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"A Minor Literature in a Major Voice": narrating Nubian identity in contemporary Egypt.

Over the course of the twentieth century, the Nubian people were resettled several times to make way for dams on the river Nile. This article examines how Nubian literature has exploited the relative freedom accorded the Egyptian literary sphere to highlight marginalized Nubian perspectives on the intergenerational legacy of dam-induced displacement and resettlement. Through analysis of three Nubian texts, the author examines how Nubian literature constitutes a distinctive form of literary expression that both reclaims Egypt's forgotten African identity and promotes a "progressive" nationalist project which celebrates, rather than silences, Egypt's ethnic and religious pluralism by integrating minority perspectives into the national imaginary.


Over the course of the twentieth century, the Nubian people endured four successive waves of displacement and resettlement to make way for dams on the river Nile in 1902, 1912, and 1933. These culminated in the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1964, which submerged all of their ancient homeland on either side of the Egyptian/Sudanese border. Yet whereas the dam came to symbolize postcolonial Egypt's national development and resurgent national pride in mainstream Egyptian public discourse, its compound and continuing impacts on the language, culture, and way of life of the Nubian people has largely gone unrecognized and unrepresented at the national level. A monolithic nationalist narrative emphasizing the dam's redemptive properties has elided the sacrifices of the Nubian people from the public discourse.

In a political context where overt criticism of the High Dam project was widely considered unpatriotic, if not outright treacherous (Fahim, Egyptian Nubians 29-31), authors linked to the revivalist Nubian cultural movement known as al-Sahwa al-Nubiyya (the Nubian Awakening) have made use of the relative freedom accorded the Egyptian literary sphere. Such writers include Yahya Mukhtar, Haggag Hassan Oddoul, and Idris 'Ali, all writing primarily between 1989 and 2005. Their work mobilizes culture as an axis of resistance that contests dominant nationalist narratives by emphasizing suppressed Nubian perspectives towards the dams, perspectives which have gone unheard or unheeded by successive governments.

Through analysis of Mukhtar's Jibal al-kohl, 2001 (Mountains of Kohl), Ali's Dunqula: Riwaya Nubiyya, 1993 (Dongola: A Novel of Nubia, 1998), and Oddoul's collection of short stories Layali al-misk al-'Atiqa, 2002 (Nights of Musk: Stories from Old Nubia, 2005), this article examines how contemporary Nubian writers have employed literature as a means of dramatizing what Nixon has termed the "slow violence" of the Aswan High Dam's delayed effects on Nubian economic, social, and cultural life (3). It also examines how these works articulate a distinctively Nubian identity, in the face of the twin threats of Arabization and assimilation, reclaiming Egypt's marginalized African heritage as an integral part of what it means to be Egyptian.

As an example of what Deleuze and Guattari have termed "a minor literature" written in the "major voice" of Arabic, Nubian literature can be viewed as one expression of the broader trend of "Border literature," whereby authors from Nubian, Amazigh, and Berber origins, for example, have used their writing to assert a broader conception of Egyptian identity (see El-Refaei). Such identity incorporates minority perspectives into the national imaginary and celebrates, rather than silences, Egypt's ethnic and religious pluralism.

Egyptian Nubians: The Aswan High Dam Case

The Nubian people are an ethnic group descended from one of Africa's earliest and most powerful ancient civilizations, which existed from 3700 BC to 350 CE. They traditionally inhabited the region between the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan in Egypt and the third cataract at Dongola in Sudan (Kronenberg 390). While Upper Nubia was home to the celebrated ancient kingdom of Kush or Napata, Lower Nubia--where the kingdom of Meroe flourished and which corresponds to modern-day Egyptian Nubia--became known as the "the gateway to Africa" due to high levels of contact and cultural exchange between groups as diverse as Nubians, Egyptians, Greeks, Assyrians, Romans, Arabs, and Turks over the course of millennia (Adams 44-65).

Although 99% of Nubians are adherents of Islam, their culture and social structure have been described as a mosaic of Nubian and Arab-Islamic cultural patterns which borrows from and synthesizes Islamic, Arabic, Christian, and other much older beliefs into a single system of values and normative models of behavior (Kennedy and Femea iv-ix). Furthermore, it is qualitatively distinct from that of other social groups in Egypt or Sudan. Indeed, Nubians on either side of the border continue to self-identify as sharing many aspects of identity based on language, common social structures, a shared oral literature, and similar ethics, beliefs, and traditions. Such traditions "create a feeling that 'We are like ourselves and others are not like us'" (Kronenberg 389). Nubians thus constitute a culturally distinctive group whose perceived racial characteristics operate as a "boundary marker" in the social context of Egypt where they may be popularly perceived as Africans or "Others" (Naaman 112).

Although estimates of the numbers of Nubians living in Egypt vary widely, independent studies suggest that there are between 3 and 4 million Egyptian Nubians settled primarily around Kom Ombo, Aswan, Abu Simbel, Cairo, and Alexandria who make up 4-5% of the total population of Egypt (Begg n. pag.; Salah n. pag.). (Official figures put that number much lower, at less than 1% of the Egyptian population or 160,000 people [Metz n. pag.].) Of these, 1.7 million are estimated to be speakers of Nubian dialects such as Nobiin (previously known as Mahas or Fadicca), Midob, Hill Nubian and Kenzi-Dongolawi, the largest language group with over 1 million speakers (Salah n. pag.).

