Remembering Nubia

Anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi remembers her start at AUC, and how she discovered Nubia.

Government plans to begin construction on Egypt’s High Dam in the early 1960s decided the fate of the Nubians forever. About fifty thousand Nubians were to be relocated, and their long, straggling villages along the Nile River banks drowned under a massive reservoir created behind the dam. Suddenly, scholars and academics woke up to the urgency of salvaging what they could of the endangered Nubian life, culture, ruins and monuments, and estimated four-millennia-old civilization. Anthropologist Fadwa El Guindi was on one such mission.

At 23, she left Cairo for Nubia to conduct salvage ethnography on an expedition organized by the Social Research Center at the American University in Cairo (AUC) beginning in 1960. The Nubian Ethnographical Survey, which spanned fifteen years and produced five major studies of Nubian communities, culture, and social organization, was intended to serve as a handbook for Egyptian resettlement authorities.

But it did not. The government moved Nubians en masse into dense settlements near the upstream, sleepy sugar-refining town of Kom Ombo, almost forty kilometers north of the city of Aswan. Others migrated to urban centers in Cairo and Alexandria. Over the decades, the Nubians had to cope with the consequences of forced displacement writ large by what they endured from marginalization and alienation, to dashed hopes of ever returning to their villages, and an Atlantean loss of culture, language, and memories of home. Stationed for a year among the Metokki-speaking Kenuzi Nubians—also known as Kenuz—El Guindi caught a glimpse of Nubian life before it was permanently altered by the move.

At a talk at AUC, the distinguished professor of anthropology and AUC alumna spoke of what the government can learn from social scientists. “Looking back, the Nubian Project is one of the largest, most successful of anthropological data-gathering expeditions worldwide,” she said, “The government needs it more than academics, and it is very relevant to development in Egypt today. When you hear about situations of Nubians being unhappy when they got relocated, go back to the knowledge that was built.”

When El Guindi arrived to Dahmit, a narrow Nile Valley stretch in northern Nubia, in October of 1962, evacuation of the hamlet was earmarked for less than a year later. El Guindi quickly got to work: every day until midnight, she wrote copious field diaries, translated material collected in Arabic to English, and attended night meetings with her boss, Charles Callender—an “eccentric” American anthropologist, who dressed in translucent gallabeyas and spilled coffee on her field notes.

By establishing a close relationship  with Dahmit women, she soon came to an important discovery. The Kenuz believed that the Nile River is inhabited by sheiks, angels, or people, whom they extolled as “masters of […] fertility, of cultivation, of marriage, and of health,” El Guindi wrote in a paper she later authored. The river inhabitants played a vital role in the ceremonial and ritualistic life of the Kenuz, but more importantly, they represented the strong relationship they had to the Nile. She wrote prophetically in her paper: “As I became aware of the many cultural traditions and social practices which link the people and the river, I have wondered whether this pervasive attachment may not be a factor hindering adjustment of the Dahmitie after resettlement, for their new villages lack direct access to the river banks.”

Today, after struggling with sixty years of forced assimilation, many Nubians want to return to their homeland. Even though the latest Egyptian constitution grants them the right of return, a scramble for the last-remaining stretch of Nubian land—already designated as a restricted military zone—makes it nearly impossible.  Some of its plots have been earmarked for auction to the highest bidder in President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi’s desert reclamation megaproject. Protestors organizing under the banner of return have been repeatedly arrested.

For El Guindi, any solution will require the full participation of the Nubians. “It is their right to preserve their traditions and language that can only enrich Egypt, which must integrate them in national projects,” she wrote the Cairo Review in an email interview. The desire of Nubians to return home, she added, should not clash with the nation’s appetite for megaprojects, and the Egyptian government should find a way to make sure both benefit. She proposes the formation of a governing body consisting of Nubians, which would study Nubian responses to the current situation and submit a report to discuss in parliament. “The Nubians themselves must lead their own change at their own pace,” she wrote, stressing that: “they will know how to do it.”

Back at AUC, El Guindi took the lectern to call for an update to the Nubian project: “The generations of Nubians today whose parents and grandparents were moved and relocated: what is happening to them? We need the building of that knowledge. We need to know about these generations.” This time if the government chooses not to listen to anthropologists and academics, she said, it could risk repeating mistakes of the past.