The world of their parents and grandparents was turned upside down more than 50 years ago when they were evacuated from villages along the Nile River to make way for the High Dam. Now a younger generation has revived the long-dormant cause of Egypt’s Nubians, campaigning for a return to their lands and struggling to preserve their culture.
Their timing could not have been worse.
Recent peaceful marches by Nubians were met by swift suppression from the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, which has shown little tolerance for dissent. To a state dominated by the military and security agencies, Nubians’ assertion of their distinct identity and heritage amid the Arab majority looks like a threat to stability.
“This country has so many colors and ethnicities, and it is so destructive that we are trying to give it just one identity,” said Fatmah Imam, a Nubian activist born and raised in Cairo. Even during her days at university, she recalled, the message instilled was that the country should be homogeneous.
“It is painful for me that I am unable to manifest my identity,” she said. “I see Egypt as a mosaic.”
Nubians are an ancient ethnic group who from Pharaonic times lived along the Nile in a stretch of territory from southern Egypt to northern Sudan, even becoming rulers for a period in the 25th Dynasty 3,000 years ago. Darker skinned than most Egyptians, they have a language and culture distinct from the country’s Arab majority.
The 20th century brought a series of displacements, starting with the construction of the first reservoir at Aswan in 1902. The biggest came with the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1950s and 1960s under the rule of the charismatic, authoritarian Gamal Abdel-Nasser. Some 50,000 were subjected to forced resettlement in 1963 and 1964, and the creation of Lake Nasser flooded their ancestral homeland.
Their dream since has been to return to land along the lake near their original villages.
Nubian activists have found inspiration from the 2011 pro-democracy uprising that overthrew autocrat Hosni Mubarak. In 2014, there seemed to be a breakthrough when the crafters of a new constitution included a clause that for the first time recognized Nubians as an ethnic group and committed the state to organize their return to traditional lands and develop those areas by 2024.
But so far, nothing concrete has been done, activists say.
Succeeding a generation traumatized by displacement, young Nubian activists say they are determined to bring change.
“You must not be worried about the future. I personally feel that the future, God willing, will be dear and generous for all of you.” —Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, addressing Nubians in 1960.
Older Nubians remember vividly their lives in their original land. They talk of sprawling villages of large houses painted in brilliant colors spread out along the Nile. Receding river waters after annual floods left fertile land for crops.
Most important was the bond with the Nile. For generations they lived on its banks. Their rituals were closely linked to it. They would baptize their children in its waters, and before weddings, grooms would bathe in the river. On holidays they would float dishes of food on its current to the river’s mythical guardians. Though Muslim, Nubians have traditions from their Christian past mixed in with their identity; for example, at weddings the guests often call to Jesus and Mary for blessings as well as to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
When the government resettled the Nubians in the 1960s, it told them they were making a major sacrifice for Egypt’s progress, giving up their villages for the sake of a dam that would electrify and modernize the nation.
In return, the authorities promised, the socialist system would ensure them a prosperous future: new, model homes with electricity, running water and farmlands awaited them.
Officials raced to evacuate the Nubians as the Nile’s waters rose. Nubians of that generation recall families frantically packing possessions and pulling livestock to riverboats as officials, soldiers and members of the only political party at the time, the Socialist Union, shouted, “Yallah, yallah!” — “Come on!”
The Nubians were moved to 44 new villages, mostly clumped around the area of Kom Ombo, north of Aswan, more than 200 kilometers (120 miles) from their home region.
What they found was a startling blow. In some villages, houses hadn’t been built yet — there were just chalk outlines. Houses that were ready were small and cramped. Often there was no running water or electricity. Farmland couldn’t be farmed because a canal hadn’t been built yet.
Even worse for the Nubians, most of the villages were miles away from the Nile. The fact that all the new villages bore the same names as the Nubians’ now submerged home villages seemed almost cruel. They became known as the villages of “tahgeer,” or exile.
“People felt they were deceived and the first few years here were very tough,” Mohammed Dawoud, 71, recalled as he sat in a mosque after the sunset prayers in Abu Simbel, one of the tahgeer villages.
Nubians to this day still feel the trauma of having their community shattered. Many left the impoverished new villages for Cairo, Alexandria and other cities to find jobs, often as household servants or doormen. Customs fell away. Though the Nubian language is still spoken in some homes, it is not taught in schools, nor is Nubian history or culture. There is no official data, but some estimates put the number of Nubians today at 3.5 million to 5 million.
In the 50 years since, the tahgeer towns have become indistinguishable from neighboring Arab ones, a sprawl of dust-covered, eye-sore apartment blocks, mired in poverty and underdevelopment.
Speaking Arabic haltingly with a heavy Nubian accent, Naemah Hussein, an 85-year-old grandmother, said her house in her original home village of Eneiba was right on the banks of the Nile, where she baptized her first two children. Eneiba at the time had one of the best river ports in the country, built by the British in the 1930s.