Although they still constitute "the largest non-Arabic speaking community in Egypt" (Jacquemond 181), widespread Arabization has meant that a shared language is no longer one of the defining features of Nubian identity in the diaspora. Rather, "Nubianness" is increasingly defined more in terms of shared cultural memory and political aspirations in which the inundation of their homeland by the Aswan High Dam is treated as a foundational moment upon which a new Nubian political and artistic culture can be based. Indeed, the erasure of this event from Egyptian collective memory and the lack of appropriate compensation or reparations have contributed to the formation of Nubian identity politics today (Naaman 113).

However, differing political and economic conditions, government policies, and administrative structures have resulted in a bifurcation in the development of Nubian culture in Egypt and Sudan. One must note, however, that Nubians in Sudan occupy a relatively favored position in the social hierarchy compared to Egypt where they continue to suffer endemic racism and discrimination (Kronenberg 390-91). As Elizabeth Smith argues, this is manifested both in terms of class-- through structural economic and social inequality--and in terms of citizenship-through the "othering" of Nubians via discourses linking them with their former servant status, blackness, slavery, and Africanness. This affects a dual inclusion and exclusion of Nubians in relation to dominant ideas of Egyptianness by locating them within the Egyptian nation, yet according them a subordinate social position (400).

Despite its geographical location on the African continent, Egypt is popularly understood to be culturally and civilizationally distinct from Sub-Saharan Africa. The unitary fiction of Egypt's Arab identity was intentionally cultivated by the ideology of Arab nationalism in the postcolonial period which effectively excluded minority identities from the Egyptian national imaginary (Smith 401). Non-recognition of ethnic minorities at the national level was accompanied by strategies of sedentarization, assimilation, and Arabization of minorities at the local level, which was accelerated by the fact that Arabic was the only official written language of Egypt, and minority languages like Nubian were not taught in schools or universities.

In the case of the estimated 50,000-70,000 Egyptian Nubians displaced from forty-four villages along the Nile to the designated resettlement site known as "New Nubia"--seventy-five kilometers north of Aswan (Dafalla xvii)--resettlement was meant to offer a new beginning. Nasser promised the crowds assembled at Abu Simbel in 1960 that "If the Nubian people are leaving their smaller home of Nubia for the prosperity of the republic ... they will find stability, prosperity and a decent life" in Kom Ombo (Fahim, Egyptian Nubians 36), where they would have access to utilities such as piped water and electricity for the first time as well as better access to health care and education.

While early ethnographic studies by anthropologists sent to evaluate the success of the Nubian resettlement scheme acknowledged a general decline in living standards in the years immediately following displacement, these suggested that, within five to ten years, the community would have adapted to the new environment (see Adams; Agouba; Femea and Gerster; Scudder 38-40). According to them, this would result in "a positive resettlement outcome," particularly given that the younger generation seemed positively inclined towards the idea of building a "modern Nubia" with greater employment opportunities that could prevent labor migration and keep families together (Scudder 74).

However, despite these early indications that Egyptian Nubians would soon feel "at home" in the resettlement site, later longitudinal studies carried out between 1964 and 1982 (see Fahim) found that over fifteen years after resettlement had taken place, there were widespread indicators of chronic social and psychological breakdown. Fahim ascribes these in part to inadequate community consultation; the breakdown of neighborhood, family, and kinship ties; disappointment about unfulfilled government promises; feelings of cultural and environmental dislocation; and the limited economic resources and opportunities available in New Nubia, leading to increased labor migration to the north (Egyptian Nubians 111-61). It was this tendency to look beyond the resettlement site which led Fahim to conclude that "the Kom Ombo settlement failed, in the eyes of most Nubians, to become a viable community that could provide a promising future" (111).

This seemingly causal relationship between forced resettlement and the "long dyings" of human cultures which it engenders can be characterized as a form of what Rob Nixon has termed "slow violence." The delayed effects of such violence occur gradually, and are so dispersed across time and space in such a manner that it "is typically not viewed as violence at all" (3), despite its corrosive impact on the continued viability of minority cultures, language, and ways of life in a diasporic context. It is also linked to the symbolic violence of forgetting and non-recognition. Too often, as Nixon argues, "the developmental fantasy of a benign, redemptive dam" results in national amnesia towards the experience of dispossession and displacement of liminal segments of the population whose homes and histories have been drowned beneath the "submergence zone" and go un-mourned and un-memorialized within the national imaginary (161-62).

Whereas detailed records were kept of the dam construction process and the UNESCO-led campaign to save Nubia's ancient monuments, "accounts of the deep psychological and social trauma that this project left in its wake are more difficult to come by" (Calderbank vii). The perspectives and priorities of the displaced themselves were never recorded in official narratives, which tended to emphasize the dam's national benefits at the expense of its local costs. Consequently, as Anthony Calderbank argues, "the tragedy suffered by the Nubian people as a result of the construction of the High Dam at Aswan is one of the great untold stories of the twentieth century" (vii).

In a context in which long-standing Nubian demands for equitable compensation, cultural recognition, and the right to return to their home territories were socially and politically marginalized, the importance of Nubian literature as a form of "resistance narrative" that rewrites the history of the Aswan High Dam and Nubian displacement from a minority perspective is paramount. Speaking through the institutional amnesia surrounding the Nubian case, texts such as Mukhtar's Mountains of Kohl, Oddoul's Nights of Musk, and 'Ali's Dongola: A Novel of Nubia have refocused critical attention on the marginalized Nubian voices, perspectives, and experiences which "were only documented in literature, never in the history books" (Saad n. pag.).

