Nubian language, generational schism and state refusal
As the state fears that the Nubian language poses a threat to national security and cohesion, it is left to civil society to maintain the language

“My grandparents spoke Nubian, my father spoke a little Nubian and I don’t speak it at all,” says Fatma Emam Sakory, a freelance Nubian researcher and activist.

Sakory’s grandparents moved to Cairo after the diaspora of the 1930s. Born to parents who were themselves born in the capital, Sakory describes herself as being of the third post-diaspora generation of Nubians.

Given that neither Nubian history nor languages are taught in schools, the home was where many did or did not learn the family’s mother tongue.

Although she grew up hearing stories in Nubian and in a family where many in the older generation spoke only broken Arabic, Sakory did not grow up speaking Nubian and has since taken classes. Sakory’s maternal great grandmother only spoke Nubian, but would ask to be taught Arabic. Meanwhile, her mother would explain the lyrics of Nubians songs that they often played in their Cairene home, but didn’t teach her more than this. Her father refused to speak to them in Nubian at all.

Egypt’s Nubians were displaced several times throughout the 20th century: with the building of the dam by the British in 1902, and when its height was raised on two different occasions in 1912 and 1933, and again with the building of the Aswan High Dam by former President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1963-64.

More than four decades after the last diaspora in 1964, this is the generation who may not have seen their places of origin, who have heard the elders in their family exchange dialogue in Nubian, often barely understanding, rarely properly taught. And many increasingly resent the older generation for not passing the language on.

For Mostafa Shorbagy, a Nubian researcher and freelance journalist, not being able to speak Nubian is the “biggest plague” that has afflicted his life. “I can’t name a bigger loss, we are missing the most significant element related to our culture,” he says.    

Shorbagy places the responsibility for this loss on the majority of his parents’ generation.

The generation of their grandparents, Shorbagy says, spoke Nubian, passing it onto their children, even as they were displaced to Aswan, Cairo and other parts of Egypt; “And I blame our parents for not doing the same as our grandparents. Instead they were busy coexisting in the society they were displaced into, so they could work and find stability.”  

Gamal Abdel Nasser and a generational schism

Sakory’s father was a loyal Nasserist, praising in particular the social benefits associated with the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser in terms of free education and social mobility. “He didn’t believe in the idea of preserving the Nubian language and culture,” says Sakory, who is herself more critical of Nasser.

In her research on Nubian popular memory through song, academic Alia Mossallam found generational differences in how Nubians remembered and understood their relationship to the 1952 revolution, the dam that displaced them and Nasser. 

“While you might expect anger towards Nasser among the generation who was displaced, they actually spared him all responsibility, often blaming those around him for what they suffered,” Mossallam says. “Several of my interviewees described Nasser as a ‘man of Nubian principles.’”

Mossallam recounts interviewing a woman who told several bitter stories about how miserable life was in the new villages to which they had been moved to make way for the dam. “But when I asked her if she related these hardships to Nasser, she threatened to stop the interview if I was trying to defame him. She told me that when he died the villagers carried a mock coffin until a large procession gathered moving from village to village.”

Leading up to the displacement, Mossallam says, a lot of propaganda was distributed among Nubians about the features of modernity they would find in their new homes, such as running water, fridges and ovens.

“Also a number of Nubian teachers received training on how to promote the dam and they did this willingly, although those of them alive today regret this,” she adds.

“Many of the younger people were actually looking forward to the move, believing the dam would result in the betterment of their lives,” Mossallam elaborates. “And so the sentiments I found among the older generations who ‘agreed’ to move were regret and guilt, whereas I found anger at both the state and the older generation among those born in the 60s and 70s, those who found themselves born to a culture missing its very essence cultural, economic and social essence, the Nile.”

It is the younger generations who have primarily raised the call for the right of return, notes Mossallam, and who refer to the displacement with the building of the dam as “forced migration.”

The shift in attitude is reflected in song. Ahmed Sidqy, one of the most revered Nubian singers in the 1960s, sung for instance “Dayman nasrebu ya Nil” (Always triumphant, oh Nile), in Nubian and Arabic, internalizing the rhetoric that celebrated the dam. From the 1970s onward, Mossallam notes the appearance of songs such as Khedr al-Aatar “Ismi hinak wa baladi hinak” (My name is there, my country is there) critiquing both the state and the older generations who agreed to the move.

“Dayman nasrebu ya Nil” (Always triumphant, oh Nile):

Khedr al-Aatar “Ismi hinak wa baladi hinak” (My name is there, my country is there):

Mossallam initially assumed she would find songs of resistance sung in Nubian languages as these are not understandable to others. “But the songs I found were sung by younger Nubians and in Arabic. It was in Arabic, the only language many of them properly mastered, that they sung to stress their identity and narrative.”

Civil society and associational efforts at language teaching

Given the absence of Nubian language and history in school curricula, any efforts at preservation have been made by Nubian groups and associations without state support.

