A Pan-Arabist Vision and the Denial of Human Rights in Egypt

by Fatema Elbakoury

Below is an excerpt taken out of a longer paper in which I go on to chronicle the multiple modalities Nubians have utilized to sustain the culture since the displacement since 1964. I also briefly discuss the localized approaches to Islam that have slowly dwindled down intergenerationally as many Nubians have assimilated into the modern Arab state. I think my generation is more reluctant to accept the notion that Old Nubia is gone; the revolution of 2011, in particular, was a catalyst for this reluctance as Nubians have felt that it was a chance to demand the right to return, along with the predominant right to a democratic country. Drafted in the shadow of this revolution, the 2014 constitution has a clause that states funding will be provided for Nubians to return to Old Nubia, a land that was submerged completely by Lake Nasser.

Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist vision vis-à-vis the Free Officers Movement—while radical and formative (Third World Alliance, meetings with Elijah Muhammad and Ibrahim Niasse, partnership with Ghana and Kenya, et cetera) in a variety of ways—also contributes to the denial of human rights in Egypt. It would be too simplistic to say that he was anti-Black, as his vision of Egypt also demanded the expulsion of Jews (he despised the creation of the Jewish state) and the mistreatment of Coptic Christians and Kurds. What I argue instead is that the Arab identity he espoused was a hegemony: it towered over any minority community that existed in Egypt. In the case of the Aswan High Dam, he had a vision of a dam so modern that not only would it prevent flooding, it would also bring electricity to every corner of Egypt. He saw the community, which was indigenous to the land for thousands of years, at the projected site of the dam as secondary to his mission of technological modernity. 

The construction of the dam is not a singular moment, but rather a result of consistent work that began at the turn of the century with British occupation. The British inaugurated a dam in 1902 so as to eliminate the need for flooding in order to water crops. A proposal for a much more grander dam was first published in 1948. When the Free Officers seized power in 1952, one of their first concerns was agrarian reform, which was widely supported by nationalists; “Egypt needed more water for the cultivation of more land, more power to drive more machines, more machines to be driven, and more materials to feed the machines, and it needed them all together and as quickly as possible… Undeterred by lack of cash or political credit, they emerged with the High Dam scheme.” The dam promised a solution to the problem of agricultural expansion, but over the course of the subsequent two years, a series of failed deals with the United States at first and then the Soviet Union (as retaliation) ultimately resulted in adequate funds for the dam. It is crucial to point out here that undercutting the power of outside countries was more important to Nasser so as to technologically elevate Egypt into modernity than it was to ensure the preservation of the Nubian community.  

Despite their protest, about one hundred thousand people—mostly Nubian—were displaced due to the construction of the High Dam in Aswan. When it became clear that the dam was imminent, a number of rescue missions and ethnological projects were undertaken starting in 1954 to 1) move the thousands of artifacts outside of what would become Lake Nasser, and 2) to document the experience, culture, and customs of Old Nubia. The Egyptian government approached UNESCO on April 6, 1959 requesting help to save the monuments of Nubia. The landmark text on this case is Robert Fernea’s Nubia in Egypt: Peaceful People, who was the director of the Nubian Ethnological Survey. An American professor at the American University of Cairo, he along with mostly American anthropologists and some Arab Egyptians documented Nubia via pictures and ethnographies. The project is commonly considered a mixture between “salvage anthropology” and “development anthropology.” Due to the size of Lake Nasser, Nubians had to either leave altogether, or move further away from the Nile in so as to not be submerged by the floods. The campaign to save Nubian monuments continued until 1980; some were transferred to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, some—such as temples and monuments—were moved further up north to Upper Egypt, and others were sold by the Egyptian government to the British Museum. In 1982, the Nubian Museum in Aswan was built. 

