Who are the Nubians?
TO OUTSIDE observers a decree issued by Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi in November 2014 may have seemed benign. With the stroke of his pen, Egypt’s president designated a stretch of mostly uninhabited land in southern Egypt as a restricted military zone. In January this year the parliament approved Mr Sisi’s decree. Then came the backlash. The area set aside for the army was part of the Nubian homeland. The constitution of 2014 promised that the Nubian people, who were uprooted decades ago, could return there. “Don’t forget Nubia!” yelled a member of parliament when Mr Sisi addressed the chamber in February. But the state has long tried to erase ethnic distinctions in favour of a single Egyptian identity. So who are the Nubians?
The history of the Nubian people dates back thousands of years. They are descended from an ancient African civilisation that ruled over an empire stretching, at its height, across the north-east corner of the continent. Most Nubians lived along the Nile river in what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan—a region often referred to as Nubia. Christianity came in the 4th century and then most Nubians converted to Islam in the 15th and 16th centuries, as Arab powers dominated and split up the region. It was reunited under Ottoman-Egyptian control in the 19th century. When Sudan seceded from Egypt in 1956, the Nubian community was split between the two countries.
Despite efforts to save Nubian monuments, such as the temples of Abu Simbel, much of this rich history was washed away when British and Egyptian authorities constructed a series of dams, beginning in 1898. The Aswan high dam, which was completed in 1970, left most of Nubia under the reservoir called Lake Nasser and forced tens of thousands of Nubians to relocate. Many were moved to Kom Ombo, about 50km north of Aswan and some 25km away from the Nile. Villagers complain of crumbling government-built houses, inadequate compensation and their distance from the river. In northern Sudan, displacement due to the Merowe dam, built between 2003 and 2009, has also raised ire. Yet new dams are planned for the region.
Though many Nubians supported the building of the high dam, on the grounds that it would help Egypt, they have received little in return for their sacrifice. Instead, they have been marginalised politically and economically, and feel discriminated against on account of their darker skin. Nubians in both Egypt and Sudan believe the dam-building is part of an official “Arabisation” effort meant to wipe out their culture. Indeed, many have lost touch with their distinctive heritage as they moved to big cities, such as Cairo and Alexandria. The Nubian language is fading. But the younger generation is trying to reinvigorate the culture. It is also more politically active. Protests and lawsuits have been organised to challenge Mr Sisi’s decree, stop further dam construction and return Nubians to what is left of their homeland along the Nile.