Narratives of the "Nubian Awakening" thus generate the possibility of recovering what Vinayak Chaturvedi has termed "another kind of history" (284) by providing a new body of testimonial evidence that foregrounds the immediate and continuing legacy of successive waves of dam-building on Nubian culture and society. Mukhtar, in turn, describes these as a deep collective wound "that remains raw and does not heal" with the passage of time (Jibal 141). As such, Nubian literature provides a valuable counter-balance to monolithic nationalist discourses stressing the national benefits of the High Dam project while glossing over--or in many cases, willfully ignoring--its sometimes catastrophic local costs (Dafalla 5).

"Nubian" Literature?

First employed in 1990, the term "Nubian literature" came to be associated with the revivalist Nubian cultural and political movement known as al-Sahwa al-Nubiyya (the Nubian Awakening) which advocated for Nubian rights and castigated the Egyptian intelligentsia for willfully ignoring the impact of the Aswan Dam on Nubian society and culture. The term was primarily articulated in terms of the aspiration for Nubian writing to constitute a distinct form of literary regionalism within the broader field of Arabic literary production rather than a mere subsection of Egyptian literature (Naaman 115). Despite this fact, it has proved highly controversial within the literary establishment, leading to allegations linking it to a "separatist" or "racist" agenda aimed at weakening the unity of the Egyptian state (Aboul-Ela n. pag.).

Haggag Oddoul, one of the most prominent Nubian writers and activists, has described the displacement and resettlement of his people as a "crime against humanity" (qtd. in Khallaf n. pag.) and a calamity or nakba on a par with that of the Palestinian people (Oddoul, al-Sahwa 8). Others have been far more cautious. While advocating the importance of achieving economic and social justice and cultural rights for the Nubian people, Yahya Mukhtar and Idris ' Ali reject Oddoul's claims. They also disapprove of his oft-cited demand for uniting Nubians in Egypt and Sudan, which Mukhtar has described as a "betrayal of his Egyptian identity" while 'Ali has shown that it overlooks the historical fact that Nubians have always been an integral part of the Egyptian people (qtd. in Khallaf n. pag.).

Although Oddoul later retracted his support for separatism and has worked, in his capacity as Nubian representative to the 2013 Constitutional Assembly, to pursue the Nubian agenda by working within the Egyptian political context, he and Mukhtar have both categorically disputed any link between Nubian writing and separatism. They argue simply that the Nubian experience is, as Naaman puts it, a "trauma worthy of its own narrative" (115), and thus a broad category was required under which all literature sharing the "various unique particularities of Nubian society" could fall (Aboul-Ela n. pag.).

Nubian literature has been divided into three distinct waves (Naaman 114). The first wave corresponds to the publication, in 1948, of the first self-consciously Nubian text by Nubian authors, namely, a collection of poetry written in Arabic entitled Zilal alnakhil (Under the Shade of the Palms) by Muhammad Abdel Rahim Idriss. As Oddoul has observed, nothing literary was subsequently published for around twenty-five years until the appearance, in 1964, of two literary works that "put Nubian literature on the map" (Aboul-Ela n. pag.). These were an anthology of Nubian poetry entitled Sirb al-balshun (A Flock of Pelicans) and Muhammad Khalil Qasim's influential social-realist novel al-Shamandura, 1968 (The Buoy). Jacquemond describes the latter as the "main Nubian contribution to the written literature of Egypt until the 1980s" and the emergence of the third wave (181).

Published in 1968, al-Shamandura was the first literary text in Arabic to focus explicitly on the Nubian experience of the waves of resettlement that occurred over the course of the twentieth century. Set in the village of Qata in the years prior to, during, and after the second raising of the Aswan Low Dam in 1933, it also reflects back further in time to the previous resettlement of 1912 through the eyes of the older generation. It metaphorically projects that experience onto the present and the likely outcome of Nasser's hydropolitical agenda by highlighting the need for the Nubian people to continue to resist for the sake of their rights. It thus proffers an alternative reading of the legacy of dam-building to that embedded in hegemonic nationalist discourses.

The novel is divided into two parts. The first is primarily ethnographic, and documents the details of Nubian customary life, from birth, death, and marriage rites to the harvest season and religious festivals, accompanied by detailed descriptions of the village architecture, landscape, dress, and food. The second half of the novel is much more deeply politicized, chronicling the community's material and symbolic resistance to the dam project; their hurried evacuation to the barren hills on the far bank of the Nile; and the stresses and risks they encounter in the years that follow as they try to re-establish their community in a new location.

Although narrated primarily by the young boy Hamid, the novel moves beyond the particularistic "I" of the first-person narrator and the delineation of "the village of Qata as the setting for the novel, to document "the 'collective I' [of Nubian society] which seeks to confirm itself and its particular existence and to confront attempts to ignore or forget it" (Ishaq 98). As such, al-Shamandura can be considered not only the first Nubian literary text but the first novel about "Nubia" as an entity distinct from that of the wider Egyptian and Sudanese nations.

The introduction of such words and expressions as Wannour (446)--instead of the Arabic Allah (God)--and such cultural notions as kurbaj (whip), carried at weddings and funerals (264), brings a distinctly Nubian flavor to the text. This is evident in descriptions of the annual date-harvest when, exhausted by "the Nile, the mud and the flaming sun" the people lie down to rest "on the masatib [traditional Nubian porches] surrounding the palm trees, surrendering to sleep after filling their bellies with big slabs of khamrid [unleavened bread], sabruja, and atarharifa spread with red date paste ... and spring onions" (45). Moreover, by emphasizing how characters like Daraya Sakina speak "broken Arabic mixed with many Nubian words" (57) the Arabic-language text is effectively "othered," hybridizing and pluralizing the scope of Egyptian literature in the process.

