Jailed Nubian activist dies in custody
News of the death of Gamal Sorour, a prominent Nubian campaigner, shocked the activist community in Egypt this weekend, 4-5 November.
Ragia Omran, a friend of Sorour and a human rights lawyer reported that Sorour had died in detention from a diabetic coma. He was arrested two months ago for taking part in a peaceful celebration of Nubian culture.
While Egyptian families found solace in warm homes, or set up picnics in parks along the waterfront promenade, many young Nubians celebrated the Islamic festival of Eid this September through rituals of their own, beating on their goatskin drums (‘duffs’) and singing songs about their right to return to their ancestral lands along the Nile.
The younger generation of Nubians – who are descended from an ancient African civilization that lived between southern Egypt and Sudan – are taking a more active political role in recent years and revitalizing their culture. Increasingly, this is bringing them into conflict with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Last Eid was no exception. The Nubians singing in the city of Aswan in southern Egypt on the third night of Eid were met with insults and beatings when police attacked, shutting down traffic and surrounding the demonstration, which celebrated their culture and called for them to be allowed the right to return to their ancestral lands.
Their drums were treated as dangerous weapons; the songs they sang were treated as a threat to national security.
‘The police officers raised their weapons and indiscriminately started attacking young men with sticks,’ says Seham Osman, who had gone with her younger brother. She was terrified by what she saw: ‘They turned to the women and began to push them, attacking everyone they saw from young children to senior citizens.’
Police vans shut down traffic at the intersections, surrounded the demonstration, and cut protesters off with a cordon.
‘The police officers raised their weapons and indiscriminately started attacking young men with sticks. They then turned to the women and began to push them, attacking everyone they could see, from young children, to women and senior citizens,’ Seham told the New Internationalist.
When the beatings stopped, were done, officers separated the women from the men, confiscating all the phones they could lay their hands on. The men and boys were taken aside and arrested.
Twenty-four men and boys were detained, and women were left to mourn for their brothers. Six weeks later, the men and boys are still being held. Their trial has been postponed over three times and on 3 October their detention was extended for a further 15 days. In desperation, five Nubian women have been on hunger strike.
That harm or worse might befall the protesters in prison was foreseen. ‘If you don’t hear from me on the internet, know that I am probably in the hospital or that something has happened to us,’ said Seham Osman, one of the hunger strikers, in a video on Facebook.
She also warns that she would blame those who stayed ‘silent’.
The Nubian question
The Nubian activists singing in Aswan were calling for the implementation of Article 236 of the Egyptian constitution, which grants them the right to return to their ancestral lands. Traditionally resident along the first rapids of the Nile near Aswan in Egypt, all the way up to Dongola in Sudan, Nubians once controlled vast swathes of territory.
But now, according to the International Labour Organization, they are not ‘treated as equal members of society’ in Egypt. Instead, Nubians, who have their own language although some no longer speak it, are a largely displaced people.
They have endured forced relocation for the sake of ‘national development’ for over a century.
This first wave of Nubian displacement occurred in 1899, when the Condominium Agreement between Egypt and Britain formally demarcated the boundaries of Sudan. An arbitrarily drawn border cut right through Nubian territory, leaving them divided between two separate countries, Sudan and Egypt.
Nubians had no say in the matter. Britain ignored their existence, especially in matters concerning colonial development. A series of dams built in 1902, 1912 and 1933 (more than two decades after formal independence) continued to further displace Nubians and washed away much of their history in their floodwaters.
This pattern was continued well into the post-colonial period. In 1963, the national hero and pan-Arab Socialist, President Gamal Abdel Nasser, built the Aswan Dam across the river Nile to bring Egypt into a new age of self-sufficiency – displacing tens of thousands of Nubians in the process.
In return, Nasser promised Nubians a house and two feddans (just below a hectare) of land in Kom Ombo, in the Aswan Governorate in Upper Egypt. They travelled to ‘New Nubia’, a settlement north of Aswan, only to find a shantytown sprawling with roofless houses constructed out of cheap clay. Many ‘died from sadness and anger’, according to PhD researcher Alia Mossallam.
