In this poignant text, Menna Agha addresses the forced displacement and resettlement of Nubians from the Nile banks to the desert. This episode had profound and lasting consequences on Nubian social and political organization, in particular for Nubian women.
“You who understand the dehumanization of forced removal-relocation-reeducation-redefinition, the humiliation of having to falsify your own reality, your voice you know. And often cannot say it.”
Trinh T. Minh-ha, Woman, Native, Other, 1989.
This story is yet another story of dams destroying Indigenous territories, as hegemonic ambitions for development often demand blood sacrifice and those whose humanity is discounted become that sacrifice. Nubians, my people, were deemed an acceptable sacrifice for Egypt’s developmental ambitions and were displaced in one of the largest development induced displacement and resettlement (DIDR) schemes to date. And even though this was half a century ago, we still recognize, feel, and identify as displaced people longing for return.
In 1952, the interim Revolutionary Council government of Egypt decided to build the High Dam in Aswan as Egypt’s ticket to modernity and industrialization. The decision to build the High Dam, however, ignored “the costs of salinization, waterlogging, declining soil fertility, the loss of archaeological heritage, increased disease, coastal erosion, the destruction of a large fishing industry, the loss of water due to evaporation and seepage, and other problems already evident from the first dam, and without even attempting studies of costs and benefits.” (Timothy Mitchell, “Economentality: How the Future Entered Government,” 2014). But Egypt needed a new pyramid.
On June 20, 1964, the Egyptian government concluded the displacement of all Nubian villages from their territories and ancestral land to a state-built project in Kom Ombo valley that is designed to house all Nubians displaced within the Egyptian borders. Sudanese Nubians were also victims of this project as Nubians were displaced to New Halfa. In both cases, Nubians were deprived of their beloved Nile and forced to cope with a desert environment.
In 1899, Nubian land was dismantled: the British colonizer of both Egypt and Sudan drew a political border to separate them into two territories on latitude 22. Mostafa Shorbagy traces the story of the border as; one day Nubians in the village of Adendan were surprised by military preparations, surveyors, and government clerks, in an out of the ordinary movement for the serene village. They ended up erecting an Egyptian flag near the house of Gamal Dokki, 200 meters away they erected a sudanese flag near his brother Dahab Dokki. In a matter of minutes, members of the same family became of different nationalities none of which corresponded to their collective identity.
The dismantlement of Nubia then continued spanning the 20th century, and our Original Land now lies silent under the large water reservoir of the dam, The reservoir is commonly known as Lake Nubian in Sudan, and Lake Nasser in Egypt, named after then-president Gamal Abdel Nasser, the mastermind of this project. This name is often framed among Nubians as “the killer writing his name on his victim’s grave.” This lake and its empty shore now represent a 550 kilometer vacuum on both banks of the Nile valley, it also represents a great geographic divider between Egyptian Nubians and their Sudanese cousins.
The Aswan High Dam was not Nubians’ first hydropower-induced displacement. It was preceded by the Aswan Low Dam, which was constructed on the first cataract by British colonialists in 1902 and subsequently heightened twice — in 1912 and 1933. Nubians lost a vast area of arable land over the course of the Low Dam’s development. My grandfather, Ezzeledin Sakkoury wrote of his mother’s encounters of the 1933 floods resulting from the heightened dam, she tells stories of horror, when water level had risen without warning and went into their houses at night while they slept. Many people drowned in their sleep. A number of Nubians villages were completely submerged in 1933, and their inhabitants were moved to the north, near Aswan. The rest of Nubia had to rebuild itself of higher levels by the river.
To us, Nubians, the story is a story of the land, not of the dams. This is partly because we didn’t really see the Dam, people were told of it in the 1960s while being told of their forthcoming displacement, and partly because Nubians were also culturally and epistemically displaced in post resettlement regimes of governance and displacibility. The High Dam was a national symbol and singing its praise was institutionalized in post displacement environments. My mother tells me that every January 9 — the commemoration of the high dam and the regional day of Aswan — they had to participate in a school recital and sing for the dam.
