Being Nubian in Egypt, and in the constitution

My parents are Nubian. They were both born in Cairo after their families were forcefully displaced during the second reconstruction phase of the Aswan low dam in 1932. I grew up in a family building where aunts and grandmothers spoke only broken Arabic.

I still remember my great-grandma struggling to talk to me in Arabic. She used to ask to be taught Arabic words, so she could communicate with my cousins and me. I still remember her telling me stories in Nubian, a language that I did not understand at all. I loved her sweet voice.

For a long time, Nubia for me was the colorful Arageed dance, the smiling faces of my  aunts and uncles at our family gatherings, and my mom translating Nubian love songs for me while we danced together at home, in between finishing up her household chores.

When I reached my teenage years, my uncle, Abbas Mokhtar Sakory, introduced me to Nubian literature. I had known about the old land and the forced displacement, but my dad was a hardcore Nasserist and he used to say, “We did it for the national good.” And that was about it.

And then for years I lived under this nationalist hypnosis: I was Egyptian, and only that. There was no room in my understanding of being Egyptian for deviation or diversity. Although every detail in my life screamed that I belong to the Nubian community, I shied away from engaging with Nubian activism.

This was the case until 2010, when I joined the Hisham Mubarak Law Center and worked with its research team to produce an economic, social and cultural rights report. I came to better understand the Nubian question, and learned about violations of the community’s rights.

And then came the 25 January revolution, which had a huge impact on my life. It was the official start of my Nubian activism. I met the members of the Nubian Democratic Youth Union. And through them I discovered the Nubian political community.

I have to say that some of my assumptions about the conservatism and patriarchy that are imbedded in Nubian political circles — and possibly in all of Egypt’s political groups — were right. I remember the comments of some Nubian young activists about another prominent female Nubian activist: “She is not good enough to represent us.” Being a young woman in politics is not easy. I had to go through many fights for my gender, my generation and myself.

I was nominated by Constitution, Nubians! to represent the Nubian community in the 50-member committee tasked with amending the constitution. Constitution, Nubians! is a fierce young campaign working to promote Nubian rights in the constitution. But after this nomination, I was, not surprisingly, faced with so many misogynist comments, and even the quoting of religious texts meant to disqualify me, only because I am a woman.  

I eventually did not make it to the 50-member committee. When the final selection was in favor of the prominent Nubian novelist Hagga Adoul, I was honored to work in his consultative office.

This experience was an eye-opener. I discovered the many dynamics within the Nubian political community. I saw how the old generation is fiercely fighting to maintain its gains and positions, and how the young generation is trying to win new battles.  

My work with the consultative office showed me the complexity of the Nubian question. I was amazed by the perseverance of young Nubians who do not speak their mother tongue, but  were keen enough to demand the teaching and preservation of Nubian language and history as part of Egyptian heritage.

I had naively thought that the demand for returning back to the old land was dogmatic. Nubians were forcibly displaced four times in the twentieth century: in 1902, 1912, 1932 and 1964. We lost historical Nubia under the so-called Lake Nasser after the building of the High Dam. I learned, however, that when Nubians speak of the right of return, they mean to be granted the right to develop and reside in the land around the lake — a demand that is not unrealistic or dogmatic at all.

Typical of all plights of return following displacement, I always wondered whether we can really do that, whether we — given the choice — would want to return, and whether there would be a decent life for our sons and daughters there. But I was amazed and humbled when I listened to the sincere voices of those looking forward to developing the land of their ancestors, to build their own history and preserve their cultural and geographical heritage. I came to realize that there are serious attempts to develop the land near the lake, some of which are extremely promising. I also learned that although we, as Nubians, have one pain and one struggle, we have different priorities, depending on the displacement time and destination, and other factors.  

I still remember the day of the first session of the constitutional committee which addressed the Nubian question. I have to say that I did not like the discourse of some of the older Nubians when they addressed the head of the session, Sameh Ashour. I felt they used language that was submissive. They kept thanking the committee head for giving Nubians the chance to speak, as if it is not our right to do so.

