Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 September 2011
Issue No. 1064
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Nubian new beginnings

Nubia's remake is a splash in Lake Nasser, notes Gamal Nkrumah

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf acceded to the proposal put forward by representatives of the Nubian communities in Aswan to establish a higher institution for development and reconstruction of the area contingent to Lake Nasser. He created a new Supreme Authority for Nubian Affairs to look into the recommendations endorsed by the ministerial committee recently created to resolve the Nubian question.

Sharaf also convened a meeting with Mustafa El-Guindi, coordinator of the popular diplomatic committee dispatched to Aswan to examine the demands of the Nubian people. On Sunday, Sharaf met with a 15-person delegation, representatives of Nubian clans, tribes and tribal elders in the presence of the Nubians' main protagonist -- Governor of Aswan Mustafa El-Sayed.

The aggrieved Nubians had charged El-Sayed with granting land concessions to prospective businessmen who intended to invest in land development along the banks of Lake Nasser. The Nubians protested that this was their ancestral lands and that they did not want entrepreneurs, with no prior knowledge of the area, encroaching on their land. The representatives of the Nubians expressed satisfaction with Sharaf's proposals and pledged to work closely with him for the betterment of Nubia.

In short, it appears that the Nubians were smart enough to pull up short and respect the new arrangement with Cairo. Just then we get a hint that Sharaf extended an olive branch from Cairo to the Nubians of Aswan over Governor El-Sayed's head.

The Nubians were right to sense conspiracy in the air, but politically astute enough to stand their ground without provoking or being provoked. They succeeded in deferring real risk of the appropriation of their ancestral lands.

"Sharaf was understanding and sympathetic to many of our demands. Nevertheless, there were a number of differences in opinion on several key issues. But, the meeting between Sharaf and the representatives of the Nubian people was generally amicable and fruitful," Nubian activist and community leader Ibrahim Abdin told Al-Ahram Weekly.

However, to approach the complexities of contemporary Nubia from the narrow angle of Lake Nasser is rather like trying to discover the challenges of present-day Nubia by deciphering the Merotic script of ancient Kush. Nubians are looking forward to returning to their original homeland, without of course, abandoning Aswan or Kom Ombo where many of them were relocated when the High Dam was constructed.

Nubian protesters had agreed earlier this week to end their sit-in at the Aswan governorate building that had blockaded the Corniche, the boulevard bordering the River Nile in Aswan City's centre. They did so with the understanding that the government is determined to take their demands into consideration and treat their grievances with the utmost sensitivity.

The purveyors of Nubian culture are particularly incensed that they have become a numerical minority in their own homeland. The Arab tribes today represent more than three-quarters of the population of Aswan. But the Arab tribes have always lived side-by-side agreeably with the indigenous Nubians. It is the influx of the Saidi or Upper Egyptians that have triggered animosity, ire and exasperation among the Nubians.

"We Nubians do not have a pathological hatred of the Saidi people," Abdin quips. Sharaf's plans for a new Nubia needs more than new officials and fresh faces. Corrupt officials will always be able to make a quick buck by handing out favours.

Abdin stressed, however, that thwarting corruption should be a top priority of the new schemes for developing Nubia, noting that many Nubians fret that their anti-corruption stance will make governing Aswan impossible. "That cannot continue," Abdin cautioned. He also noted that the Arab tribes and Saidis alike have traditionally been assimilated into the frontier city of Aswan which has traditionally been cosmopolitan. Yet to salvage their lost land, the Nubians are prepared to sacrifice everything, except for their ancestral lands.

It was not always obvious just where Nubianness left off and Arab identity began. Haggag Oudul, well-versed in Nubian lore and folkways, is also concerned with the slew of corruption allegations levelled against officials dispatched from Cairo. The cost of corruption is inherently hard to quantify, but it is significant and it is the Saidis and Cairenes who are the primary beneficiaries of the corruption deals.

"We are constantly told that the Nubians protest too much," Nubian poet and writer Oudul told the Weekly. Indeed, while the fast deteriorating situation of the country's tourism industry has continued to expose the frailty of the Nubian economy, the country's economic stagnation is not an argument for leaving things as they are. Aswan still has a huge tourism sector relative to the size of its economy. And the transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial one is fraught with difficulties. The transition could be problematic.

Lest it be forgotten, Nubians have traditionally left their ancestral homeland to seek employment opportunities in Cairo, Alexandria and even the oil-rich Arabian Gulf countries. But that is not a good reason at all for failing to make a transition from subsistence farming to relying on remittances. Nubians after the meeting with Sharaf are cautiously optimistic.

Nubian leaders may take it as their collective responsibility to defend the citizenship rights of their people. But doing so by insisting that all is under control only makes it harder to resolve the core demands of Nubians to participate fully in the decision-making process that impacts their lives and livelihoods.

Disaster loomed large at the onset of the talks with Sharaf. The Nubian leaders who met with the prime minister were convinced that they would do better to avoid that polemical world of petitioning Cairene officials entirely. "The talks were frank and candid," Abdin extrapolated.

Reality was not so tidy or clear as the Nubian activists had wished. Despite the government's assurances, the Nubians are still a little suspicious of the government's intentions. It appears that Sharaf has now embarked on a long thankless slog to repair the damage done to the Nubians.

The Nubians' predicament is a shocking reminder of putting off painful decisions. The Nubians want the right to return to their homeland clearly delineated. This is the first time since their original homeland was submerged beneath the Aswan High Dam that their pleas have been taken seriously. For millennia the Nubians have intermarried and socialised with new arrivals without conflict. Now most Nubians believe it is time to draw the line. However, it is important that the line be obvious to everyone concerned.

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