Now she lives in the “tahgeer” Eneiba. Since being evacuated there, she had four more children.
The town “is a place that sends people away, no investments, no jobs,” one of her sons said.
It is also far from the Nile.
“Well, it’s a life,” Hussein said with bitter resignation. “Now I don’t even see the river in my dreams.”
“Our children are scattered everywhere working as help, serving the grandchildren of the foreigners and Pashas. And we are here, left like goats in the devil’s valley. … They killed us, my son. The folks with light skin killed us.” —From the short story “Adeela, My Grandmother,” or “Farewell, My Grandmother,” by Haggag Oddoul.
Haggag Oddoul, at 74, has spent a lifetime chronicling the miseries of the Nubians’ displacement in dozens of novels and short stories while campaigning for the rights of his community.
He calls the Nubians’ uprooting “the murder of a culture.” Successive governments, he said, have sought to dissolve the community into the broader Arab-dominated identity, seeing any diversity as a threat and suspicious that the Nubians, if back in their lands, will seek to secede. He dismissed any doubts over Nubians’ loyalties.
“We are part of the date palms and the Nile,” told the AP at his home, a small, high-rise apartment he shares with his wife in Alexandria, the city where he was born.
Oddoul sat on the commission that wrote the 2014 constitution and was a driving force in winning the inclusion of the clause recognizing the Nubians’ right to return.
He sees that as a gain — “I still think the constitution is more than just ink on paper.”
But, he said, Nubians will never get their rights without pushing for them. He cited as his inspiration the civil rights movement in the United States and the fiery rhetoric of the late heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali.
Today’s generation, he said, is less willing to put up with discrimination, pointing to the stereotype of the Nubian among Egyptians as a happy servant — the cheerful waiter or the loyal doorman.
“Young Nubians are aggressive now,” he said. “I personally have become fed up with the stereotypical good Nubian. Now, I am the aggressive Nubian.”
“They (Nubians) are going to a place where they will be compensated for oppression, humiliation and unemployment with justice, dignity, work and prosperity.” —Hikmat Abu Zeid, minister of Social Solidarity, addressing Nubians before evacuations began in 1963.
Siham Othman, a 30-year-old teacher born in Aswan, was raised on stories of the old country. After the evacuation, her family ended up in Alexandria and her grandfather became a merchant sailor, travelling the world.
When he told her stories, it was never about his travels, only about Nubia, she said.
“He is the one who planted the dream of return in me,” she said.
“The older generation of Nubians accepted the status quo,” she said. “Their activism was restricted to conferences, but no street activism. Now there is a new spirit.”
But it’s proving difficult. Othman is among 50 Nubian activists now on trial, facing charges that could land them in prison for up to five years, after protests last year.
In September, around 100 Nubians marched through Aswan, singing traditional songs and beating drums. Police quickly broke it up, arresting more than two dozen. One of them, a well-known activist suffering from multiple health issues, died in custody, prompting a new protest and a new wave of arrests.
The previous year, a convoy of cars set out from Aswan toward Nubian lands. They were intercepted by security forces and, after a four-day standoff, forced to return to Aswan.
“The government is becoming more and more hard line in its approach to the Nubian question,” Othman said.
That appears to be at least in part because of security agencies’ hand over the issue. Soon after passage of the 2014 constitution, parliament drafted a law for developing Nubian lands, but intelligence agencies objected to some provisions, said a senior official involved in the issue. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Then el-Sissi issued a decree extending a security zone along the border with Sudan, a major route for militants entering Egypt to join an insurgency in the Sinai. The expansion put a number of areas the Nubians want to return to inside the zone, where settlement is barred.
In May, parliament passed a law creating a state agency to economically develop all of southern Egypt, but it made no specific mention of the Nubians. Activists oppose the law, saying it aims to dilute their cause by grouping it in with broader development.
In a debate over the legislation, parliament speaker Ali Abdel-Al, a close el-Sissi supporter, echoed the attitude that recognizing Nubian identity threatens stability. He called the constitutional clause about Nubians “a land mine” and said referring to any group of Egyptians by their ethnic identity was dangerous.
During a visit to Aswan last year, el-Sissi spoke broadly about fulfilling Nubian demands, but talked about development without mentioning return.
“The government wants to implement the constitution and wants to see the Nubians return to their region. But this needs time,” Mustafa Bakry, a lawmaker close to the military who has mediated between activists and the government, told the AP.
The slow pace and the crackdown have convinced some activists that return will not happen any time soon. They are focusing on rescuing Nubian culture from disappearance. One has launched a YouTube channel that broadcast in Nubian for two hours every day. Another developed a mobile app to teach young people the Nubian language.
Fatmah Imam said activists must not let up the pressure, which she argued has succeeded in forcing officials to talk about the issue. “We have no choice but to continue our struggle,” she said.
“From what I see, there’s a lot of suppressed anger among Nubians. It has not come to surface yet.”