Uniting distinctly "Nubian" geographic, historical, and cultural elements together for the first time, the text is studded with references to local places and geographical features, particularly the yellow sands, blue Nile, and green palm groves that symbolically stand in for Nubia amongst contemporary artists and musicians and are the colors of the Nubian flag. Even insensate natural elements like the date palms, each of which "had a full life, with inherited characteristics" (114) are anthropomorphized and given a voice in a technique more typical of magical realism. This is suggestive of the symbiotic connection between Nubian social, spiritual, and cultural life and the surrounding landscape which constitutes what Tvedt has termed a complete Nubian "Nile World" (Tvedt 12).

However, as Naaman has observed, at the time the novel was published in 1968, Nubia had not been completely flooded and "the idea of their [Nubians'] homeland as a lost paradise was yet to emerge" as the main thematic focus of the Nubian novel (Naaman 115). Rather, the novel is more focused on issues of Nubian rights compared to texts written from 1989 when "the floodgates of Nubian titles in Arabic opened" (Aboul-Ela n. pag.). Such texts are characterized by nostalgia and the deferred dream of return to Old Nubia, manifested in the use of the Nubian language, setting, and narrative forms (Naaman 115).

Notable examples of the third wave of Nubian literature--which lasted roughly from 1989 to 2005--include Ibrahim Fahmy's collection of short stories al-Qamar bouba, 1989 (The Medallion); Haggag OddouTs Layali al-misk al-'atiqa and Ma'tuq al-khayr, 2004; Yahya Mukhtar's 'Arus al-Nil, 1990 (Bride of the Nile) and Jibal al-kohl Hasan Nur's Bayn al-nahr wa-l-jabal, 1991 (Between the River and the Mountain); and Idris 'Ali's Dunqula and Taht khat al-faqr, 2001 (Poor, 2007).

Harking back to the earlier waves of Nubian literature, some of these texts--including 'Arus al-Nil and Layali al-misk--were dedicated to Muhammad Khalil Qasim, signifying the ongoing thematic and stylistic influences that link Nubian writers across generations. (Radwan 120). With the sole exception of Fahmy, who is not ethnically Nubian, these authors emerged from a single generation of the Nubian diaspora whose parents had emigrated to the cities of the North following the second rise of the Aswan dam in 1933. Their distinctly Nubian context is often distinguished by use of a subtitle such as riwaya or hikaya nubiyya (Nubian novel/narrative) as in, for example, Idris Ali's Dunqula: Riwaya Nubiyya or Hassan Nur's Bayn al-nahr wa-l-jabal: Riwaya min al-Nuba (Jacquemond 182).

Since Oddoul and Mukhtar won the State Incentive Award for Fiction in 1990 and 1991, respectively, Nubian literature has received increasing critical recognition both domestically and internationally. Oddoul also won the 2005 Sawiris Cultural Foundation's prize for his novel Ma'tuq al-khayr and 'Ali's Dongola (the first Nubian novel translated into English) received the Arkansas Press Award for Translation in 1997. Moreover, the Cairo International Book Fair and the Egyptian Ministry of Culture both held seminars on the impact of Nubian literature on Egyptian culture for the first time in late 2011 (see Ramadan), indicating that once marginalized Nubian voices were now being heard within the Egyptian establishment.

"A Minor Literature in a Major Voice"

As Naaman has argued, "viewing Egypt as a site of difference across ethnic, geographic, religious, class and gender lines necessarily means calling into question the entire rhetorical architecture of the nationalist movement which is predicated on unity and the eliding of difference" (110). Although essential in the struggle against colonialism, the continued emphasis on a homogenous and hegemonic national culture--undivided by what Fanon has termed "regressive tribalism" or African "culturalism" (172)--in postcolonial Egyptian discourse resulted in the marginalization or exclusion of regional identities and cultural forms from the national imaginary. And such identities and cultural forms remain derided as "primitive" compared to the "high culture" of the elite.

Because the interpretational authority of national elites has long been privileged at the expense of "other voices and other 'truths' that might once have been heard" (Chaturvedi 284), the right to speak, or indeed be heard, in Egyptian society was progressively restricted to holders of what Bourdieu describes as "legitimate language" (qtd. im Grenfell 146). These include politicians, journalists, and the liberal intelligentsia who are tasked with the creation of "legitimate [national] culture" which operates as a form of symbolic violence that arbitrarily imposes the values and aesthetics of the dominant social group on society and "casts every other way of living into arbitrariness" (Grenfell 110-11).

Recognition of the way in which regional writing and cultures have been systematically marginalized led Oddoul to remark that "the map of literature in Egypt is merely a lie, a fabrication" (Udaba ' 13) since it fails to make space for minority identities and cultural forms. As Pervine El-Refaei argues, border theories encourage us to scrutinize the plight of peripheral groups within Egyptian society such as the Nubian and Sinai people. Such groups' "displacement and marginalization envelop them with a fragmented liminal identity that underscores the fissures in Egyptian national identity" which are papered over by a monolithic nationalist discourse that elides difference in the name of national unity (9).

