Narrating Nubia: Between Sentimentalism and Solidarity

Narrating Nubia: Between Sentimentalism and Solidarity

Yasmin Moll, University of Michigan


In 2011, Dina Shaaban, then a naive twenty-year-old, now a seasoned community organizer, stumbled upon a Nubian cultural festival while promenading on Cairo’s corniche. As she tells it, this chance encounter catalyzed her Nubian awakening. Why did she know so little about the history of her people, whether ancient or modern? How could she empower young Nubians like herself to learn more about their distinctive traditions and languages? And what resources and strategies could she marshal to effectively and affectively narrate Nubia with all its nuances to fellow Egyptians whose first reaction to her darker skin is that most exclusionary of small-chat queries, So where are you from?

To narrate Nubia is to dwell in the inadequacies of that question. Nubia subverts the conventional, political, and scholarly assumptions that separate the Arab world from Africa, that distinguish “North Africa” from “sub-Saharan Africa,” for the lived realities of Nubian Egyptians refuse to map onto any neat axes of culture, history, or economy. In postcolonial Egypt there were and are Nubian pan-Arabists and Nubian pan-Africanists, Nubian Islamists and Nubian communists, Nubian revolutionists and Nubian statists.

Nubians are currently Muslim, once Christian, pharaonic almost a millennium before the coming of Christ, black to be sure, but also brown and wheat, speaking languages related but non-mutually intelligible, performing rituals and building houses internally diverse in form and function yet still classifiably unique to outsiders.

Dina’s response to the complexity of narrating this Nubia against its submerged pasts and racialized presents was to form the Nubian Knights. This initiative seeks a public space in Cairo for Nubian cultural expression through festivals, concerts, and seminars. Since 2015, I have been collaborating with the Knights to create a documentary film about and for their cultural activism, which aspires to the collective flourishing of a community marginalized by the dispossession of dams and the injury of racism. This activism punctures the nationalist myth of an ethnically, racially, and linguistically homogenous Egypt, a narrative whose dominance pushes Nubians to the margins of the very idea of Egypt even as it cruelly assimilates the sacrifice of beloved Old Nubia as our singular “gift” to the nation. Our film recenters the Nubian community from objects of anthropological knowledge to co-creative conspirators in its production.

We do so through crisscrossing the archaeological and ethnographic research on Nubia’s material and social referents with the memories, engagement, and resourcefulness of those for whom Nubia is above all an embodied home. To do so, as we will see, is to braid sentiment and solidarity. Taking these entwinements seriously requires narrating Nubia as less a self-evident and transparent horizon of political and epistemological possibility and more as a situated struggle with shifting stakes. Our Nubian narrations will sound both harmonious and cacophonous notes, grate with cruelty and soar with grace. Knowledge production about collective memory, like collective memory, is inherently complicated and contentious and demands not just a disciplining politics but a disciplined ethic to make it responsive to shared yet different adversity across time and space.

Dina with the Nubian Knights, Cairo 2017


Displacing Nubians

In 1960, then-Vice President Anwar Sadat paid an official visit to the fifty thousand Nubians about to be resettled an hour’s drive north of Aswan in one of the “reclaimed” desert areas. “If the Nubian people are leaving their smaller home of Nubia for the prosperity of the republic and the realization of the great hopes pinned on the High Dam,” he told them, “then the bigger home, their own country, will open its arms to welcome them in one of the new districts in Kom Ombo. There they will find stability, prosperity and a decent life.”[1]

What Nubians found instead was the copiousness of their tears, the multitude of their tribulations, and the relative insignificance of their lived present to their material past. A well-publicized and funded international campaign spearheaded by UNESCO saved most of Nubia’s ancient temples from meeting their end in the watery grave of Lake Nasser, the water body formed by the dam. The anthropologist Robert Fernea, who led a joint Egyptian-American ethnographic survey of Old Nubia, remembers passing the soon to be “saved” Nubian monument of Abu Simbel on a boat trip down the Nile and thinking: “What are we coming to … when millions of dollars are spent to raise a monument of stone and scarcely a fraction of that is spent on the thousands of people who must go the way of the monument?”[2]

