The lush farmland where Bakri Gaffar played as a boy, scaling palm trees and fishing the Nile, now lies deep underwater.
Gaffar, 75, still remembers every contour of his village, which the Egyptian government submerged in the 1960s along with dozens of others to make way for the landmark Aswan High Dam.
At the time, international outrage over the project focused on the threat to the treasured Abu Simbel temple, built in the 13th century B.C. by the Pharaoh Ramses II and considered one of Egypt’s great archaeological sites. A U.N. salvage operation that relocated the temple block by block above the new water line made headlines across the globe. A smaller temple nearby also was saved, and now stands at a public park in Spain.
There was considerably less concern, however, for the fate of the area’s indigenous people, Egypt’s Nubians, the African descendants of one of the world’s oldest civilizations. For them, the rising waters meant leaving villages they’d inhabited for millennia, abandoning centuries of traditions. Their ancient language has gone all but extinct.
Now, after decades of being denied compensation, the Nubians have enjoyed a string of victories that have transformed this tranquil patch of southern Egypt into a hotbed of politics and activism. Still to be seen is how the current round of political turmoil in Cairo will affect that progress. Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who was declared Egypt's next president on Sunday, carried Aswan, the governorate that includes Abu Simbel, but the Nubian roots of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the leader of the military council that’s ruled Egypt since Hosni Mubarak resigned the presidency, are considered of little value. A Twitter campaign on the anniversary of the evacuation of the last displaced village declared the powerful general “Nubian in name only,” just the latest in a long line of leaders who’ve failed them.
“They all talk about the return of Nubians and compensation. They talk about ‘respecting’ the culture,” said Fatma Emam, a Cairo-based human rights activist and prominent Nubian blogger. “But they don’t talk about recognizing Nubian as a local language or teaching Nubian history as part of Egyptian history, and nobody makes clear what’s been happening to us since 1902. Nobody’s talking apologies.”
Gaffar, swatting flies one recent afternoon in a mud-brick house in a Nubian village near the Sudanese border, has modest aspirations. “I’m hoping that we’ll win back at least some of our rights,” he said. There's no way to recover what was lost to the dam. “The palm trees, the grass we grew, our way of life, all that’s gone. We just want something back, anything.”
The legacy of displacement is a deep wound throughout the entire swath of Nubian Egypt, which stretches about 200 miles from the Sudanese border north to the city of Aswan, north of the High Dam. The moves were traumatic enough – survivors and activists recall how primary school once began at third grade because a generation of children had died in the last transfer – but that wasn’t even the final blow. Nubians were barred from most sensitive security positions and stripped of their language, and they endured bitter racism from the lighter-skinned Arabs.
“They call themselves the grandsons of the pharaohs! Ha! Can you believe they even make the pharaohs white in the movies?” said Mohamed Abdel Basit, a Nubian teacher who has no state-issued ID card because he won’t pay the nominal processing fee “to buy an identity that’s not my own.”
Successive Egyptian governments systematically repressed southern murmurs of dissent, buying off local leaders and dispatching emissaries from Cairo to guard Arab interests. When Arab nationalist President Gamal Abdel Nasser submerged historic Nubia in his High Dam project, he named the vast man-made lake he created after himself – yet another insult to the indigenous people who wanted it called Lake Nubia.
“When someone dies, you put HIS name on the grave, not the undertaker’s,” said Yahia Zaied, 26, a Cairo-based activist who hails from the southernmost village of Adindan along the Sudanese border.
When the state agreed to open a Nubian museum in Aswan, Egyptian officials tried to leave “Nubian” out of the official name, but they caved when the U.N. threatened to pull its funding. Arab curators struck back by installing a tablet at the museum’s entrance that describes Ramses II’s Nubian conquests more than 3,000 years ago.
Until this year, Nubians weren’t allowed to use the museum for their cultural events, and all the main administrators were non-Nubians. Since the uprising, however, Nubians have planned a lecture series and other events in an attempt to assert their own stewardship of a museum dedicated to their history.
Since Mubarak’s fall, Nubian activists have pressured the authorities to loosen the restrictions on their community after decades of close surveillance and constant suspicion of secession plots. They registered a civil society group that had been denied approval for four years and are pursuing business ventures with partners across the border in Sudan. They now can apply for deeds to the government-built houses they’ve lived in since the 1960s.
They’re training instructors who’ll be able to teach the endangered Nubian language openly. Bookstores are free to stock formerly banned historical texts that show Nubians as the original Egyptians, erstwhile emperors in a land where they’re now relegated to the marginalized servant class.
Impatient with the state’s unfulfilled promises of funds for a return to lands along the Nile, young Nubians from Cairo and Aswan are pooling their money in collectives that buy plots and encourage Nubians to return. They’re targeting prime farmland along the Nile, the traditional center of Nubian life, and boldly challenging elders who are holding out for government redress.
“We’re doing it on our own. We’re not waiting for the government to move us again,” said Mabrouk Mahgoub Amara, 38, an activist at the vanguard of the land-buying movement. He’d swapped his city clothes for a traditional white gown as he strolled a plot of reclaimed farmland in the heart of historic Nubia.
“I feel that the spirits of my ancestors roam around me here,” Amara said, surveying his verdant acres in Abu Simbel. “I imagine our lands underwater, and it makes me dream. This hope I have now, I really want to see it implemented in changes.”
“I’m so excited and happy that they’re cultivating here again,” said Gameel Abdel Kader, 70, a lifelong Abu Simbel farmer who’s welcomed the return of Amara and other Nubians to their ancestral lands.
Most controversially, young Nubians have adopted the tactic of demonstrations, a course many older Nubians cringe at as an affront to the Nubian tradition of nonviolence. Last September, revolutionary Nubians torched a government building in Aswan after security forces dismantled their protest camp, the first such Nubian uprising in anyone’s memory. Nubians in Abu Simbel blocked the road that tourists take to the famed temple to protest the lack of clean water.
Nubians say such acts are justified.
“It’s not that we’ve been neglected, it’s that we sacrificed our land for other Egyptians and they have to recognize that,” said Fikry Kachif, 57, the owner of a Nubian guesthouse and cultural center in Aswan. “Before, it was just about monuments and temples, but nobody was talking about the people. I think we have a big chance now.”