A focus on minority literatures within the postcolonial Egyptian context thus challenges the tendency amongst the literary establishment to overlook regional writing by recasting peripheral or border areas as the center and creating "counter-cartographies" that foreground the liminal identities of communities like the Nubian and Sinai people as essential components of what it means to be Egyptian. As Naaman argues, "here it is the subaltern Nubian who is writing the national narrative, and doing so as a revision to the primarily urban, pronationalist and postcolonial fictions, where the notion of an essential (or unproblematised) 'Egyptian people' is left unquestioned" (110).

Thus, although Nubian literature has typically been described as a subfield within contemporary Egyptian literature (Naaman 113), we should beware of studying it within the conventional parameters of postcolonial literature in which, as Brennan has noted, "the nationalist mood is strongly felt" (1). Rather, it may be more useful to view it as what Deleuze and Guattari have termed a "minor" literature written in the "major" voice of Arabic. Such literature writes not in the "language and syntax of national consciousness" (Lazarus 112), but rather in opposition to it, as a means of exposing the exclusions on which nationalism is based and promoting a broader conception of Egyptian identity that celebrates, rather than silences, Egypt's inherent ethnic and religious pluralism.

Characterized by the feeling of being "a stranger in one's own language" (Deleuze and Guattari 24), minor literatures tend to deconstruct the fiction of a unified national culture by highlighting difference, without--crucially--lapsing into separatist and chauvinistic discourses that fracture the concept of the nation completely. Defining Nubian literature in Arabic as a minor literature thus highlights the enduring linkages between Arab and Afro-Nubian cultures and the complex ways in which these inform each other, rather than imposing an artificial separation between Nubian and mainstream Egyptian culture which risks segueing into a new, exclusive form of ethno-nationalism.

Deleuze and Guattari have argued that minor literatures share three main features, namely the "deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual and the political, [and] the collective arrangement of utterance" (18). Taken together, these give the "minor voice" the revolutionary power to break down the seemingly organic connection between the dominant language and its symbolic associations by endowing it with new meanings and "creative lines of escape" (27). Similarly, breaking with literary convention provides a means through which Nubian literature contests the symbolic violence of Arabization which threatens the legitimacy and legibility of their cultural identity.

Nubian literature self-consciously distances itself from the stylistic conventions of the Arab-Egyptian postcolonial novel by privileging what Henri Gobard has called the mythic and vernacular tongues of the Nubian people over Arabic, the vehicular and referential tongue of the state and Arab culture (qtd. in Deleuze and Guattari 24). Moreover, the use of Afro-Nubian locations and magical realist or allegoric narrative forms such as the hadduta (folk tale) are means by which Nubian literature distinguishes itself from mainstream Egyptian literature. Simultaneously, a focus on the forgotten legacy of dam-induced displacement helps anchor contemporary Nubian writing within the community's wider collective memory and political aspirations.

When taken together, these elements arguably constitute an explicitly Nubian form of literary expression that distinguishes narratives of the Nubian Awakening from mainstream Egyptian literature. Equally, however, Nubian Literature can be viewed as part of the broader phenomenon of what El-Refaei has termed "border literatures" (9), whereby writers from minority groups such as the Bedouin and Berber have used literature as a vehicle for writing alternative histories from marginal geographical and cultural perspectives that destabilize hegemonic nationalist narratives while creating space for their distinctive cultures within an expanded and pluralized national imaginary (see El-Refaei).

Narratives of the Nubian Awakening

I shall now analyze how this Nubian sensibility is articulated in three contemporary Nubian literary texts, namely, Mukhtar's Jibal, Oddoul's Layali, and 'Ali's Dunqula. As Jacquemond has argued, there was an acknowledgment amongst Nubian writers and intellectuals following resettlement that they must work to "save the heritage of the Nubian community from oblivion and to preserve Nubian collective memory" (181) in the face of the double pressures of Arabization and assimilation. Similarly, Yahya Mukhtar has stated that his fictional memoir was intended to contribute to the ethnographic and civilizational priority to

rescue Nubian memories [for posterity] in order that these not be drowned in the waters of the lake like the artifacts covered by it ... so that our generation cannot be described as that which killed the roots of our ancient civilization which had remained intact over long centuries and would disappear. ("Al-Nuba" n. pag.)

It similarly aims to both describe life in Old Nubia for posterity and preserve collective memories of the trauma of resettlement as part of the personal and political project of reconstructing Nubian identity in the diaspora.

Written in the form of a fictional diary penned by a school master named Ali Mahmoud who starts keeping a diary after the community first finds out about plans to construct the High Dam in January 1954, the novel traces how the physical journey from Old to New Nubia is accompanied by a parallel shift in the villager's consciousness from acceptance of the rationale behind the dam project to feelings of disillusionment, deception, and, ultimately, resistance to the nationalist project. It thus provides a valuable counter-hegemonic reading of the High Dam's legacy by contrasting the reality of displacement and resettlement with government promises from a minority perspective as "the disaster that befell us" (Jibal 17) and a deep collective wound "that remains raw and does not heal" with the passage of time (141).

Promised "an appointment with happiness and luxury in New Nubia" by the glossy pamphlet distributed by the Ministry of Social Affairs (65-66), the hollowness of nationalist rhetoric is swiftly exposed. Not only are the villagers treated like cattle during the journey, transported in barges designed for livestock without adequate food, water, or medical care, but, in contrast to the "promised paradise" of the propaganda leaflets, New Nubia is described as an inhospitable desert environment "with no plants, trees, or shade" while the much-vaunted "modern" houses were revealed to be like "sardine cans" (118), made of "stones and cement, with low ceilings, and hot as hell" (140). This is what leads 'Ilish to accuse the government of lying (140).

