The lake is a menace that haunts human lives, the dam that formed it the destroyer of villages, people, and all the goodness of Old Nubia. The River People, in a new collection of short stories about the Nubians, ultimately succeeded in summoning Asha Ashry into the drowned river. She committed suicide because the young man whom she loved did not come back to marry her.
Memories of Old Nubia, and stories from the more recent, more tragic, present-day New Nubia, provide the basic interest for this website of a volume of short stories by prominent Egyptian writer Haggag Hassan Oddoul, which was recently translated into English.
It is never clear in the mysterious “River People,” the fourth story that concludes the book, why the narrator didn’t forget her childhood sweetheart when he failed to return from North Egypt. She knew, from rumors, he had found other women in the city on the sea, but while her friends gave up on their absent men and married available locals, she remained true to her dream. The ambiguity of the story heightens the menace of the dam, which is the unseen destroyer of people’s lives, the reason the young man went north to get a job and leave his childhood love behind.
Zeinab Uburty, the title character in the third story, is even more strange. As ugly as Asha was beautiful, she becomes increasingly more bitter that she can’t find a man, so she makes a pact with a devil that gives her the power to cause impotence for all the men in the village. The weather grows freakish as Zeinab gains more power in her increasingly stressful ties with the devil monster from the hills.
The second story, “Nights of Musk,” is much less mythic in quality than the last two. A series of flashbacks by the proud father of a new-born daughter convey a dream-like quality of childish pranks and expressions of fondness for a village in Old Nubia. The story is filled with delightful Nubian expressions that help evoke the sense of the people.
The opening short story, “Adila, Grandmother,” is the most straightforward of the lot. The narrator, as a boy, is taken by his father back to his home in Nubia, but not to Old Nubia which has been destroyed by the Dam. Rather, they travel to the soul-less New Nubian town where the family now lives. There, the boy has to put up with the spitting hatred expressed by Grandmother for the boy’s mother, a gorbatiya to her, which is a pejorative term for anything or anyone non-Nubian. The boy’s mother is from North Egypt. In the course of the story, however, the boy learns to love the village, the extended family, and Grandmother. He begins to understand that Grandmother fiercely loves him, but she just as strongly hates the whole process that destroyed her village in Old Nubia by the Egyptians of the North.
The story reflects the tensions, as well as the harmony, that prevail in Nubian villages, where everyone is related but people still have frequent conflicts. The characters, activities, and actions in “Adila, Grandmother” are quite reminiscent of Elizabeth Warnock Fernea’s moving biographical account of living with her two small children—and a third on the way—in a village of Old Nubia while her husband Robert Fernea was organizing and helping carry out his salvage anthropology project. For instance, the description in “Adila, Grandmother” of a wedding—the highlight of the social calendar in Nubia—seems almost like a supplement to Ms. Fernea’s delightful account.
A moving, direct, not-at-all subtle story, “Adila, Grandmother” portrays the emotions of a family living between the urban Egyptian society in the North and the poverty of the New Nubian village in the South, just below the Aswan Dam. The family reconciles, the narrator grows to accept the peculiarities of his grandmother, and Grandmother grows to accept her gorbatiya daughter-in-law. As in all the stories, memories of Old Nubia beneath the waves haunt the characters.
The four stories, different and charming as each one is, reflect the overwhelming sense that the construction of the Aswan High Dam that destroyed Old Nubia was a monumental tragedy for the Nubian people. The resettlement in New Nubia didn’t make amends for what happened. This new work effectively evokes the nostalgia of the Nubian people for their past and their anger about the stresses of their present.
Haggag Hassan Oddoul’s own background is, not surprisingly, in Nubia. He was born in Alexandria in 1944 to parents who had left Old Nubia for the North. As a young man he worked as a construction worker on the Aswan Dam, then later served in the Egyptian armed forces. In the mid-1980s he began writing short stories and plays, and the title story won a State Prize for Short Stories in 1990. The collection of four stories, first published in 2002, was translated into English by Anthony Calderbank.
Haggag Hassan Oddoul. Nights of Musk: Stores from Old Nubia. Cairo: the American University in Cairo Press, 2005. Available from Amazon.com, from other booksellers, or from the American University in Cairo Press.