Review: The Black Nile by Dan Morrison
Synopsis for The Black Nile by Dan Morrison
Upon hearing the news of tenuous peace in Sudan, foreign correspondent Dan Morrison bought a plank-board boat, summoned a friend who’d never left America, and set out from Uganda, paddling the Nile on a quest to reach Cairo-a trip that tyranny and war had made impossible for decades. With the propulsive force of a thriller, Morrison’s chronicle is a mash-up of travel narrative and reportage, packed with flights into the frightful and absurd. From the hardscrabble fishing villages on Lake Victoria to the floating nightclubs of Cairo, The Black Nile tracks the snarl of commonalities and conflicts that bleed across the Nile valley, bringing to life a complex region in profound transition.
Contrary to the synopsis, The Black Nile is only superficially a book about the Nile. As all good travelogues are, it is more about the people of the Nile – specifically, the White Nile of Uganda and Sudan – than it is about the river itself. It is also only superficially a story of river travel, or of traveling a strange land with an old friend, or anything really bearing any resemblance to how the book markets itself.
These aren’t necessarily negatives, though. The author himself at one point describes the passe nature of writing of sailing down the most storied river in history – it has been done to death. The Black Nile, while it does cover a journey from the headwaters of the Nile in Lake Victoria all the way to the river’s completion in Rosetta, Egypt, is first and foremost a story of Sudan, newly emerged from civil war between tribes and religions and political beliefs and on the precipice of sundering itself in half once more.
There are fascinating characters throughout the book, but none more so than the country of Sudan as a whole. The hardscrabble nature of life in that country, the surreal juxtaposition of hundreds of millions of dollars of oil being harvested while there aren’t enough wells in the next town over to provide clean water to the residents of the area, the image of a mixed family of Christians and Muslims (and polyamorous Chrisitians to boot), of tribal conflicts in one town forgotten just a few miles north – Sudan is the crossroads of Arabia and Africa, of Christianity and Islam and even more ancient, nameless beliefs, and it is well reflected in Morrison’s experience of the country.
It wasn’t the buddy adventure romp down the Nile that I thought it was when I picked it up – but having now put it down I find myself thinking back on it a great deal more than I probably would have if it was. Traveling the world, even vicariously through books like The Black Nile, is about expanding horizons, learning new things, and appreciating the many different ways in which humanity inhabits this planet. The Black Nile ticks all those boxes, and easily enters the annals of what I consider to be the best travel books ever written.