However, according to the narrator Mawardi--himself a Cairo-trained expert on Nubian culture and civilization--what was lost to the dam was far greater than the sum of material losses incurred. Despite including "the area of land that will be drowned ... or the number of palm trees nor the cattle and sheep that will be sacrificed, nor the houses we will get in exchange for our [old] houses," ultimately, such loss could be compensated (50). Rather, the novel suggests that loss of the Nile, which provided the focus of Nubian economic, cultural, and spiritual life, and the destruction of "the first sites of human existence on earth in which the first seeds of human civilization were sown" (21) represent the biggest catastrophe in the eyes of the displaced Nubians condemned to live in the desert "far from the banks of the Nile for the first time in our nation's history" (21) and that for which they can never be compensated.

Reference to the Nile as al-nahr al-Nubi (the Nubian river) reveals the importance of the Nile as both the symbolic and physical locus of Nubian social, cultural, and economic life in the text, connecting them with Egypt to the north and Sudan to the south. Indeed, for the young Nubian narrator who knows no Arabic, Nubia is in no way peripheral to the center. Rather, his childhood self designates Cairo, with its noise, heat, smoke, and crowds, as a foreign country endowed with foreign customs and a foreign language, peripheral to what is described as a complete Nubian "Nile World" that frames his existence. Descriptions of how "the Nubians had lived a life integrated with their river" (158; emphasis added) and how the "dense living presence" of the villages was preparing to return to nothingness as they "give themselves to the Nile ... which was the reason for their existence and being" (44) suggest the integral role of the Nile in constituting and maintaining stable notions of Nubian identity.

It is precisely the loss of this "home-ground" or "Nile World" that provided the "ontological grounding of their culture" (Oliver-Smith 165). This leads the villagers to reflect on the existential threat posed by resettlement to the continued viability of Nubian culture as a living tradition as opposed to a historical artifact to be "mummified" by ethnologists and put in a museum (75-89). However, the ending of the novel does provide a glimmer of hope about reconstituting Nubian identity through the discursive creation of an "imaginary homeland" for the Nubian people which preserves collective memories of Old Nubia; passes on the community's culture, history, and mythology to a new generation; and reconstitutes the flooding of Nubia by the High Dam as the foundational moment for the flowering of a diasporic Nubian culture grounded not in shared place but shared memory.

One of Mawardi's stated dreams is for the Nubian language to be revived, codified, and taught to all Egyptians so that everyone could learn about their shared history in this ancient language (131), representing an attempt to overcome the threat of assimilation and save the Nubian identity, like its artifacts, from "disappearing and drowning" (131-132). The novel thus posits learning the Nubian language as both a means of reviving Nubian identity in the diaspora and a shared aspect of Egypt's heritage from which all citizens, regardless of origins, can benefit.

Whereas Mukhtar's text is primarily written in standard Arabic or fusha, Oddoul's collection of short stories entitled Layali al-misk explicitly references the Nubian language as a means of highlighting the distinctiveness of the Nubian experience. He even provides a glossary of key terms for the reader which references Nubian mythology, such as the distinction between adamir (humans), amon dugur (the evil inhabitants of the Nile), and amon nutto (the good inhabitants of the river); aspects of daily life including food, drink, and clothing; and certain, often symbolic, terms such as gorbatH-ya, "a perjorative term for anything not Nubian" which roughly means ajnabil-ya (foreigner) and ibiyu, "an exclamation in response to tragedy," the equivalent of ya wayli in Arabic, as well as the substitution of Nubian for basic Arabic expressions such as mas kag ru instead of marhaban (Hello) (121).

Indeed, the ancient Nubian language plays a crucial role in the telling of the story itself, as the repetition of often onomatopoetic expressions such as immmmmmm! and ibibibib! generates a call-and-response rhythm within the text that encourages the sounds to roll off the tongue of the reader as if they were in the presence of, or imitating, a hakawati or traditional story-teller. Not only does inclusion of Nubian words, narrative structures, and mythical traditions render Nubian culture highly visible to the reader but it also interrupts and hybridizes the Arabic language, fracturing the unitary fiction of an Arab national culture found in much mainstream Egyptian literature by integrating its forgotten African heritage within the public discourse (Naaman 113).

Although Layali is made up of four discrete short stories, Hala Halim has argued that "this collection may also be seen as a novella composed of texts that, while they can be read individually, acquire additional grafts of meaning when read in conjunction with each other" (Halim n. pag.). "Zeinab Uburty" and "Layali al-misk" are set in an idealized, almost mythic, environment prior to the dam's construction, illustrating the life, customs, and myths of Old Nubia in vivid detail and counteracting the liminality and peripherality of Nubia in the Egyptian imagination, by recasting it as the center of a complete Nubian "Nile World." As the narrator of "Zeinab Uburty" explains, back there, "the world was really a world. The plants were greener and the dates were almost fingers of sugar. Meat tasted more delicious and the people understood more" (43).

By contrast, "Adila, Grandmother" and "The River People" (the first and final stories in the volume, respectively) are both set in the present and describe the "barren poverty of their [Nubians'] lives in a strange land" (12) fifty years on, as they experience the delayed economic, social, and cultural effects of the slow violence of dam-induced displacement on their community, generations after it first took place. Their chronology, moving from the present to the past, back to the present is important not only in reinforcing the rupture of displacement but the ongoing connection between "Old" and "New" Nubia, bridging the past with the present and highlighting the cyclicity of Nubian life which oscillates between joy and disaster, life and death.

