Egypt’s Nubians dream of return to Nile home
Ancient Nubia was one of the world’s ancient civilisations. Nubians were known for their prowess with arrows and bows that the ancient Egyptians called the land Ta-Seti, meaning the ‘land of the bow’. Over history, the land underwent different rulers including women and was even occupied by Egypt about 3500 years ago.
Nubians are an ethno-linguistic group of people who are indigenous to the region which is now present-day Northern Sudan and southern Egypt. They originate from the early inhabitants of the central Nile valley, believed to be one of the earliest cradles of civilization. Today, Nubians number around one million people, with about half of them located in Egypt and the other half in the Sudan.
Nubia was an ancient African kingdom around the Nile that extended from the Nile River Valley in Upper Egypt eastward to the shores of the Red Sea, south to Khartoum, and west toward the Libyan Desert. Nubia had its own autonomy within Egypt under King Farouk and had minimal relations with Egypt prior to the 1952 revolution.
Yet post-1952, the Egyptian regime became overtly involved in Nubia after the Aswan High Dam flooded the Nubians’ residences in the Nubian valley and consequently ruined it. This was detrimental to Nubians; the 7,000-year-old kingdom has nothing left of its historical boundaries but “a thin, sparsely populated strip of land along the Nile that is now bisected by the Egypt-Sudan border and is crossable only by boat.”
While the U.S. Library of Congress estimated that there were around 160,000 Nubians in Egypt in 1990, National Geographic in 2014 estimated their population to be around 300,000, divided across three different linguistic groups: “the Kenuzi in northern Nubia; the Bedouin-descended Arabs in central Nubia; and the Fadija-speaking people in southern Nubia.” Furthermore, Nubians have been subjected to racist comments due to their dark skin, which distinguishes them from Egyptian Arabs.
Although Nubians were resettled twice under British mandate due to the construction of the Aswan Dam in 1902 and its transformation into the Aswan Low Dam between 1913 and 1933, their major displacement took place between 1963 and 1964, when around 50,000 Nubians were displaced into 33 villages north of the city of Aswan following the flooding caused by construction of the Aswan High Dam and the consequent Lake Nasser.
Although the government compensated the Nubians with new homes following their resettlement in the 1960s, Nubians were largely dissatisfied because they were provided uncomfortable, cement-block houses that were very different from their old homes. Moreover, their resettlement “disrupted family ties and ignored historical rivalries among the three Nubian ethnic groups,” since Nubia had its own pluralism; the different tribal groups in Nubia spoke different languages and had competing interests. Further, the resettlement of Nubians did not take into consideration the Nubian identity, as many schools in the new areas taught only Arabic, thereby weakening the younger generations’ ties with their Nubian identity and history.
Additionally, the government forced certain conditions upon the Nubian farmers, such as requiring them to join agricultural cooperatives and pressuring them to add commercial crops like sugarcane that were not part of their traditional agricultural heritage. All of these issues led the Nubians to start reconstructing their own villages in their ancestral lands around Lake Nasser’s shores. By the 1980s, they had succeeded in building about four villages.
Today, Nubians’ main demand is the right to return back to “their ancestral home” around the Nile River Valley in Upper Egypt. Although the post-revolution constitution of 2014 recognized the land as belonging to the Nubians and declared that the area would be developed within ten years (Article 236), a decree issued by El-Sisi in January 2016 proclaimed this area “off-limits and under military control.”
Economic development policies in areas where Nubians and Bedouins live are critical to overcoming the longstanding economic disparities these groups have experienced. Reconstruction of the Nubians’ homeland and stimulation of their sociopolitical and economic life through governmental plans and institutions are essential steps in this direction.
Nubians in Egypt and their struggle to find a voice today
The Nubian community is indigenous to Sudan and Egypt, with most of them having lived along the shores of River Nile for decades.
Nubians living in Egypt were only recognised as recently as 2014 when the Egyptian government conducted a referendum on a draft constitution that for the first time included mention of Nubians. However, this recognition seems to come on paper, not in practice. The Nubians have been taking to the streets of Egypt to demand their recognition and a return to their ancestral land.
As far back as 2007, the community has been holding various forms of protests to the project and demand rights to go back to their ancestral lands- now a very thin strip off the Nile.
Most of the protesters have never been to Nubia, but have heard stories from their parents and grandparents. The stories are often filled with tales of sprawling villages, brightly coloured homes and fertile lands. The younger Nubian generation believes that their parents and grandparents just accept what the government gives them because of the trauma of their displacement.
It is with this background that most of them are now taking activism to the streets, according to Siham Othman who spoke to AP News.
These protests have not been without consequence. At least 50 protestors were arrested recently and arraigned in court for protesting, a crime that would see them jailed for up to five years.
This is one of the tactics used by the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to silence the protestors. The government has increasingly shown zero tolerance to dissent.
In 2017, el-Sissi spoke of fulfilling the demands of the Nubians but did not talk about their return. In the same year, the government had detained at least 24 Nubians who were marching peacefully in the town of Aswan.
A number of rights organisations have come up to campaign for the preservation of the ancient Nubian lands. The Nubia Project is calling for the preservation of the culture and the archaeological sites as well as the recognition and use of Nubian language in Egypt and Sudan.
It remains to be seen how Egypt will handle these demands, which it already claims is a jab at the country’s stability.