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Nubian Man Given Egyptian Military Award


On Monday last week, the president of Egypt awarded a Nubian man the highest military honor of the nation, the Order of the Sinai Star. Two different Middle East newspapers, Al Arabiya and Egypt Today, covered the story.

The Order of the Sinai Star Medal The Order of the Sinai Star Medal

The Order of the Sinai Star Medal (Photo by Egyptian Army Forces in Wikimedia, in the public domain)

The President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, awarded the medal to Ahmed Edris at a ceremony in Cairo. The Nubian soldier had come up with the idea of Nubians becoming code talkers for the Egyptian armed forces during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, usually called the “October War” in Egypt and the “Yom Kippur War” in Israel. The award was for “great services for the homeland.”

Edris told Al Arabiya that he became involved well before the Egyptians launched their surprise attack on Israel’s positions in the Sinai Desert, which the Jewish nation had captured in the Six Day War of 1967 and still occupied in 1973. He learned that senior army officers were attempting to develop a new code of communications so they could relay decisions, orders, and instructions to troop commanders that would be secure from Israeli intelligence. Edris suggested that the Nubian language would be ideal for the code.

The last of the traditional Nubian houses in Dongola, Sudan

The last of the traditional Nubian houses in Dongola, Sudan (Photo by Bertramz in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Edris said that Nubian is not written—it is only an oral language and in Egypt it is only spoken by the Nubian people. He told his army superiors that the language is divided into two major dialects, the Kunooz dialect spoken by the Dongola people of northern Sudan and the Fadika dialect, spoken by the Mahas tribe of southern Egypt and northern Sudan. His suggestion was received enthusiastically by his superiors and it was relayed up the chain of command to the president of Egypt himself, Anwar al-Sadat.

President Sadat contacted Edris directly; he told him his idea was excellent, but how should they proceed? Edris replied that the Nubians must be recruited as soldiers. So the army recruited 35 Nubians into the army and trained them to serve in the Signal Corps and another 70 to work as border guards who would send and receive the coded messages. No one other than the Nubians would be able to understand them and, of most significance, the coded communications would be incomprehensible to the Israelis.

Like the “code talkers” used in other conflicts by different armed forces, the strategy clearly worked. When Israeli officers intercepted the Egyptian communications, they were unable to understand what they were hearing. Words like oshriya, which meant “strike” and sai awi meaning “second hour” baffled them. Edris said to Egypt Today after the ceremony last week, “When I met the president, I told him that I kept the secret for four decades. Today I feel compensated for 40 years of military service.”

A Nubian man and boy with a donkey in a village near Aswan

A Nubian man and boy with a donkey in a village near Aswan (Photo by Richard Kahler in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

While Ahmed Edris, a Nubian from the Aswan area, is obviously proud of his service to his country, it is not clear how strongly his people were involved in the earlier military history of Egypt. The anthropologist Robert Fernea provided some clarity to the matter. During his fieldwork in the relatively isolated Nubian communities before the Aswan High Dam was finished in the 1960s, Fernea (1973) observed that “one cannot associate violence with this land and people …. This fundamental impression of the nonviolent, peaceful quality of Nubian life can only be made plausible if we understand what I have chosen to call the Nubian polity (p.17).”

Fernea explained that by Nubian polity, he meant the economy, ecology, kinship structure, values, and attitudes held in the isolated villages that were soon to be submerged by Lake Nasser. However, he also wrote that some of the more acculturated Nubians, whom he called “Arab Egyptianized Nubians (p.13),” did serve in the regular divisions of the Egyptian army. Mr. Edris appears to have come from that tradition.


Lancaster County Exhibits an Amish Spirit


Rick Gray, Mayor of the city of Lancaster in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, said that welcoming refugees is a way of supporting religious diversity and toleration. That attitude is “in [the city’s] genes,” according to Mr. Gray. Last week he explained to a reporter from Deutsche Welle, the prominent international German media organization, that refugees are welcome in large part due to the Amish influence on the area.

