The Invention of Nubian Deserts



In this text, Menna Agha describes how “deserts”—a term inexistent in Nubian cosmology—constitute a political process of dispossession of Nubian land used both by European colonialists and the Egyptian state. From the harsh realities of displacement this dispossession triggered, she imagines what Return would mean for Nubian people.

Agha Funambulist 1
Spirits, by Nubian artist Bassam Ahmed.

My people say that every street that runs uninterrupted between the river and the mountain is occupied by Jinns. Google calls them mythical creatures, but I was taught that Jinns are peoplehoods of good and bad spirit beings, they have communities just like us; they can help or harm, just like us. That is why we used to build our houses interwoven into each other. This understanding of what constitutes Nubian spatiality is especially common among Nubians living on the west bank of the Nile river. But sadly for us, only a few Nubian villages (especially in Egypt) remained by the river. In the 1960s, almost all Nubians were displaced away from their ancestral land and their beloved river to make way for a water reservoir, in a project that was advertised as Egypt’s key to modernity. 

But modernity didn’t change the fact that every street that runs straight and uninterrupted is full of Jinns, especially those linear streets in the displacement villages designed to house thousands of displaced Nubians in Kom Ombo valley, north of Aswan. Kom Ombo valley itself was known as a valley for Jinns. But modernist design has deemed its streets linear and open on both ends. As stories of Jinns disrupting human lives during the first years of displacement were numerous, I grew up listening to them and believing what they told me.

These stories are what qualifies as “myth” in Western epistemes, mostly in a discounted, dismissive, or sensationalist manner. But myths in a Nubian episteme embody a mode of storytelling, functioning as active policies that organize the relationship between people and their environments. Linear streets are broken to avoid wind tunnels and shield houses from descending sand; but more importantly, recognizing, and respecting the possibilities of being and becoming in the surrounding environment. All Nubian villages (except those situated on islands) sit between the river and a mountain. Sand on one side and water on the other. The mountain was full of Jinns, and the river was full of its people, worlds, and creatures that lived at the bottom of the river, as told in Nubian ancestral stories.