Al-Masry Al-Youm, an independent Egyptian daily paper, published two stories last Friday about the Nubian people and their forced move out of the Nile Valley when the Aswan High Dam was completed.
One, titled “Old Nubia, Paradise Lost,” consists of an interview with Sharaf Abdel Karim, head of the Nubian Heritage Association. It took place at his home in New Nubia. Asked how he felt at the loss of Old Nubia beneath the waves of Lake Nasser, he replied that he felt his people were removed from paradise. Everything is submerged beneath the waters of the reservoir. The people have lost their lifestyle, their memories, their heritage, and their values. He said the loss of their proximity to the Nile was the greatest of all possible tragedies.
His description of the resettlement in 1964 is particularly moving. The government transported the people, livestock, pets, and belongings by trucks and boats to their newly constructed apartments—in the desert. Their traditions and aspirations were ignored. People who had formerly lived in well-constructed, spacious homes that faced the Nile were suddenly crammed into highly inadequate apartments that had no ceilings. “These are not houses, they are military barracks,” he told the paper. They had to use palm fronds to make temporary ceilings.
Asked if there were any positive aspects to the move, he said that the ways compensation were delivered by the government of President Nasser were quite unfair. People have still not been compensated properly. He remembered a day when President Nasser himself flew into Nubia by helicopter to talk with their representatives.
One of the few leaders who spoke Arabic—most people at the time only spoke Nubian—had the courage to address the president. “Welcome to Nubia, Mr. President—if you’re unfair to us, you’ll be judged by God.” Nasser replied to that, “We, the leaders of the revolution, will all work to pull the Nubians together so they can lead happy and prosperous lives.” Abdel Karim believes that Nasser’s words were betrayed by the government. The Nubians, however, loved the president himself, he said.
Reflecting on the move itself, he described a scene of chaos and tragedy. Adults, animals, children, belongings were jammed into the trucks and ships. Most children under the age of six didn’t survive, he claimed. When they arrived at their resettlement housing, he said, officials herded them into the buildings they were to occupy, cruelly and inhumanely.
The reporter asked him if he had ever gone back to see the area where he had grown up. He had been 18 when the village was moved. He replied that six months later they did go back to look. “The water had risen to envelop our homes, palm trees, mosques. Everything was half submerged [in] water. It was the saddest thing I ever saw.”
A second article in Al-Masry Al-Youn, also published on Friday, seeks to describe the contemporary situation of the Nubians. The description is mixed, but mostly bleak. The village of Gharb Sohil lies on an island which, formerly, served as a trading port for river traffic. Located downstream from the dam, near the city of Aswan, the island is now visited by tourists who arrive in boats wanting brief glimpses of authentic, Old Nubia. Raseema, an 80-year old woman who only speaks Nubian, is reduced to begging for money. At least her village survived.
Abdel Aziz, a 69 year old mechanic who lives in Gharb Sohil, was born there. He said that his father was born in another Nubian village that was much more beautiful, but it was inundated in 1905 by an earlier dam near Aswan so he was moved to Gharb Sohil. Abdel Aziz said that his two sons work in the tourist business, but he personally doesn’t like the changes that the tourists have brought. Families and neighbors have changed. “People were much better before. They were much more kindhearted and less materialistic,” he said.
His wife interjected that people used to share their foods with their neighbors. When people drank tea, they did so in social groups. Everything has changed now. Mr. Aziz complained that goods are much more expensive. Nearby, a much older man, Mohamed Dakroun, in his late 70s, has a large, lovely home. He feels that Gharb Sohil is quite beautiful.
The reporter visited Ballana in Nasr el-Nuba, the resettlement area built for refugees from the reservoir. Evidently, the communities kept the same names as the older villages now submerged under the water.
Youssef el-Omda, the son of the mayor of Old Ballana, derided the desert location of the village they live in now. People used to drink from the river in Old Nubia and were fine, but today they die from drinking polluted water. “The Nile was our source of life. It was sacred,” he said. “It was a source for healing every sickness.”
His son and daughter, however, enjoy some of the benefits of modern life—electricity, television, and computers. Their father is skeptical. He insists that the electric devices are bad for their eyes and their health. Nubians never used to need doctors, he grumped, but now “these technological devices are doing more damage than good.”
The paper interviewed the governor of Aswan, Moustafa el-Sayed, about the Nubian situation. That official argued that the Nubians were fairly compensated when the big dam was built. He said that their move gave them access to electricity, hospitals, schools, and the other public services associated with modern life.
Other press reports last Friday indicated that the Egyptian Center for Housing Rights, joined by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, are planning to submit a petition to the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights for recognition of the Nubians as an indigenous people and for better housing. The move is evidently controversial in the Nubian community. Some of their leaders want justice, even if it is many decades late, while others just want to get beyond the mistreatments of the past and try to build better lives.