I was also greatly disappointed by the fact that only six of the 50 members on the committee attended the hearing on the Nubian question led by Haggag Adoul. It was a sad indication of how little the committee really cared.

In the hearing itself, I hated Ashour’s attitude when presiding over the session. He rarely gave the floor to young Nubians to talk. And even then, he would often interject with dismissive questions that showed his ignorance of the Nubian issue. He once bluntly said, “Why do you ask for a right of return? Is there a land to return to? I thought that it has all drowned under the lake!” His dismissive questions only showed that he was not familiar with our cause at all. No one wants to return to the land that has drowned under the lake: Nubians want to develop the land around it — a phrase we said over and over again.

But there is nothing particularly romantic about the politics of the Nubian community. There is an open struggle between the old generation and the young, and between the new elite of the Nubian community and the old one. The Mubarak-era Nubian elite consists of businessmen and the so-called traditional leaders of the Nubian community, who have through the years made many “deals” with the state, which have gone against the interests of the Nubian people. The new elite is trying to build its legitimacy within the Nubian community, while maintaining good relations with the state. And they are all trying to claim that they do what is best for Nubians.

When I participated in drafting our demands in the constitution, I never thought that some of our demands would go through. But whether we would eventually win or lose, we still demanded our full rights. We demanded recognition that Egypt belongs to the motherland, Africa, recognition of Nubian as a local language, and recognition of  Nubian culture as part of Egyptian heritage and the need to preserve it. We demanded the right to return to the land of Nubia (around the lake), and we demanded that the population be consulted in the decision-making process for development of their land. Finally, we demanded that Nubian history be part of the school curricula and recognition of Egypt’s multiculturalism.   

I was angry when I read some of the reactions of the Egyptian intelligentsia, especially when figures like renowned poet Abdel Rahaman al-Abnoudy and Hamdy Ahmed claimed that recognizing Nubian cultural heritage and language will threaten the unity of the nation — a fallacy for sure.

I am happy that we managed to pass the article on fighting and criminalizing color- and race-based discrimination. It stipulated that any discrimination on the basis of gender, color, race, ability, religion, creed and geographical origin is to criminalized. It is a landmark that we managed to add color and race as the basis of discrimination — especially practiced against Nubians and African residents in Egypt. 

Another triumph was the article pertaining to the development of remote areas of the nation like Nubia, Sinai and Matrouh, a development that should be done in consultation with the inhabitants of those areas.

This process of demanding our rights was not easy, to the say least. We suffered from accusations that we are trying to divide the nation, that we have a separatist agenda and are being funded by foreigners. It is sad that we have to respond to these attacks, time and again, by stating that our position celebrates Egypt’s cultural pluralism and that we have been loyal to this nation throughout history. Challenging all these stereotypes and prejudices was such a nuisance, and it consumed a lot of the team’s energy. 

We finally did make some wins in the constitution (especially with the inclusion of color- and race-based discrimination, participatory development of deprived areas, and calling on the state to carry out repopulation projects for Nubian residents). But Nubia was not recognized in the constitutional preamble as a constituent of the Egyptian cultural mosaic.

I know that these constitutional phrases need a political will to be realized as gains for the community. I know that the racism is deeply entrenched in  Egyptian society and requires more than words to be eradicated. I know that this is not an end to our struggle, nor is it the ultimate victory for minority rights. But we did achieve a legal precedent, and we dared to speak of our right of return, which is unprecedented.

Despite it all, I remain reluctant to accept the final draft of the constitution. I cannot overlook the existence of the article that allows for military trials of civilians. I also cannot accept that women’s rights and actions remain captive to phrases like “without contradicting Sharia.” I cannot ignore the fact that the rights of religious minorities, especially Baha’is are dismissed. And I am weary of articles that give Al-Azhar, a religious institution, the power to intervene in public space.

This constitutional draft is possibly the best we have reached so far — especially for the Nubian community — but it still does not match the dreams of my generation. 

Note: The views expressed here are my own and do not represent any of the entities that I belong to. 

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Fatma Emam Sakory