occasionally with the archipelago of rubbish and – at least once – a dead cow.

“If we have existed for many thousands of years because of this,” said Amir Gohar, an urban and landscape planner who studied the Egyptians’ relationship with the Nile, “now we are destroying it and ignoring it.”

Some parts of the Corniche are still open on foot, and in poor areas of Cairo and other parts of Egypt, people go to the Nile to swim, fish and – if they don’t have running water – close their dishes, clothes and animals scrub. But compared to Cairene’s past, today’s residents have a far more distant relationship with the river.

Ancient carvings and model boats found in tombs suggest that people rowed the Nile to haul supplies, including the massive stone blocks of the Great Pyramids for celebrations and just to get around. The ancient Egyptians believed that the sun crossed the sky by boat and the dead went to the afterlife.

Perhaps this explains why Amenhotep II, a pharaoh who lived between 1426 and 1400 B.C. BC Egypt ruled, eager to brag about its rowing skills. While Amenhotep’s 200 rowers were “weak, limp, and breathless” after half a mile of oar, one carving claimed the King – “strong of arms, tireless as he took the oar” – did not stop “only after he had covered three miles” Row without stopping your stroke. “

The Europeans, who ruled Egypt at the beginning of the 20th century, were the first to establish modern rowing clubs on the Nile. For decades the sport was reserved for foreigners and elite Egyptians. The races were held in French.

After the monarchy fell and foreigners fled after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the Nile, like so much in Egypt, was transformed under the socialist vision of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. When Nasser formed new unions to meet the needs of their members from housing to health care, these syndicates were granted land on the Nile Front to build clubs where members could relax and, in some cases, row.

In the 1970s, the government hosted regattas aimed at luring tourists back to Egypt after a war with Israel, and regattas where top rowers from Europe and the United States sped past the temples of Luxor and through central Cairo. With the Egyptians, however, rowing had no chance against popular sports such as football.

Even today, private clubs along the Nile are owned by the Ingenieur Syndicate, the Richter Club, the police and others. But when later governments rejected nasserism for capitalism, private developers built much of the river into cafes and expensive apartments.

This in a city with less than five square inches of green space per inhabitant.

“You are talking about Cairo, which now has 20 million people but very little public space or green space,” said Yahia Shawkat, an urban researcher. “And everything you have on the Nile is not only exclusive, but you are blind to seeing or enjoying the river.”

The Egyptians use the riverside where they can, and some travel as far as the outskirts to find a free pop-up park. Every evening, Cairenes gather on the Nile Bridges to take in the views and cool breezes. Some fish. Families buy stewed chickpeas and roasted sweet potato snacks from vendors who set up unlicensed sidewalk cafes. Couples take selfies.

Rowing courses cost anywhere from $ 7 to $ 13 an hour and are out of the reach of most Egyptians. But for young professionals and upper-middle-class families who can afford it, rowing has become a rapidly growing niche, with some rowing for leisure and others being forced to join amateur racing teams.

Water sports schools say they signed newcomers in their twenties to sixties, part of a fitness trend that emerged after the 2011 Egyptian revolution. Social media helped, as did the pandemic: ScullnBlades received twice as many registrations after the coronavirus hit due to its outdoor environment.

“It was not accessible until recently,” said Emma Benany, 31, co-founder of Cairow, a water sports academy in the Dokki neighborhood. When she started rowing in 2011, she only found student teams or private clubs, almost nothing for amateurs; New academies, including theirs, still operate from club-owned docks. “You couldn’t be in your 30s and decide to start rowing.”

One might guess that you are also not afraid of the Nile and can decide to get on a boat. But many new rowers come up with questions like: If I fall in, won’t I drown? Are there no hot tubs? Will I not get schistosomiasis, a local disease caused by freshwater parasites?

They won’t, there aren’t and parasites don’t thrive in running water, the coaches explain, although the current can make swimming more difficult than a pool. Ms. Aly, of the Nile Dragons Academy, said she even drank straight from the Nile to soothe suspicious rowers.

Those who have investigated the contamination of the river may not agree. But still: point taken.

“I used to be afraid of the Nile,” said Mariam Rashad, Cairow coach. “Now I feel like the Nile is an important part of my day.”

Nada Rashwan contributed to the coverage.

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