“We Nubians baptize our children in the Nile. Our ancestors offered goods to the Nile fairy. We understand its waves. It’s an indispensable part of our lives.”
—Mr. Mohamed, Nubian Elder in Elephantine Island
Before 1964, there were around 50 Nubian villages in Upper Egypt. Only 7 remain after the building of the High Dam. Mr. Mohamed accompanies me into a room inside his house-museum (Animalia). The floor is intensely blue, like water, and a soft sand color embellishes the outskirts of the bottom walls. Animals adorn every inch of the space. “This is lake Nasser; a place inhabited by wild creatures.” The demonstration is powerful—in the span of a few years, the water had flooded 43 villages and uprooted thousands.
I had asked Mr. Mohamed about the displacement of Nubians and the sacrifice his people made for Egyptians to have water and electricity. “It was not a choice.” He grins, and I realize my mistaken phrasing of the question. He brushes past it recounting a stunning governmental injustice. He emphasizes that palm trees are another central element to Nubian life. “Like the Nile.” From palm trees, Nubian men craft nets for fishing, baskets to carry mud bricks, house rooftops, and animal cages; whereas Nubian women make baskets and covers, handbags, and necklaces. All these items decorate Nubian houses. “When Nubians were forced out of their villages, officials compensated the village with a single Egyptian pound for every 4 palm trees.” I am stunned and, being studious, research to adjust for inflation. That means about $19.29 in modern terms. It costs about $528 including labor cost to plant five small trees on a residential lot today.
I revel in Mr. Mohamed’s honesty—stating these facts without much fuss—and ponder the immense tragedy that struck the Nubian community. In the images housed in Mr. Mohamed’s museum, it becomes apparent that historical sites are more important than human lives. Swiss and German expeditions secured numerous archaeological treasures before the Nile’s water flooded the villages. You visit these rescued wonders in museums and remember the broken promises of international communities to restore justice across the world.
I head the next day to the Nubian Museum. There is a single corner that describes Nubian culture and traditions. All the rest is more or less ancient Egyptian relics from Old Nubia. A corner, titled “Submerged Civilization: Nubia, In Their Words,” had me excited, but there was not a single quote from a Nubian. You can only find pictures of the ancient relics that were saved by “salvaging” expeditions. The Nubian way of life—traditions, customs, social roles, expectations, and frustrations—did not matter. I find a single book, titled “Nubian Encounters: The Story of the Nubian Ethnological Survey 1964,” citing that anthropological documentation did not result in practical policy applications (imperative book). No one was interested. And to make matters worse, all data from studies can only be accessed by the small privileged sector of AUC students and alumni (the funding institution of the study).
I return disappointed to Mr. Mohamed. “It’s worse: there is no written record in Arabic of Nubians” I mention. I had checked numerous libraries only to find scarce English and French writings about the tragedy. Egypt does not want to remember; it does not want to face reality. No one must be held accountable. Despite a promise in the most recent constitution (article §236), stating that land around lake Nasser will be allocated to Nubian ancestors of the 43 displaced communities, not a single brick has been laid. Only tourists visit the man-made lake. But the Nubians did not forget the tragedy. There’s even a Nubian song with a chorus crying, “Why don’t you leave us alone?” But it is more evident in the cracks in Mr. Mohamed’s voice when he recounts his cousins’ stories who were displaced who now live in Elephantine.
“If you want to survive, you must be needed,” said Mr. Mohamed. The conversation drifts. “This research needs a lot of life, and I have little of it. You’ll have to excuse me, but I won’t be able to help in your endeavor.” He gave me a list of villages to visit before launching to discuss his achievements. Mr. Mohamed proclaimed that he always sought to be rare in his profession as a tour guide, which is why he first became licensed in Spanish. Perhaps the injustice against his people made him adamant to prove his worth. He refused to meet the same fate. He would not be erased.
I walk a lot around Elephantine Island in Aswan, which hosts three Nubian villages, enough to befriend several children. We play football every other day, and I am thus invited for some home visits to drink tea. An open court. Rooms decorated to the brink with dome-like roofs. Colors that speak of stories and furniture that screams pride. Wall paintings that narrate the history of fisherman, weavers, and noble descendants. This is the Nubian home.
There is something ineffable about living on an island—because the world can be shut off. There are no police or security guards, People hold each other accountable. You forget that there are 7 billion people on the planet; the island only holds about 800 of that population. Each one of them matters. All are Nubians. The scenery varies from dusted paths to green lands. Children barely get exposed to the world and that instills a sense of belonging. Or so the children I played football with say.
The average Nubian lives on very little. The world is a microcosm—and that is the standard. There are women, men, and children. Women rear children and tend to housework; the children study to lead purposeful lives and eventually support the parents; and the men tirelessly work either on the island or in the city to provide for basic needs: food, shelter, and land. But there is one connection to the world outside—the Nile. This is perhaps most clear when Elephantines casually say that they’re heading by boat (felouka) to “Aswan” despite being located there. The city is not a stranger but an intruder. The relationship can be described as forced but symbiotic.
