Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 March - 5 April 2006
Issue No. 788
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Right of return

Are Nubians in Egypt really comparable to the Palestinian diaspora? Rania Khallaf investigates

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Haggag Oddoul

Last week, Alexandria's Writers Union issued a statement condemning award- winning Nubian novelist Haggag Oddoul, a resident of the city, for exposing the government's mistreatment of Nubians throughout 20th-century history. Their demand that his membership be suspended from the Egyptian Writers Union has since been flatly refused by playwright Mohamed Salmawy, union chairman. Speaking at the Second International Coptic Conference, held in Washington DC on 16 November last year, Oddoul had openly condemned the Egyptian government's historical failure to take account of minority communities as exemplified by the Nubian tragedy -- an example of tashreed (making homeless) very like the Palestinians'.

Immediately his statements generated a ripple effect in press circles, with newspapers describing him as an opportunist willing to compromise national interests. As it turns out, Oddoul follows in a long line of Nubian activists fighting for a cause not so different from these very journalists' pet issue. By sheer coincidence, in fact, Mohamed Mourad's The Nubian Problem, perhaps the first major document in the history of that all but unknown struggle, came out in 1948, contemporaneously with the first occasion on which Palestinians were thrown out of their homes as the state of Israel took root. The book details the plight of Egyptian Nubians, whose land, prior to the High Dam drowning out what remained of it, had been submerged repeatedly by the Aswan Dam built in 1902, 1912 and 1933. In 1968, as Oddoul pointed out, some 36,000 Nubians relocated to Kom Ombo, north of Aswan, were told there would be enough land for them to cultivate -- only to end up in a barren, derelict area, in housing blocks lacking even the most basic amenities. Many of their children died.

The issue is far more complex than a so- called intellectuals' feud, however. New Nubia, a recently-developed 1.5-million feddan plot of land (geographically very close to what used to be Nubia) is now ready for cultivation, yet the government has made no provisions for relocating Nubians to it. With the help of the World Food Programme (WFP), 4,500 families were relocated to 12 villages following the completion of the High Dam in 1968. It wasn't until 2003, however, that the then Agriculture Minister Youssef Wali announced the receipt of $1.3 million from the WFP for the construction of New Nubia. According to activist Samir El-Arabi, originally from Daboud -- thought to be the first village to be submerged -- Nubians were furious "when the ministry was going to sell 5,000 feddans of land in Al-Qustul, Adendan and Abu Simbel in September 2004, for these areas are the closest to Nubia, the seat of one of the world's oldest civilisations and richest cultures. The houses of the first new Nubian village to be built, Bashair Al-Khair, had been handed over to families from Kafr Al-Sheikh; four out of 100 families were Nubian. It was in response to such actions that Oddoul used the term "ethnic cleansing" at the Coptic Conference, with reference to the stance of Egyptian regimes on Nubians since Gamal Abdel-Nasser, calling for the trial of the officials responsible for the displacement and disinheritance of Nubians and describing what had happened as "crimes against humanity". Hundreds of thousands of the three million Nubians scattered around Egypt are ready to return, he added, yet the houses built for them are being handed over to Egyptians from other governorates.

Before he decided to speak out abroad, Oddoul had written continually on the issue in Al-Wafd, an opposition newspaper, since 1995. He had sent numerous appeals to the presidency and to parliament -- to no avail. "I was invited to the conference by engineer Adly Abadeer, representative of a Swiss-based immigrant Copt organisation", he told Al-Ahram Weekly, and the theme of the four-day conference was 'Freedom and Democracy in the Middle East', with participants from Bahrain, for example, discussing the plight of the Shia minority there.

Yet high-profile Nubians like activist and writer Yehya Mokhtar, politically detained for his left-wing politics during the 1960s, and novelist Idriss Ali, reject Oddoul's claims, especially his call for unifying Nubians in Egypt and Sudan. Nubia, the latter insisted, should never be thought of as a political issue comparable to that of southern Sudan; rather the question is one of unemployment and lack of housing, problems common to all Egyptians. For Mokhtar, Oddoul's stance is "a clear betrayal of his Egyptian identity", while Ali simply points out that, even if their land was submerged, Nubians have always been an integral part of the Egyptian people: "They had participated in the nationalist struggle; many of them -- Mohamed Hamam, Khalil Qasem, Yehya Mokhtar -- were among its political heroes. Compensation is not enough of an issue to justify accusations of ethnic cleansing and war crimes." Such is an admirable standpoint in the context of national unity, but academics like Asaad Nadim and Qassem Abdou Qassem -- professors of anthropology at the American University in Cairo and Zaqaziq University, respectively -- point out that, even though such issues should not have been discussed abroad, the plight of the Nubians and the government's consistently oppressive attitude towards them cannot be overlooked within Egypt. As if in answer, the Hisham Mubarak Human Rights Centre representative tackling the Nubian compensation file told the Weekly that the centre will be holding a conference in mid-May to discuss the problem -- perhaps a step towards sensibly dealing with the issue.

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