A conference titled “ Nubia between Resettlement and Development,” held in Cairo in April, revealed only a portion of the continuing resentment among the Nubians. An article in the Jordanian paper Al-Dustour, which prompted a story in this website at the beginning of May, was evidently only part of the media frenzy that accompanied the conference.
The Daily Star Egypt last week published a more in-depth analysis of the conference and the problems facing the Nubian people. The journalist, Rania Al Malky, says she first visited Aswan in 2002 and was deeply impressed by the peacefulness of the Nubian people that she met there. She indicates she is aware of the Peaceful Societies website, and she is not surprised that anthropologists have characterized the Nubians as having a peaceful culture.
Haggag Oddoul, the famous Nubian writer, attended the conference and spoke eloquently about the plight of his people. “When the British first built the Aswan Dam [in 1902], many villages were flooded, which led to the first wave of Nubian migration to the mountains. But we are Nile dwellers. The move has hit the core of our culture and traditions and bred social ills,” he said.
The news report explains that the dam was raised in 1912 and again in 1933, each time causing more of Old Nubia to be flooded by the rising reservoir. The final dam of 1964 produced the huge Lake Nasser, which completely destroyed the remaining villages of Old Nubia. The 48,000 Nubians remaining in 1964 were forced to move, many to resettlement communities such as Kom Ombo, 48 km from the city of Aswan.
Oddoul characterizes the resettlement homes built by the government in 1964 as 100 square meter “cement cells,” cookie cutter houses that were not nearly as large or nice as the former Nubian homes that are now beneath the waves. Oddoul decries the empty promises of the government: “There was no greenery as we’d been promised. We were moved to the middle of the desert,” he says.
Khalil Abdel Khalek, the managing director of the Information Center Development Project at the Masr El Nuba Association, located in Aswan, told the reporter that the conference included a couple high government officials, and it closed with the participants singing the Egyptian national anthem to emphasize their national loyalty. “Rumors that the Nubians want to secede are nothing more than sensationalism,” he said.
He did indicate, however, that the government had been too hasty in choosing the spot for the Nubian resettlement town. The soil is inadequate, and half of the houses are on the verge of collapse. Oddoul adds that the government has still not given more than half of the Nubian households the compensation that they had been promised in 1964.
Oddoul also decries the empty rhetoric of former president Sadat, who evidently toured the area in 1979 and promised to resettle the Nubians into 42 reconstructed villages around Lake Nasser. President Mubarak has more recently stated that the Nubians would have resettlement priority in new villages being constructed around the lake. Oddoul said that 3 out of a proposed 18 villages have been built so far, but despite government promises to the Nubians, poor people from all over the country are being resettled there.
He believes that this represents government policy, not simply an act of oversight. “There is a systematic trend to eradicate Nubian culture, traditions and language,” he says. The Nubians are demanding the implementation of Mubarak’s promise to be resettled in their own villages near the lake. Oddoul, during the conference, used the phrase “the right of return” for the displaced Nubians, a term which invokes the plight of Palestinians who have lost their homes and lands to Israeli settlers.
Oddoul also charges the government of misusing money that the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN granted to Egypt to resettle the Nubians near Lake Nasser. He argues that the money was spent, but on the resettlement of non-Nubian Egyptian peasants. An official of the FAO denies the charge, however—she says that Oddoul’s figures are exaggerated.
The Daily Star Egypt also quotes observers who prefer to not be named. One lawyer compares the plight of the Nubians with that of the Bedouins, another marginalized society. “These people are getting nothing from the government, so it’s understandable that little by little, they will lose their sense of belonging to this country. These are the fruits of state terrorism,” that person said.
Another person discussed the rifts that are developing within the Nubian community. Some are adopting an angry discourse in response to what they see as the government’s discriminatory, colonizing, racist attitudes. Others, more mildly, suggest that the issue is simply a product of state inefficiency and bureaucracy. In any event, the subtext of this story is a concern, at least on the part of this website, that the continuing, traditional peacefulness of the Nubians may become challenged or even abandoned because of inept—or perhaps discriminatory—government practices.