The songs after 1964 displacement, just like the rest of Nubian stories, were filled with longing and sorrow. Telling tales of old Nubians, leaving behind their homes, their dead, and tens of millions of their palm trees, all of which were pillars of this ancient culture. Resettlement into the newly-built environment in the Kom Ombo Valley did not bring about the prosperity promised by the state. Rather, it was a place of control, marginalization, and economic hardship.
Before displacement, Nubia occupied the area between the Nile’s first and fifth cataracts, the area now between Egypt and Sudan. Nubians were moved to a high modernist housing project planned and built by the Egyptian state. The state named this project “New Nubia,” or “Nasr Alnuba,” which is another reference to Abdel Nasser, but Nubians refused to use these terms and instead expressed their rejection towards the project by calling it “Tahgeer,” meaning the site of displacement. This word is commonly and mindlessly used now to refer to the resettlement project built in the 1960s. In our collective consciousness, the term Nubia is a reference reserved for the original territory.
Nubian women, especially, lost a great deal of political power in the process of resettlement. The history of matriarchy and culture of matrilineality among Nubians had constituted a spatial performance that was entirely different from those dictated by state-built spaces. However, contemporary Nubian women and their gendered contract have been in a constant state of contestation for the past 60 years. Their roles and identities are in constant negotiation.
The state tended to deal with men as heads of households, which is not necessarily the case among Nubians. Nubian Women — who then mostly spoke Nubian and not Arabic — were excluded in the state’s interaction with Nubians, especially in the dialogue soliciting consent to relocate. A sham dialogue may be, as they showed Nubian models of modern neighborhoods, which ended up being far from reality, but these gave the state’s consent to relocate with minimal PR problems. Nubian women lost a great deal of wealth, as the relocation and the transition from a self governed land tenure resulted in a massive transfer of property ownership to men.
Infant mortality rose significantly after displacement, as mortality rates doubled among Nubians. Nubian women lost child after child during pregnancy and after birth, due to diseases and harsh environmental circumstances. In my family, my grandmothers lost 13 children combined — these are uncles and aunts I never got to meet. To add insult to injury, the state clercs then have designated a burial lot especially for deceased children, and jokingly dubbed it “The Nursery graves.”
Nevertheless, Nubian women have been the pillar of the Nubian society after displacement, as they were actively trying to claim available powers from state employment to electoral rights. Nubian women cast twice as many votes in the 1976 election as their menfolk according to Fenea and Rouchdy 1987 paper (Contemporary Egyptian Nubians). Nubian women started community building and organization, as they employed their emotional capital to reform the lacking built environment adding community buildings and introducing new typologies. They were also a great force in the heavy building activities in the first decade after displacement.
In return, Nubian women were also leading the efforts. In 1978, Hagga Tahra of Qustul decided to go back to her ancestral land by the river and built a house and a number of palm trees. Since then, she has been both an icon of Nubian resistance and a datum for those hoping to return. She inspired several failed and successful return attempts and was a starting point for larger agricultural projects by Nubians aiming at return.
Today, Nubians remain in struggle over land. Any attempts to reclaim territory or environmental resources is faced by retaliation by the state or the private sector. In the early 2010s, Nubians tried to take back their land by the river through co-ops, they started farming the land by Lake Nubia and calls for return were reignited. However, the current Egyptian president Abdelfattah El-Sisi has issued a number of decrees that hurdled the possibility. Presidential Decree #444, in particular, designates a 125 kilometer-wide swath of land along the border with Sudan as a military zone.
We struggle to reclaim our story away from state narratives and employ strategies and tactics of subtle resistance on different fronts. As Haggag addol and his team of Nubian activists successfully included Article 236 in the first Egyptian constitution after the 2011 revolution, the article which is now obsolete due to state hegemony intended to bring Nubians’ right to Return. The Nubian struggle continues, as our generation still identifies as displaced, and still longs to a long we have never seen.