Nubian men farming along the Nile from Robert Fernea’s  Nubians in Egypt: A Peaceful People

Nubian men farming along the Nile from Robert Fernea’s Nubians in Egypt: A Peaceful People

In 1964, most Egyptian Nubians were forced to resettle in Kom Ombo, a region fifty miles north of the dam’s construction. Most anthropologists working for the Nubian Ethnological Survey agreed that the social organization of Old Nubia and their heritage could not be recreated with this resettlement project. Crucially, these new homes that Nubians were transferred to did not at all emulate the cultural import that Old Nubia held. Firstly, Kom Ombo (also known as “New Nubia”) was thirty miles further from the Nile, which is antithetical to Nubian life, as they are largely farmers who have a symbiotic relationship with the water. Secondly, Nubian houses are “traditionally adorned with decorations and paintings which depict their experiences and accomplishments. Paintings of eyes, hands and other protective symbols are also traditional motifs painted near to doors and entrances, as is the inclusion of home-made china plates embedded into the front of the houses to symbolize Nubian hospitality.” The uniform and plain government built homes in Kom Ombo did not live up to any of these cultural specificities. 

A Word From The Author

I grew up in the United States, with little to no awareness of the complexity of my heritage. I have a mother of Turkish and Moroccan descent, and a father who is Upper Egyptian and Nubian. My mother espoused a deeply Salafi and Suni approach to Islam, whereas my father was a Sufi—a follower of the Tariqqa Burhaniyahh, now based in Sudan. The differences between them racially and religiously made little sense to me but were nonetheless normalized. When I began to build a stronger relationship with my father in my late teens, I began to come to terms with what it means to live in diaspora, so far removed from the people who are fighting to return to a land that I have never been to but to which I feel a kinship. The idea of being in diaspora is one that is tinged with despair for me, as I have attempted to visit Old Nubia for research and have been turned away because I was seen as too foreign by those who live there (and some of whom are survivors of the 1964 displacement). I am a source of distrust and suspicion, a thought that had not crossed my mind since I felt such a connection to a land I had never actually set foot on. In this light, I stand across oceans and continents, and I read books about the Nubian diaspora without knowing entirely what to do about my concern and longing. Writing this paper was my attempt to generate something highlighting the danger of pan-Arabism, and the sacrifices Nubians—Black people—have had to make in order for the modern nation state called the Arab Republic of Egypt to exist as it does. In this current moment, writing these words is the least I can do until I can better understand my responsibilities and the ethics of living them out. 

Nubian people celebrating Mawlid from Robert Fernea’s  Nubians in Egypt: A Peaceful People

Nubian people celebrating Mawlid from Robert Fernea’s Nubians in Egypt: A Peaceful People

Fatema Elbakoury is currently a teacher candidate at Stanford University. Previously, she spent two years at Harvard University researching the Nubian diaspora in contemporary Egypt. While an undergraduate at San Jose State, she studied English with a concentration in creative writing and religious studies. Her work has appeared in Reed Magazine, The Dudley Review, and Periphery. As an Egyptian immigrant with a complex heritage, she is a product of an African Diaspora that she reckons with through her characters and her research.

Works Cited

Fernea, Robert A. Contemporary Egyptian Nubia: A Symposium of the Social Research Center. New Haven: Human Relations Files, Inc. 1966.

Fernea, Robert A. Nubians in Egypt: Peaceful People. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1973.  

Hopkins, Nicholas S., and Sohair R. Mehanna. Nubian Encounters: The Story of the Nubian Ethnological Survey, 1961-1964. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2010.

Little, Tom. High Dam at Aswan: The Subjugation of the Nile. Methuen & Co LTD. London. 1965. 19.

Marable, Manning, and Leith. Mullings. New Social Movements in the African Diaspora: Challenging Global Apartheid. 1st ed. Critical Black Studies Series. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Rowan, Kirsty. "Flooded Lands, Forgotten Voices: Safeguarding the Indigenous Languages and Intangible Heritage of the Nubian Nile Valley." International Journal of Intangible Heritage 12 (2017): 176-187.

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