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Catriona Knapman: The Capital of Nubia

March 25, 2013

In post-revolution Cairo, Nubians and other minority groups are being erased from the state-defined national identity. In Aswan, the view is different.

https://www.guernicamag.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/lake-nasser-kraked.jpg
Image from Flickr via westpark

By Catriona Knapman

Aswan is most marked by the Nile, which becomes slow and heavy as it meets the Egyptian city. Big tourist cruisers sit stubbornly by the shore, daily belching groups of Europeans and Americans onto the river banks. Fellucas, traditional, wooden sailing ships, graze the water, riding on a light lift of wind. A small ferry chugs locals to the Nile islands and back. The city has known many past visitors, each of whom brought their own changes and left their own peculiar remains. Ancient Egyptians and Romans left monuments scattered here; nineteenth-century Europeans left grand hotels and the Nubians left their ancestral homeland on the Nile banks, flooded as, in 1971, the high walls of the Aswan Dam transformed the ebb of the Nile into the vast Lake Nasser. The latest visitor to Aswan is revolution, a recent arrival from 2011 and it is keen to also make its mark. Graffiti from the 2012 Presidential election splatters the city walls along the promenade and images of new political figures smile from pillars.

Tourism has been the first casualty of the revolution and the change has not been welcome. Felluca captains huddle at the ports waiting to jump on the nearest foreigner. At the market men wave scarves at small groups of tourists, calling with pleading eyes and (almost) mock desperation: “You break my heart! Today it is free, for you it is free, take it!” Two years after the Arab Spring, in the midst of further unrest, economic concerns are pressing.

Though media coverage was concentrated in Cairo, Aswan played its own part in the revolt. Here, in the seat of Egypt’s Nubian community, groups of protestors tore down Mubarak posters and chanted in Nubian and Egyptian for the end of dictatorship. Yet in Aswan, the revolution has wider implications, reviving old disputes. Local activists and rights groups are reviving historic claims for land rights along the Nile, Nubian ancestral land which was taken by the government without compensation when the river was dammed to create Lake Nasser. Along with the hope of change in Cairo, the revolution was seen as an opportunity to claim redress for long-denied rights.

The new constitution frames Egypt as a culturally Arab nation, creating a state duty to protect only Egypt’s Arab identity, overlooking its direct cultural and historical links to the Nile basin countries.

Until 1505, the Nubian kingdoms spanned a 1000-kilometer stretch of the Nile, spanning Egypt and Sudan. Despite five hundred years of Egyptian influence, Nubians have resisted cultural domination. Today, their dress, language, appearance and ethnic identity are quite distinct from other parts of Egypt, with many similarities to neighbouring Sudan. In post-revolution Egypt, questions of national and individual identity loom large.

Min eyn? Where you from?” demand the men in the Aswan market. It is a question for Nubian Egyptians as well for foreigners in the market. As Egyptians grapple with their new nation and their historic roots, the Nubian place in Egypt’s idea of itself is not entirely clear.

When I ask an Aswanian friend, Amr, how he defines his nationality, he laughs, confused at the question. “I am Nubian and Egyptian” he replies, as though was absurd to be anything other than both at the same time.

In Cairo, though, the question is not as clear. Despite talk of equality, Cairo’s post-revolution political scene has effectively excluded and alienated groups including Nubians, Copts, Bedouins, and women. The new constitution frames Egypt as a culturally Arab nation, creating a state duty to protect only Egypt’s Arab identity, overlooking its direct cultural and historical links to the Nile basin countries.

Alexandria collects the winds of Europe; Sinai hears the desert songs of Arabia; Cairo catches the breeze from the Maghreb. In Aswan, the Nile brings Africa, tangible and buoyant, into the middle of town.

Manal El-Tibi the only Nubian member of the drafting Constitutional Committee, withdrew
frustrated with a non-inclusive process in which certain parties dominated. Nubian requests
were not included: for the right of return to their traditional lands, for the development
of historical Nubia, and for the protection of a diverse Egypt, where Nubian history and
language would be taught in schools. Within the power struggles in Cairo, the Nubian voice blends with other rights demands, but in Aswan, the Nubian voice is impossible to ignore.