Rick Gray, the Mayor of Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Rick Gray, the Mayor of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (Photo by Andrew DeFratis in Wikimedia, in the public domain)

Mayor Gray added, “Pennsylvania was established on the principle of religious freedom. Add to that … the Amish tradition, and you get one of the most tolerant places in the country. Yes, we are welcoming people that look different. But they don’t look any more different from the norm than an Amishman does.”

Since 2013, Lancaster County, with a population of half a million, has accepted over 1,300 refugees, about the same number as Orange County, California, which is more than six times larger. It is clear that many county residents welcome the designation of being “America’s refugee capital.”

Some Amish in Lancaster County

Some Amish in Lancaster County (Photo by Andrew Dallos on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The Church World Service has played a major role in assisting refugees in resettling in the county. Deutsch Welle quoted Stephanie Gromek, an employee of CWS, as saying that the Amish in the county work hard to retain their culture while fitting into the broader society; her agency hopes the same will apply to more recent refugees. She added that Lancaster was basically founded by the Amish and Mennonites as a place where they could continue to practice their religion. “They were fleeing persecution at the time, and now these refugees from around the world are fleeing persecution as well, and that’s the correlation that allows Lancastrians to be so welcoming to strangers,” Gromek said.

The thrust of the article was that the Amish and Mennonite traditions are primarily responsible for the generally supportive attitudes toward strangers. The journalist, Sertan Sanderson, quoted a man from the D.R. Congo named Captain Emmanuel whose move was sponsored by the Grace and Truth Church, a nondenominational organization that grew out of the Amish tradition. Mr. Emmanuel spent 18 years in the DRC living in refugee camps, but now that he is in Pennsylvania he is happily making friends with many others—from Somalia, Cuba, Pakistan, wherever. “We are all brothers,” he said.

The Lancaster City Central Market

The Lancaster City Central Market (Photo by yuan2003 on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Pastor David Beiler from the Grace and Truth Church helped Mr. Emmanuel obtain his driver’s license. He also helped him find an apartment for rent—from an Amish man. The journalist explained that while the Amish tend to stay out of community affairs, their values help define the identity of the city and the surrounding countryside.

Ms. Gromek said that, although the Amish continue to try to live their rural lives out on their farms, some of them have become increasingly involved with the city of Lancaster. They have become landlords in the city since they now own numerous houses there. And while they are not politically active, they do make it known that they support the resettling of refugees from around the world into the community.

The West End Mennonite Fellowship in Lancaster advertises itself as “A Church for All People”

The West End Mennonite Fellowship in Lancaster advertises itself as “A Church for All People” (Photo by Allie_Caulfield on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

The journalist did not ignore the contributions of the Mennonites in Lancaster. A lady at one active church credited the refugees with reinvigorating the city. Her husband agreed, saying that refugees are the “lifeblood of the community.” Their church has sponsored several Karen refugees from the northern border regions of Burma (Myanmar) in recent years. One of the refugees spoke of how welcoming the people of the church have been toward her—she never saw anyone who treated her so nicely in the refugee camps in Thailand. She doesn’t miss her homeland a bit.

Mr. Sanderson quoted several of his sources as worrying about the negative effects of President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies on the spirit of Lancaster. One said that the community has not received any new refugees since Trump took office, and the president “is not a person we are very fond of.” Another expressed hope that Americans will see that there is “no justification for what Trump is trying to do.”

Mayor Gray told Deutsche Welle that the migrant community has become fearful of the political direction of the U.S. The mayor hopes they are wrong when they tell him that they have already seen those same kinds of developments in their own homelands. They have no desire to return to such conditions. They much prefer the Amish spirit of Lancaster. Now if only the values of other peaceful societies would be adopted by the larger communities that surround them, and the international media would publicize their ideas in turn.



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