The Nubians have given much to Egypt. Time for the country to give back
FROM a boat on the reservoir between Egypt’s high and low dams in Aswan, a local Nubian man called Haj Omar points to where the ancient temple of Philae used to be. After the low dam was completed in 1902, the site was often flooded, so in the 1960s the temple was moved, piece by piece, to higher ground some 500 metres downriver. Mr Omar then points down, towards his grandfather’s house—it was not moved and is now underwater.
The Nubian people are descended from an ancient African civilisation 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. Christianity penetrated the region in the 4th century, but most Nubians 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 marginalised politically, socially and economically, says Maja Janmyr of the University of Bergen.
The “Nubian issue”, as it has come to be known in Egypt, simmered for decades without much pushback—in part, out of fear that dissent would lead to more repression. But a new generation of Nubians, emboldened by the Egyptian revolution of 2011, has become more assertive in pressing the group’s demands, most notably their right to return to the area around their ancestral homeland.
In the mid-1960s some 50,000 Nubians were resettled around Kom Ombo, about 50km (30 miles) north of Aswan and some 25km away from the Nile. Their number has now swelled to almost 90,000, by one estimate. Few are satisfied with their new home. Villagers complain that the government-built houses are crumbling and that their compensation was inadequate. But their primary objection is over the location. “Take a Nubian away from the Nile and he cannot live,” says Mr Omar.
A turning point appeared to come in 2014, when Egypt’s post-revolution constitution was rewritten with the help of Haggag Oddoul, a respected Nubian novelist. The document represents the first official recognition of the Nubian homeland and establishes the goal of developing the area, with local input, within ten years. It also outlaws discrimination. Most importantly, article 236 sets out a Nubian right of return.
Yet little has changed. “Since the constitution was ratified, the state has been stalling,” says Muhammad Azmy, head of the Public Nubian Union, a pressure group. A draft law on resettlement has “disappeared”, he says. Meanwhile, a decree issued by Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, the president, and approved by parliament in January, designates many of the villages to which Nubians hope to return as off-limits and under military control.
Officials fear that Nubians might one day demand independence. There is little sign of that, but the government is breeding resentment. Many Nubians now suspect article 236 was simply a way to gain their support for the constitution. Even Mr Oddoul is sceptical. “Egypt’s corrupt institutions are working on preventing Nubians from returning so they can take over the Nubian land and use it [for] their benefit,” he says.
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.