Changing Egypt Offers Hope to Long-Marginalized Nubians

An ancient culture displaced by dams hopes for rebirth along the Nile.


Fatma Emam Sakory arrives late and flustered for our interview. The Nubian rights activist takes a moment to compose herself, then reels off the litany of racist comments she heard as she dashed through the streets of downtown Cairo.

"You're black—who'd even want to look at you?" she says one man told her after she rebuffed his advances.

For Nubians, whose dark African skin sets them apart in mostly Arab Egypt, such treatment is nothing new.

For decades, they've tiptoed around the fringes of mainstream Egyptian society, stranded in the political wilderness as they've waged a long and largely fruitless campaign to return to their historic homeland along the border of southern Egypt and northern Sudan.

Now, tens of thousands of Egyptian Nubians feel they might have their chance.

Egypt's new constitution, which passed earlier this month with 98 percent of the vote in a controversial referendum, pledges "to bring back the residents of [Egyptian] Nubia to their original areas and develop them within ten years."

It's a small article in a referendum that was seen as a vote on the presidential prospects of Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, Egypt's strongman army chief, who last summer oversaw the popularly supported military coup that toppled Mohamed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood–led government.

If the military-backed interim government—or whoever replaces it in elections slated for later this year—remains true to the constitution's word, then the Nubians' internal exile may finally come to an end.

That Nubian displacement began early in the 20th century, when a series of dams built by the British along the Nile engulfed swathes of Nubia and uprooted thousands of Nubian farmers and fishermen from the banks of the Nile. (See "Pictures: The Life-Giving Nile River.")

The construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, and subsequent formation of Lake Nasser behind it, swamped the rest of Egyptian Nubia and sparked the forced exodus of the remaining population.

What remains of their historic territory hugs a thin, sparsely populated strip of land along the Nile that's now bisected by the Egypt-Sudan border and is crossable only by boat.

It was a particularly galling fate for the Nubians, whose 7,000-year-old civilization once presided over a sizeable empire and whose pharaohs at one point ruled over all of Egypt for 75 years. (Learn more about the ancient Nubian civilization.)

A figure for today's Nubian population is hard to come by. It's scattered across overlooked stretches of rural Egypt and lawless areas of Sudan seldom visited by census-takers.

Egyptian censuses don't ask about ethnicity, but Nubians are thought to represent roughly one percent of Egypt's population, with small numbers seeking asylum in Europe or moving to the booming, oil-rich Gulf states for work.

It's a similar situation in Sudan, where some Nubians feel the Central Bureau of Statistics' failure to break down its demographic data is a deliberate attempt to downplay the size of the country's non-Arab minorities.

Nubian activists in Cairo put their community's population at around 300,000 in Egypt; up to 60,000 were displaced in the 1960s, while the rest were either uprooted in the colonial era or had already moved farther afield looking for work.

Nubians set their political sights much lower now than in their ancient heyday, but they continue to punch above their weight in the face of lingering discrimination.

The Egyptian military's use of the Nubian language as a code allowed many Nubian men to serve with distinction as signalers during Egypt's 1973 war against Israel, and their language skills and famous amiability have enabled them to play an outsized role in Egypt's tourist sector.

Nubian music has flourished during their displacement, with aging crooners and school-age children alike performing sorrowful songs about the loss of their homeland. "We sing of the trees, we sing of the river," says Sakory, a former researcher at a feminist studies institute.

And a troupe called the Nubian Knights have recently built up a sizeable Egyptian fan base with their energetic rapping.

“Nubia will be like a door for all of Africa.”

Still, the displacement weighs heavily, particularly on the many Nubians who were shifted to specially constructed "resettlement" communities after the High Dam was built.

Those communities have been criticized for their shoddy construction and for their distance from the Nile, a hardship for people accustomed to cultivating crops along the river's fertile banks.

Many members of previous generations moved to Cairo and Alexandria in the north of Egypt looking for work, and a new generation of Nubians is following that path today.

Sakory was born in Cairo, and despite having never seen her native land before it disappeared under Lake Nasser (or Nubia Lake, as those still furious with former President Nasser's decision to build the High Dam prefer to call it), she's a fierce advocate of the people's right to return there.

