Egypt’s Nubians: damned by the dam

By Khaled Diab

Half a century after the inundation, Nubians may finally gain recognition and redress for the loss of their homeland.

Monday 23 April 2012

Lower Nubia is modern 's very own lost Atlantis. This ancient land today lies mostly under the waters of , a massive reservoir created by the Aswan High Dam.

Now, half a century after the inundation, Egyptian Nubians are finally being offered the prospect of decent compensation for the loss of their homeland in the 1960s. Following years of concerted campaigning by Nubian campaigners, and their active role in the , Fayza Abul Naga, the minister for planning and international co-operation, announced that Nubians would soon be compensated with new farmland and villages.

Ever since Egypt's controversial decision, taken soon after the 1952 revolution, to construct the High Dam, questions have persisted as to why Cairo was so cavalier with both the Nubian people and the priceless in which the region abounded.

Defenders and apologists insist that Nubia had to be dammed so that Egypt, one of the driest places on the planet and almost wholly dependent on the for its water, would not be damned.

And despite its severe environmental impacts, which were foreseen long before its construction, the dam saved Egypt, in the 1980s, from the severe upstream in , where most of Egypt's water originates. It has also played a major role in the modernisation, electrification and industrialisation of the country.

It has also been suggested that racism played a role too. However, I am not convinced that racial was a conscious factor in the decision to flood Nubia. As far as I understand it, the Nile had only one cataract in Egypt and this happened to lie near the ancestral lands of the Nubians.

Then, there is the question of regionalism and class. Egypt has long been run centrally from Cairo and the urban centres of the north, while the south, in general, has had little say in its own or the country's future. That would explain why Upper Egyptian peasants were also uprooted by the dam. The sacredness of “national unity” has also played a role, with Nubia's distinct and language often seen as a threat by the Cairo elites.

In addition, as elsewhere in the developing world at the time, development and modernity were a far more pressing imperative in the minds of Egypt's central planners of the time than cultural preservation and tradition. That helps explain why the Egyptian government had not given much thought to the preservation of the unique archaeological heritage of the region, home to the ‘Black Pharaohs‘, until an international furor erupted.

The international community managed, under the auspices of UNESCO, to pull off perhaps the largest and most impressive archaeological rescue operation in human history which rehoused Nubia's most significant monuments, such as the temple of Abu Simbel.

The Nubians themselves were not as fortunate, and no massive international aid was forthcoming to help them relocate. Some 50,000 Egyptian Nubians were forced to move from 45 villages and relocated to Aswan, which has become a Little Nubia renowned for its hospitality and the warmth of its people, and to the ill-thought out  New Nubia, near Kom Ombo.

Though New Nubia was supposed to mirror old Nubia, preserving its culture while introducing modern utilities, it was in reality a charmless development of small concrete housing which, unlike the lush Nubia they left behind, lay in the desert.

Dissatisfied with their new homes, a large proportion the inhabitants of New Nubia migrated to other parts of Egypt, though many dreamed of returning as near as possible to their ancestral homeland.

The reality of discrimination is reflected in the marginalisation that Nubians still endure. For instance, a disproportionate number of Nubians are employed in menial work, such as bawabs (janitors). In fact, in some parts of downtown Cairo, a cluster of poor Nubian communities exist on the rooftops.

Despite that, a few Nubians have made it to the very top of Egyptian society. Culturally, the Nubian singer Ahmed Mounib was the first to introduce mainstream Egypt to the mellow sounds of Nubia. His protege, Mohamed Mounir – himself a refugee from the Aswan dam – has managed not only to put Nubian music on the map, with his funky fusion of traditional Nubian with jazzy western sounds, but was also one of the very few mainstream artists to sing socially conscious lyrics before the revolution.

Interestingly, in spite of their general underrepresentation, Nubians have fared markedly better in the highest echelons of Egyptian political life, perhaps due to the fact that the army has been one of the few routes open for the advancement of the marginalised.

The country's third president Anwar Sadat, although he grew up in the north of Egypt, was the son of Nubian parents, while the country's current de facto leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, is also of Nubian origin.

In recent years, attitudes towards Nubians have been changing, and there is a growing recognition that the Nubian people were wronged. This process has gathered pace since the revolution erupted, and one can only hope that Nubians will be allowed to resettle in what's left of their homeland and be treated as full equals elsewhere in the country.

This article first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free on 21 April 2012.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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