Families arrived to incomplete resettlement houses, scorpions, and snakes in makeshift tents. The very young and the very old died first, with the mortality rate almost doubling. The houses, once built, were not the spacious models from the blueprints, but cookie-cutter cheap in monotonous rows. While the forty-four villages of Egyptian Nubia of old languidly stretched out over 350 kilometers from the First Cataract at Aswan all the way to the Sudanese border town of Wadi Halfa, resettlement Nubia was crammed, no blue ribbon of river to behold or swim in. The government distributed farmland only five years after resettlement, forcing a double displacement as more Nubians emigrated to stave off starvation. Nubians took to calling themselves al-mankubin, the afflicted, a pitiable people forced out of their paradise of a palm-lined Nile villages with little hope of redemption in this desert Valley of the Jinn, another, more accurate, name for Kom Ombo. Old Nubia only remained in the dirt some had filled their pockets with as they left their village, in the memory of lips kissing farewell its soft earth.  The high price Nubians paid in lives, property, and intangible heritage “for the prosperity of the republic” is erased from the official historiographic celebration of the Aswan High Dam as the crowning achievement of the postcolonial state.[3]


Pain’s possibility

The loss of Old Nubia, a homeland historically spanning the Sudanese-Egyptian border, catalyzed the “Nubian Awakening,” al-sahwa al-nubiyya. This literary, musical, artistic and linguistic renaissance voices a self-conscious Nubian identity stressing a prestigious ancient past, a shared present predicament, and a common struggle for a more just and inclusive future.[4] The alchemy of agony is such that the collective experience of losing Nubia made the Matoki speaking Kenuz in the north, the Mahas speaking Faddica in the south, and the Arabophone Allaqat sandwiched in between, who typically did not inter-marry and communicated with each other in an Arabic lingua franca, see themselves as more similar than different. Through song, story, and social memory, Nubia lives on as an affectively embodied place – “inside us,” gowana, Nubians young and old insist. A deep yearning, hannin, for a lost land knits together these cultural productions.

Indeed, to be Nubian is to be nostalgic. Nubia is a land that becomes more idyllic the longer its palm trees, houses, and graves sleep under the water, a land where no one hated, no one hungered, and everyone died as they lived: peacefully. Old Nubia was, according to everyone who never saw it, simply fantastic – and I mean that both in the sense of terrific and great and in the sense of fanciful and improbable. Its memory is fervently kept alive across generations through deliberate and casual reminiscence, through the photographs of the anthropologists’ salvage ethnography and their savvy remediation on Facebook posts and WhatsApp digital chains from Alexandria, Egypt to Alexandria, Virginia. Both burden and gift, the past is entrusted to each new generation as a strategy of resilient resistance, of pain as possibility.[5]

Photo from the Ethnographic Survey of Egyptian Nubia 1961-63 archive, Rare Books and Special Collections Library at the American University in Cairo


My Nubia

Growing up, I was taught to say I am from Kushtmna Sharq whenever asked by a fellow Nubian about my origin, this despite that I never lived there, my mother never lived there, my grandmother never lived there and her mother, my great grandmother, never lived there. We lived instead in Cairo and Damanhour, later in Manama and Dubai, later still in San Francisco and Washington, DC. But the old village of Kushtmna Sharq, and its resettlement namesake, is where I will always be “from” to other Nubians, despite my non-Nubian Swiss father.

On the 40th anniversary of the resettlement in 2004, I went to Kom Ombo as a journalist writing a story but also, I would learn, as a daughter of Nubia coming home.[6] While the magazine photographer checked into an Aswan hotel with Nile views, I had to stay in my great uncle’s cramped house in the village, my bedroom overlooking dust and mudbrick. After chaperoning me during the day to interviews about the history of Nubia, in the evening after supper, my uncle presided over a makeshift classroom consisting of a battered box of faded photographs and letters so that I could learn the history of our own family in Nubia.

