ASWAN, Egypt (Rahnuma) : Siham Othman was born decades after her grandparents were forced to evacuate from their homes on the banks of the Nile River along with tens of thousands of their fellow Nubians. But she has a lifelong bond with her ancestral homeland.
Her grandfather became a merchant sailor and traveled the world. Yet when he told her stories, they were only about Nubia.
“He is the one who planted the dream of return in me,” said the 30-year-old Osman.
Osman and a young generation of Nubian activists have revived the cause of their people. They are trying to preserve Nubians’ unique culture and identity and are campaigning for a return to their traditional lands.
Their timing could not have been worse.
Recent marches by Nubians were swiftly silenced by the government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, which has shown little tolerance for dissent. Osman is among 50 Nubian activists on trial for participating in protests, potentially facing up to five years in prison if convicted.
To a state dominated by the military and security agencies, Nubians’ assertion of their distinct identity and heritage amid the Arab majority looks like a threat to stability.
Nubians are an ancient ethnic group that, since Pharaonic times, lived along the Nile in what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan.
Darker skinned than most Egyptians, they have a distinct culture and a language unrelated to Arabic.
There is no firm data, but some 3.5 to 5 million of Egypt’s more than 90 million people are estimated to be Nubians.
Older Nubians vividly recall life in their original land. They talk of sprawling villages with large houses painted in brilliant colors, with lands made fertile by sediment from annual floods. Most important was the bond with the Nile. They “baptized” their children in its waters.
On holidays they set dishes to float away on its current.
The 20th century brought a series of displacements, starting with construction of the first reservoir at Aswan in 1902.
The last and biggest came 50 years ago when Egypt built the Aswan High Dam; the government moved some 55,000 out of their homes in 1963 and 1964 as the creation of Lake Nasser flooded the Nubians’ entire homeland.
The government told Nubians they were making a sacrifice for Egypt’s progress. In return, authorities promised they would receive new, model homes with electricity, running water, farmlands and a prosperous future.
The Nubians were moved to 44 new villages north of Aswan.
What they found was a startling blow. In some villages, houses hadn’t been built yet — there were just chalk outlines. Houses that were ready were small and cramped, often without running water or electricity. Farmland couldn’t be farmed because a canal hadn’t been built.
Even worse for the Nubians, most of the villages were miles from the Nile.
“People felt they were deceived and the first few years here were very tough,” Mohammed Dawoud, 71, recalled as he sat in a mosque after the sunset prayers in the Nubian town of Abu Simbel.
In the decades since, Nubian towns — like many others in southern Egypt — have sunk into poverty. Many Nubians have moved to larger cities like Cairo, Alexandria or Aswan, searching for jobs. Customs have withered. Though some still speak Nubian at home, the language is not taught in schools.
Young Nubian activists say that after the trauma of displacement, the older generation largely accepted whatever the government gave them. They say they are more determined to push for their rights and less willing to put up with discrimination.
“The older generation of Nubians accepted the status quo,” said Osman, who was born in Aswan. “Their activism was restricted to conferences, but no street activism. Now there is a new spirit.”
In 2014, there seemed to be a breakthrough when the new constitution included a clause for the first time recognizing Nubians as an ethnic group and committing the state to organize their return to traditional lands by 2024.
But so far, nothing concrete has been done, activists say.
To keep up pressure, activists have attempted several protests. In 2016, a convoy of cars set out from Aswan toward Nubian lands.
They were intercepted by security forces and forced to go back. Last September, around 100 Nubians marched through Aswan, singing traditional songs and beating drums. Police arrested more than two dozen. One of them, an activist suffering from health issues, died in custody, prompting a new protest and further arrests.
Security agencies appear to have imposed their hand. After the constitution’s passage, parliament drafted a law for developing Nubian lands, but intelligence agencies objected to some provisions, said a senior official involved in the issue. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Later, El-Sisi issued a decree expanding a security zone along the border with Sudan, an entry point for militants joining an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. The expansion put a number of areas the Nubians want to return to inside the zone, where settlement is barred.
In May, parliament created an agency to economically develop southern Egypt, but it made no specific mention of the Nubians. Activists say the law aims to dilute their cause by grouping it in with broader development.
During a visit to Aswan last year, El-Sisi spoke broadly about fulfilling Nubian demands, but talked about development without mentioning return.
Nubians also face the attitude that recognizing their identity and link to the land threatens Egypt’s stability. In parliament debate, speaker Ali Abdel-Al echoed this idea, saying the constitutional clause about Nubians is “a land mine.”
Fatmah Imam, a Nubian activist born in Cairo, said that during her university days, the message instilled was that Egypt should be homogeneous.
“This country has so many colors and ethnicities, and it is so destructive that we are trying to give it just one identity,” she said. “I see Egypt as a mosaic.”