The trope of disaster is central to the four short stories in this collection, although it is defined in different ways within each of the texts. Thus in "Adila, Grandmother," it is described primarily in terms of the dislocation and breakdown of Nubian society in the resettlement site and the threats to Nubian culture caused by Arabization and assimilation. We learn that the village of Bahjura is populated almost exclusively by the very young, their mothers, and the very old (whose funerals occur with alarming regularity). Most are economically dependent on the remittances generated by male labor migration to the north, many of whom shirk their financial responsibilities to their families and never return to the village to marry or have children, leading the boy narrator Mohamed, whose father is Nubian and mother is Arab Egyptian, to wonder "how these people avoided becoming extinct" (6).

However, the catastrophes confronted by the displaced Nubians are not represented as primarily economic or material but at the level of human dignity and cultural integrity. When the narrator's grandmother performs the dance of the bereaved in a train on the way to Alexandria, upon learning that her grand-daughter is to marry a northern Egyptian, she is both mocked and misunderstood by the other passengers. Screaming "ibiyuuuu, ibiyu" and beating the monotonous rhythm of its music on the floor of the carriage as she moves up and down, waving her black headscarf in the air, some of the passengers start laughing and openly mocking her, while others are terrified and cower in their seats, convinced that she is mad (16).

Rituals like the dance of the bereaved--perceived as liminal and anachronistic in today's Egypt--held a central place in the Nubian "Nile World," where they performed vital symbolic functions. This is illustrated in "Zeinab Uburty" when the dance is performed by the local women in recognition of the compound disasters that had afflicted their village after the eponymous Zeinab Uburty had made a Faustian pact with the devil Kakoky who was "entrusted by Iblees [Satan] ... with bedeviling and leading astray the people of Nubia" (55), including disease, drought, flood, and famine.

Indeed, in Nubian the word uburty itself literally signifies the ashes into which women would dig their hands every time there was a tragedy and smear their faces and heads with it, before wailing and dancing the dance of the bereaved (50). It is precisely such intertextual references that suggest that the seemingly mythical tale of "Zeinab Uburty" is a metaphor for the slow violence that had afflicted the Nubian community over the course of the twentieth century.

Noha Radwan has argued that just as the stories cycle between joy and despair and the repetition of the key life events of birth, marriage, and death, the cyclical process of slow yet constant renewal suggests that the Nubian dream of return is simply deferred until a future generation (120). However, while strongly infused with nostalgia for the "Old Country," the stories in Layali do not simply look back to the past and memorialize it but actively reconstitute Nubian identity in a diasporic context through strategies of (self-)representation which actively integrate what was once a localized, ethnic identity into the wider national imaginary.

Idris 'Ali's novel Dunqula exhibits no such nostalgia about Old Nubia but is firmly grounded in the social realist tradition, using the Nubian experience of displacement, poverty, and injustice as the starting point for a broader materialist critique of the failure of the nationalist movement to bring about social change and improve the conditions of the rural classes and peripheral groups in Egypt. Thus, although Dunqula constitutes a scathing attack on the Egyptian nationalist project from a quintessentially Nubian perspective, Naaman argues that it is, ultimately, a "proletarian novel" about class, in which "the Nubian narrative serves more as a symbol for the collective experience of disenfranchisement experienced by the Egyptian underclasses than as the articulation of a unique experience of ethnic or racial marginalisation" (134).

Dunqula expresses the predicament of the poor in general, be it the "relative poverty" of the urban slums of Cairo or the "absolute poverty" of the Nubian resettlement site at Kom Ombo, which comes to symbolize conditions in Egypt's peripheral and rural regions in general under the nationalist administration. Moreover, the collective marginalization of rural Egypt is embodied in the image of the slow train going south from Cairo with "its strange third class" comprised of Upper Egyptians, Nubians, and Sudanese who "passed through the wretched country inhabited by the people of the inner and outer regions of Upper Egypt" until it reached Aswan where all transport lines, symbolically, stop at the "gateway to Africa," marking out a symbolic boundary between Egypt and its "other" from which the Nubian people originate (26).

However, although the economic situation of Nubians, Upper Egyptians, and the Cairene poor does not differ much in material terms, the novel depicts how they have come to occupy different rungs on the social hierarchy in contemporary Egypt. Thus poor northerners assert their relative superiority in this pecking order by denigrating the Nubian protagonist Awad al-Shalali through discourses linking him to his African origin through insults such as "you savage!" (13) or "cannibal" (15) as well as his past slave status, which is indicative of the extent to which the class solidarity that he and his Communist comrades had endeavored to forge has actually failed to materialize.

It is this ongoing discrimination and injustice against the Nubian people that lead Awad and others such as Bahr al-Jazuli to regard the Aswan High Dam as "the reservoir of the north" (10) which benefits the Arab majority at the expense of the Nubian minority and embraces secessionist ideas. Railing against the racial discrimination, economic hardships, and political marginalization Nubians endured--both in the "monstrous homeland" (26) of New Nubia and in the cities of the north where they are treated as second class citizens or consistently misrecognized as Sudanese (7)--Awad comes to regard "the whole north as corrupt" (9) and adopts "a fanatical view of the south" (10).