The last person in my family to speak fluent Matoki, the language of the Kenuz, was my great grandfather, who went by Ma’atouk, a nickname meaning “the spared one,” gifted to him by grateful parents who had already lost a child. At the turn of the century, Ma’atouk left behind his sons and wife in his speck of a village to make a living in the glittering capital. In doing so, he became part of a continuing northward emigration propelled by the successions of dams reducing local arable land and means of subsistence in Nubia.

My maternal great-grandfathers, Eweisna, late 1940s

 Like my great grandfather, many of these emigrant men did in the north the work their mothers, sisters and wives did in the south, cooking and cleaning, and also guarding the city’s grand villas and buildings. While the dams created whole villages made up disproportionately of women and children – and with that the inevitability of a high divorce rate – Ma’atouk stayed married to my great grandmother Saliha, who herself never travelled further north than Aswan. All five of her sons, however, would eventually leave Nubia.

One of these sons was my grandfather Yusif. At ten years old he moved to his father’s Cairo home since there was no schooling available locally beyond the elementary level. His best friend from the village moved with him and by the 1930s, they had both finished high school and earned advanced certifications in accounting. This set up Yusif for a professional career in the Red Sea office of an international petroleum company. The steady paycheck enabled him to marry a pretty girl named Zaynab. Zaynab was from Quesna, a small Delta town of cotton and potatoes, and the youngest daughter of a fellow Kenuz Nubian who went by Salih. This man, another of my great grandfathers, was a postal office employee who had married a Moroccan-Egyptian woman from Damanhour, a provincial town between Alexandria and Cairo. Salih, having traveled most of the north through his postal job, settled with his family in Quesna because the climate suited his asthma.

Zaynab was educated and urbane enough to keep up with her husband’s ambitions for class mobility, a lady who could mingle after the tennis game with the wives of Yusif’s colleagues or lounge at the beach in Ras Ghareb outside their company housing. Yusif bought his bride a small but stylish apartment in the then-desirable neighborhood of ‘Abdin, walking distance to the king’s palace but also more importantly to the apartments of the other Nubian families and the dozens of Nubian community associations in Cairo. While it was not always easy being a conspicuous minority, my grandparents like other Nubians across Egypt’s urban centers worked hard to keep alive a sense of togetherness that could have easily dissipated in the daily grind of city life. Most importantly, Yusif’s daughters, born at the cusp of the 1952 revolution, would all graduate from university even if none would see Old Nubia before it drowned.

My grandparents on their wedding day, 1949

My family’s upward socio-economic trajectory during this period was not idiosyncratic. By the 1970s, the number of Nubians working in white-collar jobs outstripped those laboring as servants and the average Nubian’s level of formal education was higher than that of the average non-Nubian Egyptian.[7] Nevertheless, media depictions of Nubians invariably place them in subordinate class positions. One of the only filmic representations of Nubians in the first half of the 20th century was the recurring character of “Othman” the butler and doorman, played in blackface by the famous comedian Ali al-Kassar.[8] “Othmana” has become a common racist slur against black-skinned persons. This conflation of blackness with servitude is of course part of wider racialized logics within the region. Like in Rabat or Beirut, the average promenading racist in Cairo or Alexandria taunts all Africans he encounters, whether South Sudanese or Somali, Nigerian or Nubian, as ‘abid, slaves.

