After the displacement of thousands of Nubians from their homeland 52 years ago, the scars of loss and cultural tragedy continue to spur demands for a right of return.
by Farah El-Akkad
Palm trees and vast farms by the Nile River, ‘the land of Gold,’ ‘Egypt’s gateway extending till northern Sudan,’ ‘an African Empire’ — that’s the way older generations of Egypt’s Nubians remember their long-lost homeland.
Before the 1960s, Nubian villages were flooded every summer, spurring a government decision to begin construction of Aswan’s High Dam in an effort to create more water and electricity capacity for Egypt’s burgeoning population. But while the revised 1959 Nile Waters Treaty was a necessity to Egypt’s hydro-infrastructure ambitions, it necessitated the displacement of tens of thousands of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubians.
The decision to resettle the Nubian population between 1963 and 1964 was a major traumatic event: one that has been ingrained in the historical and cultural memory of the Nubians of Egypt and North Sudan. According to the acclaimed 1999 documentary Egyptians and the Nile, scores of families left their farms and ancestral homes with thousands of lost memories; many others refused to leave their flooded houses and chose instead to die there.
This month marks 52 years since the displacement of Nubians from their land. The displacement, known as “the bitter occurrence,” saw more than 50,000 Nubians expelled from their land after promises of a right of return following the completion of the High Dam were broken. Over 45 villages were razed, their inhabitants displaced and promptly relocated, mainly in Kom Ombo far from their original lands. Decades have passed and Nubians have not forgotten their old land and still demand their right of return. Today, Nubians continue to reside mostly in Kom Ombo, about 60 km north of Aswan, spread out across five main villages: Nasr Al-Noba, Al-Fadigga, Arab, Thoman Waffia and Al-Konouz. Though these villages depend mainly on agriculture, they hold none of the magic and glory of the Nubians’ original lands.
“I remember very vividly what happened on that day. Our farm was completely flooded months before leaving and the crop was damaged. I also recall my grandfather who was almost my age today talking to one of the army officers and leaving our home with tears in his eyes. Even though they said it was for the best and they would bring us back, my family felt it was not true,” says 75-year-old Abdel Hamid Saafan, a Nubian who once lived in Abu Handal, one of the last villages that were razed in 1964. Saafan says his family moved into a new house, but most other people had no place to live because more than 60 percent of the construction of the new houses was not yet finished. To the Nubians’ dismay, the new houses were totally different from their old village’s culture and style, nor was any attention paid to the hot weather conditions or the Nile’s considerable distance from the settlements.
This month the Egyptian Nubian Foundation held an event at their headquarters in Abdeen Square in memory of the bitter incident. Chairman of the Foundation Mossad Herky says the commemoration is “part of a series of continuous events held annually to keep alive the memory and remind the government that we did not forget its promise to us — the right that was promised 52 years ago during Nasser’s era and also by other consecutive governments until today.”
Nubians feel marginalized and isolated from society to this day, Herky says. But they are not disheartened, and every year the community spotlights the sad incident and renews its demands that the government preserve Nubian culture and return Nubians to their land. “I am 32, but I recall my grandfather’s stories about old Nubia throughout my childhood and the same stories are not being told to my son. The displacement will remain a black spot in the history of Egypt not because of the act itself, but because the government’s promise was not true,” says Ibrahim Gamal, a resident of Nasr El Noba.
After the January 25 Revolution Nubians hoped for better living conditions north of the High Dam, but their hopes were dashed and then renewed after June 30, Gamal says. “It seems we always come last,” laments Gamal. “Why is wanting to go home to develop and invest in our homeland too much to ask?" he exclaims, adding that Nubians have sacrificed a lot for Egypt and the least they deserve is for their demands to be met.
There is hope yet with the Egyptian government showing some positive steps over the past 5 years. Following the January 25 Revolution, former Prime Minister Essam Sharaf gave the go-ahead for the creation of the High Institute for Reconstruction South of the High Dam. In 2012, the government started a program to encourage young Nubians by selling one square meter lots for LE 10 in Nasr Al Noba. In October 2014, the Egyptian Minister for Transitional Justice, Ibrahim Henedi, issued a decision to form a special committee to discuss Nubians’ demands to return to their areas of origin (now located north of Aswan’s High Dam). Moreover, the government has built schools, hospitals and a number of youth centers in addition to fitting sewage pipeline in different Nubian villages in the past 10 years.
Yet many Nubians feel this is not enough, arguing that most governmental initiatives go no further than the paperwork stage and are nothing but fodder for talk shows. “Nubians’ demand of their right of return does not mean they are not aware of Egypt’s ongoing political and economic challenges and will do their utmost effort to help make Egypt a better country and work hard to improve our living conditions,” says Herky.
Nubian culture is one of the richest in the world, says Bassem El Ashkar, professor of modern history at Cairo University, and Nubians are an inseparable part of Egypt’s culture with some tourists coming to Egypt specifically to visit Nubia. “I think the richness of the Nubian people and their culture is not valued at even half of its real worth, and more details and real stories about Nubia need to be included in our history school books,” Ashkar says, adding that popular singer Mohamed Mounir, Field Marshal and Statesman Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, football player Shikabala and writer Idris Ali as some of the most prominent figures hailing from Nubia.
And of course there is the old Nubian language, which was used as a secret code during the 1973 War with Israel. One of the most famous words on the list of Secret Codes was ‘Ushrya,’ which means ‘Attack’ in Nubian. A remnant of a lost civilization, the Nubian language has sadly all but died out in modern-day Egypt. And barring a few songs by Mohamed Mounir, children of Nubian descent have little use for their native tongue, making it nearly impossible for the language to be passed down to a new generation.
Through his foundation, Herky is encouraging efforts at the grassroots level to preserve the oral and written traditions of the ancient people, in spite of the capital’s distance from the Nubians’ traditional homeland. Despite the rallying, the number of people able to speak Nubian in Egypt has drastically declined in the last two decades.
The Nubian language could be forgotten entirely within Egypt in the next century, according to UNESCO. “My father came here to Cairo from Nubia, and now I am 56 and all my friends are from Egypt. Because of things like this, it is easy to forget the language,” says Herki. “The problem is not for me. It is for my children. My children speak French, English and Arabic, but Nubian? No. Because of that, we are afraid for our new generation - afraid that they will not know our language.”
Part of the reason the language is vanishing lies with Nubians themselves, Herky says, adding it's the community’s responsibility to save their own culture and language, which now play a very small role in the larger national agenda.
“The people here in Cairo don’t know what Nubian is. This is Egypt's mistake,” he says. “Now we see that this is the country's mistake, but we must do something. We must tell them who Nubians are and about our history.”
The Nubian language has been more resilient in and around Aswan because almost all the residents in some of these communities claim Nubian heritage, Herky says. It is also spoken in the home there. Several of the communities were established after the government forced entire villages to move during the flooding necessary for the construction of the Aswan High Dam, while other residents of the now underwater villages were relocated to Cairo. But even those communities are under threat due to attempts to modernize school curricula, which place a greater emphasis on becoming fluent in Arabic and English than on Nubian.
“It’s a shame that French and English are requirements in the nation’s schools and Nubian is not, even though Nubia has played such a central role in Egyptian history," says Herky. “It is in our blood. It is our roots. This is the backbone of the country.”