Haggag Ouddul, the famous Nubian writer, published an article last week that describes some traditional customs connecting his people to the Nile River.
He provides an evocative opening for his essay in Al-Ahram, a prominent Egyptian weekly magazine: “ Nubia is as soft as the Nile’s mud, dark as the Nile’s water and powerful as the Nile’s course.” The focus of the piece is established immediately and forcefully. The Nile is the lifeblood of the Nubians. It is not just the source of their water; it is the source of their lives, their souls.
He says that while the Egyptians may have venerated the Nile in ancient times, the Nubians still venerate it today. The Nubian, when he washes out his mouth, will spit the water toward the land, so as not to pollute the river. The people make sure their children learn, when they swim, to not pee into the water. They think of the river as something to be devoted to.
When they christen children, he writes, Nubian women will take them ceremonially to the river and rub the water on them. Then they use vegetable dyes to make a cross on the foreheads of the infants, pray for the children and the Prophet Mohammed, and launch little boats into the river. As soon as a boat is launched, a boy acting as an assailant runs toward the procession brandishing a knife. But when he sees the boat in the river, he plunges the knife into the ground, symbolizing that he was unsuccessful in attacking the child.
Members of the procession then drink thickened, sweet milk to conclude the ceremony, which, Ouddul says, is inspired by the story of the escape of Moses from the Pharaoh.
The author describes the cultural significance of Nubian traditions—their songs, dances, and oral history. He focuses on the symbolism of the dances performed at weddings, many of which derive their meanings from the actions of the river. Dancers line up in two facing lines. Each line takes steps forward and backward, symbolizing the movements of the waves. Then, more active dancers will form circles in the center of the gathering, swirling like whirlpools. Other people may dance with slithering motions, like fish struggling in nets. Ouddul explains how the river is intimately connected to the drinks and feasts that are also associated with the wedding.
The translucent dress worn by a Nubian women, called a gregar, ruffles as she walks, imitating the rippling waters of the river. It folds over her knees when she sits, just like the river’s waves. Now, many brides wear city clothes at their weddings, he writes, but the old traditions are not completely forgotten. “Whether they live in what remains of Nubia, in Aswan, or in Egypt’s northern cities, Nubians still cherish their past,” he concludes.
Ouddul’s collection of short stories Nights of Musk, published in 2005 in English, introduced his work to a worldwide audience. His novella My Uncle is on Labor further advanced his reputation. He has made effective contributions to conferences in Egypt on behalf of the Nubian people.