Crossing the Nile from Aswan to Elephantine Island feels like travelling to a different country. Squashed – for now – between the ruins of Abu and a gated luxury hotel are the Nubian villages of Siwa and Koti and their shared agricultural land. This was where I spent most of my four days in Aswan, returning from museums and cemeteries to the living, to banana and palm groves, rice paddies and cane fields, and the narrow alleys and painted houses of the Nubians.
I smoked with them, played dominoes, laughed and talked at great length. I returned late each night to my toothbrush in the hotel in Aswan, but they invited me to sleep in their house. They fed me a spicy cheese which tastes similar to Syrian shingleesh, but in liquid form, and fool bean paste, tomatoes and carrots full of flavour, spicy fried liver. It was the best food I ate in Egypt, a country without a decent restaurant culture, even in Cairo, so a country where the best food is simple, rural.
In the downstairs room, three three-month-old crocodiles captured from Lake Nasser stretched their necks, destined for early execution and then stuffing, or mummification – it’s the same word in Arabic. A few days later I visited the temple at Kom Ombo where sacred crocodiles once splashed in a riverside pool, and where a mummified-crocodile graveyard was excavated. So the Nubians have been stuffing animals for a very long time. My hosts told me the Nubians were the originators of ancient Egyptian civilisation. This is a simplification, to say the least, and one which reminds me of other nationalist narratives in the Middle East. In Syria you hear how Arab-Semitic culture gave the world language. Iran, so some Iranians say, was the factor that civilised a previously barbaric Arab Islam. Most absurdly, Kemalist nationalism in Turkey, with its ‘sun-language theory’ and other idiocies, claims that the Sumerians were actually ‘Turanian’ Turks, that the Turks colonised India when the Indians lived in trees, and so on. But the Nubians, being a small, divided people – and pushing the rice pudding bowl towards me as they talked – won my sympathy.
They told me many things about the Nubian language, which is Nilo-Saharan rather than Semitic. They speak it fluently, but seem to speak Arabic more often. I wondered if this was a politeness to me, although even quick sub-conversations around the room were conducted in Arabic. The one time I heard them spontaneously speaking Nubian (or Kenzi, for ‘Nubian’ is actually a group of languages) was when an elder stepped in to say hello.
Most of Nubia remained Christian until the fourteenth century. Islam and Arabic came to Nubia with Sufi drums. The chants and songs of the travelling mystics heard in markets and around campfires were Islamic, in the Arabic language. “This is how the people learned,” explained my hosts. “They dominated us in this way.” They use the word ‘domination’ but they don’t resent Islam. On the contrary, they describe Islam as a blessing and all Muslims as their brothers. They wish the Egyptian government would align itself with Islamic powers and causes rather than with capitalism and the West.
They play Sudanese-Arabic music on their mobile phones, sway and smile, and light another.
They feel themselves to be stranded between powers. When they described the inhabitants of their state, they veered between ‘we’ and ‘the Egyptians’. They are proud of the ‘nahda’, of Egypt’s former role as Arab centre of gravity, of Um Kalthoum, Abdelhaleem Hafez and Najuib Mahfouz. They are more emotional about Arab world issues than some uncomplicatedly ‘Arab’ Egyptians I met. Yet they also talked of oppression, of the misrepresentation of their history, of racism. They are conscious of their links to Sudan, where three quarters of Nubians live, and talked wistfully of the time when Egypt and Sudan were one country (recognising that Egyptians dominated Sudanese then, and that the British dominated Egypt). They boasted of the prominent Sudanese, from Nimeiry to Hassan Turabi, who have Nubian blood. At this point one of them chimed in, cautionary, that Sudan is “a land of wars.”
Their contemporary relationship with Mubarak’s state is defined by ‘development’ and the tourism-heritage industry.
The controversial Aswan High Dam is just a few kilometres up the Nile. It was built to control the sometimes destructive annual Nile flood and to generate hydro-electricity, as well as to symbolise modern Egypt’s coming-of-age and independence. One of the triggers for Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez canal (and the imperialist aggression against Egypt which followed) was America’s cancellation of promised funds for the dam. Its construction with Soviet help was thus seen as a victory for the Arabs and the third world as well as for Egypt. But the silt which formerly fertilised the Nile banks, the Delta, and even the Mediterranean Sea is now trapped behind the dam. Without the annual replenishment of silt, the Delta is more prone to flood (as the ice caps melt, this could become an unimaginably huge problem). The lack of silt has even led to the erosion of coastlines around the eastern Mediterranean. The dam also provides an easy target for a sophisticated enemy. One Israeli bomb on the dam would result in Cairo being devastated, so I’ve been told. But as far as the Nubians are concerned, the most profound consequence of the dam was the destruction of their villages and farms and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people when Lake Nasser was formed.
Abdul-Nasser’s government made great progress in redistributing wealth and enfranchising the poor through socialist land reforms – reforms which have since been dismantled. Nasser also won important victories against imperialism. On the other hand, his was the first regime in the Arab world to build a comprehensive police state. The state imposed itself not only on café conversations but even on nature. The history of Egypt, and in some way therefore of the world, is the history of the Nile’s fertile flood. The dam which put an end to it is an example of the folly of ‘development’, the global materialist mania for control. And the dream of Egyptian and Arab independence which was dreamed in the Rapid Eye Movement of the 50s and 60s has become a nightmare of dependence today. The Egyptian state controls a degraded Nile, and the Empire controls the Egyptian state.
Tourism, meanwhile, is the state’s biggest earner. As a result, Elephantine Island has been partitioned into, on one side, the Nubian villages and the ruins of Abu and, on the other, the ugly concrete and very exclusive Oberoi hotel. An impenetrable barrier runs between. An ancient stairway descends beneath the Nubian houses, which makes it likely that there are more temples and statues undiscovered. Elephantine was, after all, the dwelling place of Khnum, the ram-headed god of the cataracts, who guarded and controlled the waters of the Nile from caves beneath the island. The state naturally wishes to uncover what is covered, to do its own guarding and controlling, to make another few guineas from the tourists. The villages of Koti and Siwa may not be there for much longer.
My hosts wondered whose property the artifacts under their homes and hills are. Do they really belong to the British Museum and the Louvre, to the Egyptian museum in Cairo, to the busloads of white people passing through? And what is the most intelligent way to respect and appreciate their ancient heritage, as well as their contemporary reality?