May 15, 2012

Lessons from Nubia!

The issue of Nubian rights is an often neglected and poorly understood issue for public opinion. This is not a big surprise since Egyptians did not get any education on that part of their country and it hardly ever surfaces as part of the political discussion. Despite the active participation of Nubians in and before the revolution; their efforts to highlight their cause and their history of discrimination, little attention is given to them. Nubians have more recently become a part of the political discussion, more evident in the presidential race. However, as usual Nubians were excluded from participating in shaping their country’s future as none of them was selected to be in the constitution drafting committee.

Nubians are the inhabitants of a historical part in the South of Egypt and Northern Sudan. Their suffering started long before the building of the High Dam in 1964; it was in 1902 when Aswan Dam was built. The end result was about 44 villages that drowned along with the historic area that witnessed one of the humanity’s earliest civilizations. Some of the villages even drowned without prior notice; village inhabitants would wake up one day to find their property, their land and their cattle drowned. They were moved away to the desert land of Kom Ombo despite their heavy reliance on the Nile for agriculture all their life. They never received their rightful compensation for their displacement despite many promises made by successive regimes. They postponed the call for their rights several times for considerations of war and national crises. In addition, Nubians suffered from political, economic and cultural marginalization. School curricula exclude their cultural heritage and their language is not taught in schools (even in areas where they live) and it may become extinct if efforts are not made to preserve it.

Despite the marginalization, Nubian always asserted their “Egyptianness”. They have taken numerous patriotic stances and sacrificed several times for the sake of their country. They deserve respect not only for their struggle, but because they’re Egyptian and deserve full citizenship. They are fighting for their rights and their place in the new scene after the revolution. However their struggle exemplifies the many of the issues that Egypt suffers from:   
Firstly, the “Nubian issue” reflects our crisis with growing racism and intolerance. Clearly, discrimination against different groups in Egypt is not uncommon whether it was based on gender, religious beliefs, class, etc.  Activist Fatma Emam recently wrote an article of her experience as a black Egyptian and the racism she encounters on a daily basis. Her article served as a wakeup call for so many who were unaware of such experiences to “black Egyptians”. Moreover, a common issue often cited by Nubians is that most Egyptians assume they’re Sudanese or African as if Egypt doesn’t have that southern part where darker-skinned people live. The problem highlighted here is not only that we are being racist, but we are also in deep denial about it.

However, it’s not hard to find reasons why the situation has become so deteriorated. We lived under a centuries of authoritarianism and colonialism. Both systems usually play the cards of racism and divide-and-conquer very well; and they deprive societies from progressing towards pluralism. I am not justifying the racism or discrimination. However, I believe that’s a major lesson to be learnt. The more marginalized people are, the more likely people would want to rebel. And we can take South Sudan as an example. When people do not enjoy full participation and self-determination, they no longer want to be part of a country that denies them those rights.

Secondly, the “Nubian issue” also reflects a crisis with our “elite”, and by elite here I mean our opinion leaders, intellectuals, and media people. We may also add the emerging younger elite that started to gain more visibility after the revolution. A few of the elite come out to speak up about discrimination, racism, and Nubian rights. This can be seen a part of bigger elite crisis reflected in their detachment from the public and their failure to truly engage the public. Even when the revolution began, it was hardly credited for the efforts of the elite. It is sad that the people who should lead the change get trapped by infighting and at many cases follow their own personal interests.

One explanation that could be given as to why “the elite” shy away from the Nubian cause is considerations of populism.  It seems like the Nubian issue is not “sexy” or “doesn’t sell” for intellectuals, so more favorable topics are preferred. For example, we will not find a lack of “elite” who spoke out against Palestinian displacement, but a handful who spoke against Nubian displacements.

We know that activism is more effective when there is more solidarity from different groups. That’s why women issues would be further promoted if more men stand by them, and Christians’ rights would be easier to attain if more Muslims speak up against their violations. It is true that more people now calling for inclusion and representation than ever before, but a strong stance against racism, sectarianism and discrimination is still much needed.

Thirdly, history tells us that many peoples were exploited under many guises. Arab nationalism was one of those ideologies under which lots of abuses and violations against minorities in different Arab countries were justified. The attack on other languages and cultures within Arab nations carried the banner of Arab nationalism. I would personally be happy with Arab union and with breaking geographical and economic barriers between us one day. However, all I can see that from now are big shiny words about Arab brotherhood and solidarity, while none of it is materializing.

Until now, Nubians are accused of separationism when they speak up for their rights. And more often than not they’re told it’s not the right time to bring it up. It’s time for us to realize that values of democracy and diversity must be respected and should never be taken away under any ideological guise or notion. Discrimination cannot be condoned or downplayed anymore; we can’t even afford it anymore.

Thanks Fatma Emam for the advice given for producing this piece.


  1. nice posting.. thanks for sharing..

  2. Kibera itself was founded by a Nubian community.

    Beautiful photos:

    Kibra is our Blood, great article if you can get your hands on it