Renouncing his Egyptian identity, he turns towards an exclusionary Nubian ethno-nationalism and fantasizes about inciting a new "Revolt of the Zanj [Negroes]" whereby the Nubian tribes would rise up and create a unified Nubian state which proves short lived. Disappointed by the "stupid people" (31) of the resettlement villages whom, he claims, had forgotten their glorious history as descendants of the "bowmen of the glance" (19) and were too fearful and trusting of the Egyptian government to oppose it, he goes south to the Dongola of his dreams. There, he only discovers that the people "thought he might be an agent of northern intelligence who had come to subvert the unity of Sudan" (71) and have him imprisoned.

This almost comic interlude suggests the discrepancy between Awad's paranoid, Arab-phobic world view, the product of years of incarceration which made him imagine "spies around him and behind him and inside him" (5) and the more multifaceted reality of contemporary Egypt in which Arabs and Nubians can show solidarity, love, and friendship to each other. This is indicated when Sergeant Sirr al-Khatim, a "descendant of one of the Rubi'a tribes which had invaded northern Nubia whom they used to insult as children" (55), lets him go free despite knowing he is wanted by the government for his political activities.

During a long alcohol-fueled rant, he imagines the people of Cairo to be "soldiers marching south, to destroy the south and return with booty and plunder, and thousands of what they call slaves, though they were actually citizens of that country" (20). Later, coming to his senses, he admits that
   those marching figures were not invading soldiers, but
   weary northerners going home after a hard day, and they
   were not hostile and hateful.... Nor had they any hand
   in the destruction of the south or the enslavement of its
   valiant people.... Yes Cairo was beautiful and its people
   were full of goodness and tolerance. (21)

Thus what appears initially like an endorsement of Nubian separatism should instead be read as a plea for recognition of Awad's Nubian identity, at a personal and collective level, by the wider Egyptian nation which has rejected and "othered" him but to which, he acknowledges, he once belonged before it "turned on him [and] he had pulled away, crazed" (5). Indeed, it is clear from the text that Awad's separatism is primarily the product of decades of anger and frustration over the ongoing injustice and discrimination faced by the Nubian people in Egypt rather than a full-fledged political ideology. Tellingly, Awad is not nostalgic for Old Nubia, which he describes as "primitive" with its "sun, restrictions, and stubborn traditions" (89), but rather for Cairo, for whom he acknowledges "an addict's love" (4).

In this sense, as El-Refaei has observed, 'Ali not only sets himself apart from Oddoul and Mukhtar who are "known for their nostalgia for their roots, past and land" but from both Egyptians and Nubians (19). This is manifested by the alienation the narrator feels from "the north, the south, Nubia, Dongola, his comrades," eventually severing his ties with "the whole dark continent" (71) and dissociating himself from all forms of collective identity in favor of individual freedom, which he pursues from the liminal, post-national, space of the cruise-ship on which he works and through which he "forgot the whole past" (74).

That the protagonist feels alienated and ambivalent in both environments--Nubia and Cairo--suggests that what 'Ali is articulating in this novel are the concerns of a "post-Aswan-dam generation" (35) of Nubians. Although angered by the exclusion and marginalization of their people from the Egyptian nation, this text suggests that the new generation is more concerned with seeking solutions to broader issues facing all Egyptians such as social exclusion, poverty, and unemployment, than in Nubian ethno-nationalism or nostalgia for the Old Country. However, unless Egypt succeeds in revalorizing and incorporating forgotten aspects of Nubia's symbolic economy into its public discourse, the threat of radicalism, born out of exclusion, will remain.


Taken together, the narratives of the Nubian Awakening analyzed above reject unitary fictions of Egypt's Arab identity by promoting what Aijaz Ahmad has called a "progressive" nationalist project (38). Such project celebrates, rather than silences, Egypt's ethnic and religious pluralism and contributes to greater recognition that

"Egypt is a part of Africa and not just the Middle East or, as was claimed in the first half of the twentieth century, the countries of the Mediterranean" (Naaman 113).

However, far from embracing Nubian ethno-nationalism, Nubian literature fundamentally rejects rigid cultural essentialism or any kind of national chauvinism in favor of a hybrid understanding of identity that acknowledges how Arab and African elements of Egyptian culture borrowed from, and enriched, each other--which is perhaps more subversive of the fiction of a unified "Arab" state insofar as it dissolves national categories and produces more cosmopolitan forms of identity (Malkki 4).

Central to this project of inclusion is the demand that the "People of the North" acknowledge the wrongs done to the Nubian community following the construction of the Aswan High Dam and the discrimination and exclusion they face in Egyptian society. As 'Ali writes in his prologue to Dunqula:
   These are all my pages; do not tear them up
   This is my voice; do not silence it
   This is I; do not curse me
   For I have lived among you and eaten with you,
   loved your culture, and still do. I am merely
   conveying to you, with the sting of truth, some of
   my sorrows, and those of my people. (1)

Whereas the early postcolonial period may have favored a homogenous, unitary conception of Egyptian identity as a decisive site for anti-imperial struggle, this article suggests that more plural, differentiated, and, ultimately, progressive concepts of national identity can, and indeed do, emerge in an Egyptian literary sphere capable of absorbing minority identities into a pluralized national imaginary.

This is exemplified by the wider trend of "Border literature" encompassing writers of Nubian, Bedouin, or Berber origins which highlights the interconnectedness between the periphery and the center and the cultural exchange between minorities and the majority that celebrates, rather than silences, Egypt's ethnic and religious pluralism and promotes minority identities as constitutive of Egypt's contemporary national culture (see El-Refaei).

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Author:Gilmore, Christine
Publication:Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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