But people are content—their smiles are kind. I, however, despite having my football squad and some fellow villagers to talk with about the displacement, am yearning for more. I try to offer the Café nearby to lead weekly conversations where foreigners can learn of the historical tragedy or Nubian culture (music and dance). I am turned down after initial promising conversations. I start to sleep later and wake up in the afternoons. There are no organizations to volunteer with because the government would not allow any “provoking” sentiments. I find a dancing group that has shows every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. I attend nearly each of them to memorize the moves. I interview several Nubian “linguists” on the issue of Nubian language. One of them made a YouTube channel to keep the language alive! But they mention morosely that children are no longer learning the language because instruction in schools is in Arabic. I start to feel hopeless.
I read my Watson application to remain inspired. And tell myself, “All you need is to go outside the house, and you’ll find something.” I make it a mission to walk the Nile every day to meet expert Nubian sailors and to feel the Nile’s immense impact on me despite not having lived most of my life near it—its smell and sound adorn Aswan. And one day I make a mistake that rekindles my inspiration: I ride the wrong me’adeya (also a felouka), which was the boat traveling between Aswan and Elephantine Island.
I was wearing a galabeya and had bags with local food, so I looked very different from the surrounding foreigners who had started to dig into their lunches (chicken and rice with a few pieces of balady bread). But no one announced me as an intruder. I found the felouka to be heading beyond Elephantine island, where I live. This wasn’t el “me’adeya”. I walk slowly towards the Egyptian organizer and ask politely if this felouka was the me’adeya. “No, we’re heading to Gharb Sohail.” That place was the tourist destination most desired to visit. I, on the other hand, had refused to go simply because I wouldn’t find anything interesting there. Too many camels; too many hustlers; and too much façade.
I became friends with the organizers after talking about my project and decided to tag along with their permission to Gharb Soheil. I learned that the trip had been organized by AISEC and was bringing people to discover Egypt. People were of different backgrounds but barely talked; there seemed to have been little effort to introduce them to each other. I initiate the dialogue, asking people about their interests, and responded about Nubia when prompted. They had been told little of the people’s history too, which I thought frivolous. But people enjoyed the hibiscus, crocodiles, and colorful houses. Song lyrics were irrelevant despite telling tales of marriage, displacement, and community. Dance routines that were preserved across centuries merely entertained those who weren’t chatting on their phone. Very little of the culture had been discussed, so I make it a point to elaborate on the people’s history after asking some questions from the vendors.
I luckily make a contact there. The tour guide apparently had ancestors in Kom Ombo, which was the resettlement area for displaced Nubians. He arranges a visit for me. I travel several times to Kom Ombo but find the community impenetrable—I don’t speak Nubian; even more, I don’t look Nubian. This, of course, was apparent to me all along, but I tried to not make it a barrier. Except once, I ask a friend in Elephantine jokingly, “You’re joining us on the me’adeya?!” His response was stern: “You mean you are joining us.” I choose to stay quiet on the ride to Aswan.
History doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes. As a Cairene, I look similar to those who have exploited Nubians. Why am I remembering them now? What are my intentions? Will I say something and act in direct opposition of it? These questions forced me, in addition to reading Chronicles of a Death Foretold, to put Egyptian society on trial and realize a brutal truth: Dark skin, especially dark-skinned refugees, severely limits the chance of integration. I forget the desperate attempts of Egyptians to absolve themselves of being colorist by mentioning that Egyptians are “mixed”. It strikes me that only certain jobs are offered, glances are not uncommon, and elitist comments are rampant. In Cairo, I interview the principal of African Hope Learning Center who tells me that she needs to recruit police officers to accompany the African refugee children to the metro-system. A girl was once nearly kidnapped.
In my last day in Cairo, before heading to Germany, I ride an Uber that comments on the Nubian music I’m playing. We speak about my project before Karim, a Nubian, launches into a story about discrimination. He tells me that he once verbalized his opinion about Nubian displacement and ancestry in a political science class at university. “Nubians were the backbone of ancient Egyptian civilization. Cairenes and other Egyptians bear no relation to ancient people.” Because of his daring comment, the professor fails him and remarks that as long as he is part of the faculty, Karim will not graduate. Three years pass before the professor himself passes away, and Karim finally gets the chance to receive his university diploma. We laugh together about the situation now in hindsight.
The reality is that if the history books don’t remember our stance today, the people will still recount the truth; their actions alone towards us will speak. In my interviews with Nubians, and through living among the community, I learn that home is where one finds peace of mind—where breaths don’t feel forced; where one does not feel being watched; where memories come without effort; where one is dignified and respected not because of one’s accomplishments but because it’s expected. Our support does not necessitate another feeling at home—it can only make life a little more tender for them and make us more understanding. And that’s the start for a new chapter in history.