Villagers who migrated to Cairo formed associations, Sakory explains, “to preserve their origins, faiths and to assemble whenever there’s an occasion of joy or sorrow. These associations practice social, journalistic and sometimes political roles.”

There are 64 of these associations in Cairo, representing 64 Nubian villages, which offer Nubian courses. Aside from a program at the American University in Cairo, these associations are the only place where it is possible to study Nubian languages in the Egyptian capital, according to Sakory and Mostafa Abdel Qader, an expert on Nubian heritage and a member of the Supreme Council for Culture’s Arts Committee.

Recently significant efforts have been made, spearheaded by the Nubian Heritage Association and others, to preserve Nubian languages by writing dictionaries and teaching language, says Maja Janmyr, postdoctoral researcher at the Faculty of Law at the University of Bergen, working on refugee rights in the Middle East. She adds that the status of Nubian languages has also been bolstered by Nubian television and radio.

Ahmed Ismail, a Nubian language tutor at the General Nubian Club explains, however, that competence remains low, saying that they offer only beginner level classes since the students applying, Nubians for the most part, do not know how to read or write in the Nubian script.

In the absence of any state efforts to maintain them, Nubian languages remain poorly preserved, Shorbagy despairs. “There’s no state effort, it’s all efforts from within civil society by volunteers with limited resources.”

“Preserving the Nubian languages can’t be left to civil society,” he says. “It has to be addressed by the state.”

There is an urgency he feels because “with time it becomes more difficult — living in a society that speaks only Arabic, we are obliged to talk in the same language and so the Nubian language diminishes and fades out towards extinction.”  

Nubians have long demanded the teaching of their language and history in schools, in the face of state refusal and hostility. The political struggle of Nubians had taken a cultural form, Janmyr suggests, as a result of barriers to political organizing in an authoritarian state, with the January 25 revolution marking a turning point for Nubian activism.

One outcome of this increased politicization was Nubian collective representation during the constitutional writing process and the Constitution passed in 2014 was a milestone for Nubian rights. Nubia is explicitly mentioned for the first time and Article 236 lays out the state responsibility to develop Nubian areas and facilitate people’s return to them within 10 years of the document’s ratification.

Two presidential decisions, however, have hindered these constitutional rights. Certain areas were declared military zones not to be inhabited and this affected 16 Nubian villages. Nubian land was also included in a state-backed land development project in Toshka. A caravan of Nubian activists moving under the banner of the “Nubian Right to Return” tried to reach the Nubian village of Forkund to protest its inclusion in the project.

In terms of constitutional rights, the Constitution did not go so far as to recognize Nubian as one of Egypt’s official languages. Demands for the teaching and preservation of Nubian language and history as part of the country’s heritage were strongly rejected because it would threaten the unity of the nation.

Sakory, who was a member of the consultative office of famed writer Haggag Adoul, the Nubian representative on the constitutional committee says, “Even though they refused to recognize the Nubian language, they said that based on the article on Egypt’s diverse heritage, that they would establish a language institute to teach local languages like Nubian, Amazigh spoken in the western desert and Begawy spoken in the Halayeb and Shalateen border cities, but that hasn’t happened.”

State refusal and the question of national identity

“For decades any encouragement of the existence of a separate group with a distinct language and history has been perceived as a threat to the security of the country,” Janmyr explains. As such, minority politics is often “highly securitized.”

“Although many Nubians appear to see themselves as fully Egyptian, they often have had to refute claims made against them that they are ‘separatists,’ and particularly so when they have reached out internationally to raise awareness of the Nubian plight,” she adds.

Although demands for the recognition of Nubian and other local languages are deemed a security threat, ironically, Nubian played a significant role in the 1973 war against Israel. Nubians were deployed in each helicopter to exchange commands in Nubian so they would not be intercepted.

“A key element of Egyptian Arab nationalism has been precisely the adoption of Arabization policies that have privileged the Arabic language and stigmatized other local dialects and cultures as backward and divisive,” Janmyr says.

She points to occasions when Egyptian state officials informed UN human rights institutions that there is “full homogeneity among all the groups and communities of which the Egyptian population consists since they all speak the same language, Arabic, which is the country’s official language and Arab culture predominates in all its geographical regions.”

“So, there have long been attempts at homogenizing Egyptian society at the expense of the rights of indigenous people and minority groups,” Janmyr observes.

“If these languages had been officially considered as popular languages by the Constitution they would be teachable in schools and other educational institutions as part of the country’s origin,” the political coordinator of the Nubian Right to Return movement, Rami Yehia, says.

“Then an Egyptian citizen who wants to learn one of his country’s original languages wouldn’t be required to travel all the way to Norway, for example, to find an institution that teaches the Nubian language,” he adds.

Cairo University’s Institute of African Studies teaches a variety of African languages including Swahili and Amharic, but it doesn’t teach those that are spoken in Egypt such as Nubian, Amazigh and Begawy.

“There is a clear direction,” he says, “to abolish any shape or form of the Africanism of Egypt.”

All illustrations by Deena Mohamed


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