Nubian’s right to return to their ancestral homeland?
Nubians are descendants of the ancient African civilization of Kush, which was situated between what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan, known for its famed “Black Pharaohs” and pyramids. Nubians in Egypt today are still influenced by the changes of the initial Arab invasions, foreign occupations from the Ottoman and British empires as well as more recent migrations from the surrounding regions and countries.
Cars and micro-buses conveyed the participants on Saturday morning from Balana village, blaring Nubian music and displaying signs and posters with slogans, including: “Nubia Is Not For Sale!”
Online, some Nubians compared the action to the Native American protest at Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota, inspiring them to use the Facebook check-in feature to demonstrate solidarity.
“The state has reduced Nubian land by 110,000 feddan (acres) to sell it in the 1.5 million feddan national project,” said Azmy, who is also a prominent lawyer for Nubian rights. “This is a clear attempt to change the demographics before starting Nubian resettlement [to their historical homeland].”
“This land was originally ours and this is our constitutional right and the state can’t sell us our land,” Azmy said, adding that “[Sisi’s] response came quickly because we had good media coverage and because the march was a clear standoff between us and the state. It was an attempt to keep us quiet.”
Nubians have endured a series of displacements by dams since 1902, with the first being under British rule and the last in 1963-64 with the Aswan High Dam, which was arguably the most devastating.
While the government of charismatic then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser promoted the project as a “development dream of progress” for the nation, Nubians paid the price for it by being sent to the harsh, arid and undeveloped region Nasr al-Nuba, significantly farther from their old homes along the Nile.
The Nubian people are descended from an ancient African civilization that once ruled a large empire, including all of Egypt for a brief period. For thousands of years they have lived on the banks of the Nile river, from southern Egypt to northern Sudan. Coptic-Christianity penetrated the region in the 4th century, but most Nubian’s converted to Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries, as they came under the sway of Arab powers. When Sudan seceded from Egypt in 1956, the Nubian community was split between the two countries.
Despite efforts to save Nubian monuments, much of this rich history was washed away by the construction of a series of dams, culminating with the Aswan high dam in 1970. Most of the Nubian homeland now sits under the reservoir called Lake Nasser. Tens of thousands of Nubians were forcibly resettled. Ever since then they have been marginalized politically, socially and economically, says Maja Janmyr of the University of Bergen.
Some believe there is an official effort, beginning with the displacements, to wipe out Nubian culture. The state has long cultivated a single, Arab identity. (The census, for example, does not record ethnic data.) As Nubians were uprooted and spread out, many lost touch with their heritage. Few who were born in cities such as Cairo, Alexandria and Suez speak the Nubian language. “If we don’t return soon to our home, we will only be Nubians by colour,” says Mr Oddoul, referring to Nubians’ generally darker skin.
With the help of the internet, and through art and music, younger Nubians have tried to reinvigorate their culture. They have also organised protests and lawsuits against Mr Sisi’s decree. This has led to tension between Nubians. “The older generation is more accommodating of the state,” says Mr Azmy. They are also more patriotic: many supported the dam because they thought it would benefit Egypt. Yet they have little to show for their patriotism. The least the government could do is let Nubians go home.