My mom posing with her sisters for a studio portrait, Cairo, 1959


The grain of nostalgia

Racism distills perceptible difference to a noxious amalgamation of classified phenotype, stereotypic facial features, and simplified histories, into the essentially inferior and other. Such racist logics are fractal, reiterating insidious patterns at every scale, including within the Nubian community itself with its slave-owning histories.[9] Even after generations of having lived among and as Nubians, slave descendants are still surreptitiously pointed out at weddings and funerals as not “really” Nubian. How do you know? Look how black she is. See how African he looks. The “question of internal racism,” one Nubian activist friend put it to me, is a critical one and must be addressed for both its historic and ongoing lived injury. Many Nubians of an older generation shrug and sigh that in the end everyone lost Nubia and desires its return, including its most wretched, the enslaved. Nubia, like America, is most capacious and most exclusionary, a paradox enabled, unlike America, not by the continually deferred promise of declared ideals, but by the irreversibility of historical vanishing.

My habitus as a scholar is to read against the grain of Nubia’s nostalgic chimeras with the unflinching eyes of history and politics. The record shows that when Nubia drowned in 1964 most Nubians were already diasporic and calling northern cities and towns home for generations. And it also reveals that some, perhaps many, of the Nubians still in their southern villages welcomed the government resettlement as a chance for more equitable access to the two big Es of postcolonial promise: Electricity and Education.[10] In addition, even as Nubians continue to struggle for a collective right to resettle around Lake Nasser, the closest they could ever get to Old Nubia without drowning, few individuals I know plan to actually live in a place where the basic infrastructure of paved roads and indoor plumbing and the lifestyle infrastructure of cafés and cinemas are yet to be built.

But, still, what if instead of dismissing out of hand Nubian nostalgia, we attend to its capacity for regeneration?[11] While longing for an alternative past usually facilitates retrograde conservatism, perhaps nostalgia can also be the basis for an alternative politics of recognition and inclusion.[12] Indeed, the insight that yearnings for the past are never merely about what has passed but also about what is to come is not an original one.  Nostalgias are the other sides of utopias, which are not inherently farfetched but can be realistic and doable.[13] What needs more attention is how to be more self-consciously selective about what we yearn for. Far from being at the mercy of our memories, we can shape them to be the resources we need for the future we want. Perhaps then sentimentalism and solidarity can mutually fortify across power-laden divides.


Strategic sentimentalism  

Ancient Nubia has for centuries figured in the literary and intellectual heritage of Black Americans, serving as inspiration and evidence of resistance to the dominant narratives of white supremacy. [14]  These trans-oceanic links continue to this day. When police shot an unarmed Black teenager in Ferguson and got away with it, Nubians in Aswan posted on social media that #BlackLivesMatter. The US protests, in turn, galvanized local discussions about anti-black racism in the Arab world, further energizing Nubian activism. Nubians bestowed on Black protestors the honorific of kandaqa, denoting the powerful ancient Meroitic queens who were symbolically claimed by Sudanese of all ethno-linguistic backgrounds in their own uprising the year before.  And later amidst America’s 2020 uprising against racist state violence, a friend in Kom Ombo told me, after the police detained Nubian children in November 2020, “We can’t breathe.”[15]

Protest by Nubian community activists outside People’s Assembly, Cairo 2011

While Nubia as sentiment might be irreducible, Nubia as solidarity connects across contention. To narrate Nubia is to trust that nostalgia – multiple and contested – can show a way out, however tentative and fragile, of the present’s entrenched impasses. This includes the impasses of my anthropological knowledge. The film I am producing with Dina and the Nubian Knights has become part of a larger collaboration with colleagues in archaeology and anthropology to decolonize these historically colonialist disciplines.[16]

Already four decades ago one Egyptian anthropologist, whose fieldwork straddled in time and space Old and New Nubia, complained to the agency funding his research that it was all “meaningless and a sad waste of money, time and effort” unless ways could be found to make ethnographic knowledge useful to the community and responsive to their specific concerns.[17] Early in our collaboration, Dina shared that the film is most valuable when it enables her to demand from non-Nubian Egyptians that they know who she is as a Nubian, just as she knows who they are. But Dina also knows that her narrative of what it means to be Nubian is neither universal nor static. Like Dina, I want to remain sensitive to how Nubians’ concerns — our concerns — vary greatly across generation, region, class and gender, to how Nubia is differently brought into being through the contentious, cacophonous at times and harmonious at others, creativity of those who claim its future as their own.[18] And this requires remaining strategic in our sentimentalism.