In Aswan Egypt’s ancient links to sub-Saharan Africa are clear. Alexandria collects the winds of Europe; Sinai hears the desert songs of Arabia; Cairo catches the breeze from the Maghreb. In Aswan, the Nile brings Africa tangible and buoyant into the middle of town. Africa is bold in Aswan. The Nile has travelled far to reach this point, it transports invisible burdens from the countries it has penetrated. It heaps Sudan into Lake Nasser, drops Ethiopia by the Aswan promenade; unleashes Uganda into the soil.

A five-minute boat ride away from Aswan’s centre, Asmaa, a young girl sits on the balcony of her small sand-coloured house, painting fat lines of henna and talking in perfect English about the big hotels encroaching on their land. The house is separated by only a small wall from the imposing Moevenpick Hotel, which glares obtrusively at the village. The rest of the island has a distinct Nubian style. The houses are small and brightly colored, like old-fashioned boiled sweets. Children play freely and small herds of goats run nervous and wild. Asmaa pours hibiscus tea, locally grown in Aswan and prized as the best in Egypt. The drink is crimson red and bitter, causing her cheeks to pucker. She spoons sugar enthusiastically from a bowl on the table, before returning to paint chubby henna flowers onto a tourist’s arm. “Nubians respect women,” she tells her client, “I am allowed to study. I have a degree in English and I am applying for a scholarship in Cairo.”

In the city centre young people also talk of the future, of education, of enthusiasm.

“People think more clearly now, after the revolution,” says eighteen-year-old Omar in the market. He speaks with an optimism that has already soured amongst Cairo’s revolutionaries.

“People’s minds have opened,” he says—he believes people are change and is sure that they have not finished their evolution. As if to make that very same point in the evening a group of young boys rush out of a small bus to play an impromptu concert on the street. Nubian drums beat; deep voices call; the street gathers. They block the road and car-horns chime into the music. Despite the disruption the boys sing until the song is finished and all too suddenly a night-time quiet returns to the Nile promenade.

The shapes of the temples jut into the city skyline, restating a glorious age, which is now also gone.

This city always returns to the Nile, central to this whole process, to this whole country. Its path connects rural communities to bustling metropolises. More than a life source it offers a sense of belonging, a reference. And that Nile is heavy here in Aswan. Pulling on the boats as they cross the water—it insists, it stirs.

As these currents push for change, night-time Aswan clings to its past. The bustle of the day gone; locals sit on the street, watching the world, a heaviness holding them quietly still. Evening wanderers float like dreamers through a hot evening nostalgia, drifting between the coloured spotlights from the new hotels and the illuminated shapes of Ancient Egypt. Memory is heavy here. In it there are not just the small agonies of personal defeat, but a greater sense of loss, which reaches beyond each individual. Nostalgia for an Egypt which once was: for traditions and communities that power, politics and history have repeatedly and unceremoniously erased.

From the promenade in Aswan the layers of these ancient worlds—ancient Egyptian hey-days, European explorations, Nubian kingdoms, a stable pre-revolution Egypt—are all visible. The fat outline of Elephantine Island: a testament to Nubian homelands. The large cataract hotel: a colonial paradise from past explorations and archaeological discoveries. The ancient Egyptian ruins of the Philae Temple, the Temples of Sati, the Tombs of the Nobles, with their carvings of warriors in battle—strong stone pillars with hints of a previous coloured design or women pouring water, their hands cut by erosion. The shapes of the temples jut into the city skyline, restating a glorious age, which is now also gone.

Past visitors to Aswan came to seek. The Ancient Egyptians built lonely temples to speak with their Gods; Europeans sought history, knowledge and self-preservation; Nubians sought a home. From each of these eras there lingers the remains of old revolutions—now there are only glimpses of what they found. Around every corner in Aswan there is a different past, a different kingdom, conquered and replaced by something new. In this new era of revolution, Aswan holds steady, knowing that change does not come easily and even after centuries of adaptation, something of the past persists.

Catriona Knapman is a writer and human rights professional. Her writing on human rights and social development has been published by UNDP, Atlantic Council, and allAfrica.com, among others. Her photography has featured in The Arab Review and Think Africa Press. She can be found online at www.writingonrights.com. Originally from Glasgow, she lived and worked in Egypt during 2012.
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