Many other young Nubians share her zeal for the cause.

"Aside from the emotions and the feelings of yearning that my generation have developed for Nubia, I believe there is so much potential," says Yahia Mohammed, a Cairo-born Nubian who works as an Arabic-to-English translator, by email.

Mustafa El Shorbgy, a civil servant in the Finance Ministry whose grandparents relocated to Cairo in the 1920s, imagines a day when Egypt more fully embraces its African ties.

For now, though, many Nubians are just growing more restless.

<p>This resettlement village was recently completed in Karkar, Egypt, to house Nubians who had been displaced decades ago by the completion of the Aswan High Dam.</p>

This resettlement village was recently completed in Karkar, Egypt, to house Nubians who had been displaced decades ago by the completion of the Aswan High Dam.

Mustafa bemoans the toll displacement has taken on Nubian culture, and he's fearful that a longer period of assimilation will make it impossible to reconstruct a viable Nubian society.

"We're fighting to hold on to our identity," he said. "When we left our land, we started decaying, and only if we return will our culture stop declining."

Like many young Nubians, Fatma says her parents declined to teach her the Nubian language, as they were embarrassed to be heard speaking it themselves.

Of even greater concern are the inroads that ultraconservative Islamists have made into the community in the rural south.

After converting to Sunni Islam from Christianity in the 15th and 16th centuries, Nubians have traditionally opted for a less-than-literal interpretation of the Koran.

They pride themselves on their fun-loving ways; many Nubians drink alcohol, unlike most observant Muslims, and many politically active Nubians favor Marxist or socialist causes.

Nubians also cherish a matrilineal tradition, which sees property passed down through the mother's side of the family.

So it came as a shock to Sakory, who supervises the Facebook group "Humans of Nubia," when a male member chastised a woman for her appearance in her profile picture, telling her: "It is not in our tradition for Nubian women to show their faces."

Egypt has grown more socially conservative over the past few decades, as many Egyptian men working in Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have adopted those countries' stricter religious practices and sometimes targeted Nubians' more relaxed ways when they return.

Ultraconservative Islamist political parties have proved particularly popular in the rural and poorer south, where many Nubians still live and where the Muslim Brotherhood garnered many of the votes that propelled it to power in 2012.

But many secular-minded Nubians voted for Morsi, too.


They were enticed by the Muslim Brotherhood's promise of inclusive governance and felt that their prospects for a return to their ancestral lands were better with Morsi than with his electoral opponent, a right-hand man of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, who stymied dissent and ignored Nubian grievances.

But if many Nubians were inclined to support deposed president Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood government in its early days, his 2012 constitution went a considerable way in alienating them.

That's because it emphasized Egypt's "cultural and linguistic unity" and Arab heritage, and said nothing of a return to Nubia.

Steps Forward

Last week's referendum was greeted by many Nubians as a moment to reverse the inequities of previous constitutions, which made no mention of Nubian rights.

"We've never been here before," Sakory said of the additional recognition afforded her people.

In seeking to distance itself from a Muslim Brotherhood government that was seen as uninterested in minority rights, Egypt's interim government accepted Nubian calls for a role in drafting the new constitution.

But there's still a long way to go before Nubian dreams of a Nile-side resettlement are fulfilled.

"It usually happens that these promises are not kept within these time frames," said Zaid Al-Ali, a constitutional expert at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, which works with fledgling democracies.

And some Nubians share his cynicism that the stated goal of establishing a new string of Nubian villages along Lake Nasser could be accomplished within the next ten years.

The constitution says nothing about the manner of resettlement, and Nubians anticipate further battles to clarify the details.

If the government were to renege on its pledge, Mohammed predicts a backlash, saying it would "just be a normal and predictable result of 115 years of marginalization and neglect."

For now, life in Cairo's Nubian community continues apace.

Many older Nubian men remain enthusiastic devotees of araki, a strong alcoholic, date-based spirit that is often home-brewed and is reputed to blind you if drank to excess. Others frequent this reporter's dingy local bar, where they swill Egyptian Stella beer and greet strangers with extravagant courtesy.

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