[1]Fahim, Hussein. 1983. The Egyptian Nubians: Resettlement and Years of Coping. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, p. 36. While Sadat is sometimes identified as of Nubian descent, his mother was Sudanese from al-Kawahla, near Dongola but not Nubian.

[2] Fernea, Elizabeth and Robert Fernea. 1990. Nubian Ethnographies, Waveland Press.

[3] Mossallam, Alia. 2012. “Hikāyāt sha‛b – Stories of Peoplehood: Nasserism, Popular Politics and Songs in Egypt, 1956-1973.” PhD thesis, The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

[4]For literature and music, see, for example, Abbas, Fatin. 2014. “Egypt, Arab Nationalism, and Nubian Diasporic Identity in Idris Ali’s Dongola: A Novel of Nubia,” Research in African Literatures, Volume 45, Number 3, pp. 147-166 and Regan Homeyer. 2020. “Sounding the Nile: River Politics, Environment and Nubian Musical Expression,” MA thesis, University of New Mexico. For an overview of recent political mobilizations, see Janmyr, Maja. 2016. “Nubians in Contemporary Egypt: Mobilizing Return to Ancestral Lands,” Middle East Critique, Vol. 25, No. 2, 127–146.

[5] Singer, Sama. 2017. “(Mis)Representation, Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony: The Production of Nubian Displacement and Resistance Historical Narratives in Egypt (2007-2017)” MA Thesis, Central European University (CEU).

[6] Moll, Yasmin. 2004. “Paradise Lost,” Egypt Today, May: pp.70-79

[7] Geiser, Peter. 1986. The Egyptian Nubian: A Study in Social Symbiosis. American University in Cairo Press.

[8] Alon, Tam. 2020. “Blackface in Egypt: The Theatre and Film of Ali al-Kassar,” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13530194.2020.1714427

[9] Smith, Elizabeth A. 2006. “Place, Class and Race in the Barabra Cafe: Nubians in Egyptian Media.” In Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East, edited by Diane Singerman and Paul Amar, 399–414. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press.

[10] Hamid, p.40

[11] Agha, Menna. 2019. “Nubia Still Exists: On the Utility of the Nostalgic Space” Humanities 8, no. 1: 24.

[12]Mondesire, Zachary. 2021. “Race after Revolution: Imagining Blackness and Africanity in the “New Sudan” POMEPS Studies 44.

[13] Vincent Geoghegan, “Remembering the Future,” Utopian Studies 1, no. 2 (1990): 52–68.

[14]This even as Malcolm X on his 1964 visit to Egypt may have strategically ignored Nubia’s imminent demise for black-brown solidarity against Euro-American imperialism. See Bayan Abubakr, “The Contradictions of Afro-Arab Solidarity(ies): The Aswan High Dam and the Erasure of the Global black Experience” POMEPS Studies 44.

[15] Other Nubians emigrants to the United States, however, refuse the comparison of their experience to that of Black Americans as inapt. In Hussein, Naglaa F. Mahmoud, 2014. “Identity Politics of Color, Nation and Land in the Literature of Nubian Egyptians, with Special Reference to Muhammad Khalil Qasim’s Al-Shamandoura,” p. 40


[17] Fahim, Hussein. 1977. “Foreign and Indigenous Anthropology: The Perspectives of an Egyptian Anthropologist,” Human Organization, Vol. 36, No. 1: pp. 80-86

[18]Silverstein, Paul. 2021. “The Racial Politics of the Amazigh Revival in North Africa and Beyond” POMEPS Studies 44.