Others moved to cities to find low-paying jobs – a legacy that can be seen to this day, as Nubians, who have darker skin than other Egyptians, can often be seen working as janitors sweeping the floors of high-rise buildings in Aswan city.
Most Nubians confront everyday racism in the metropolises of Egypt. Their only possibility for economic advancement is the military: the former military ruler Ahmed Sadat was Nubian, as is Field Marshal Tantawi, best known as the man who held interim rule after the revolution of 2011.
Rise of the Nubian resistance
Until recently, Nubians had mostly accommodated themselves to this century of pain and loss. Although an ambivalent attitude to Nasser can be detected in old literature and song, many Nubians, like other Egyptians, appreciated ‘the General’ and the Aswan Dam. They felt their displacement to be a necessary sacrifice for a national, socialist revolution.
The prolific Nubian singer Sidqi Ahmad Silim, for instance, addressed the Nile thus:
You have always triumphed us,
And provided a great source of life for us;
Be the same power to Nasser as you have been to us, don’t let him down.
The Nubian Knights youth collective – a network of musicians, activists and writers who organize people on the streets and spread the message of their resistance through hip-hop and old Nubian songs – say that their culture in general, specifically the music, is how the drumming protesters wage their struggle. As Nubian singer Mohamad Mounir says in ‘Abbayassa’ – a song that young people constantly refer to – ‘our secrets and stories can be found in our villages, in the rhythm of our drums, songs and dances’.
These secret songs of Nubian resistance have been whispered down through multiple generations. They are songs like ‘Wu Hanina’, which narrates the story of a man who returns to Nubia only to find his home submerged. An old bird flies over to ask ‘What brings you back here, stranger?’
The song challenges the acceptance of the flooding of their ancestral lands that was common at the time of the building of the Aswan dam, evoking sadness for their loss. When during her research Mossallam asked village elders to sing the song, they declined, saying that the bird’s question was too painful.
A current of resistance has also run through literature. As far back as 1968, the novel Al-Shamandura, related a fictional chronicle of resistance towards Nasser’s Dam. From 1989 until 2005, many works within the ‘Nubian Awakening’ – a corpus of novels, poems and songs which includes work by writers Yahya Mukhtar, Haggag Hassan Oddoul and Idris Ali – have explicitly used creative literature calling for a return to their ancestral lands.
Since 2005 – when there were protests demanding the end of one-party rule, the point at which the Nubian movement began demanding a ‘right of return’ – the Nubian Awakening has moved onto the streets. A network of students, professionals and workers of a more militant generation have been emboldened: Nubians were one of many groups that converged in Tahrir to oust Hosni Mubarak from his one-party rule in 2011.
The leaders of the Nubian struggle include Mounir Bashir, who brought together advocates such as the ‘Egyptian Nubian Association for Lawyers’ to challenge government privatization of land and to protect Nubian dissidents such as Mohammad Azmy. The former head of the Nubian Union, founded in 2011 after the revolution, Azmy became the liaison between the youth, other leftists in Egypt and the government.
Another key organization involved in the campaign for Nubian rights is the Egyptian Centre for Housing Rights, lead by human rights activist Manal el-Tibi, set up to push the government to allow the return of Nubians to their ancestral homes. Now, the Nubian Knights are taking up the baton as well.
In the last 12 years, these activists have made great strides. Article 236, an explicit political commitment to returning Nubians to return to their ancestral lands within 10 years, was secured by Nubians In 2014 – when a post-revolutionary constitution was written following the ousting of President Mohamad Morsi.
The Eid singers in Aswan were the latest group protesting to try to hold the government to this promise. Despite the new constitution, in November 2014 Sisi was already backtracking, issuing a presidential decree that designated the lands of 16 Nubian villages as military zones. And then, in August 2016, Sisi further backtracked on his constitutional promises by annexing 922 acres of Khorqandi and Toshka lands near the banks of Lake Nubia for the free use of private investors.
It is no secret that Sisi sees himself as the reincarnation of Nasser. But this generation of Nubian activists have vowed that this time, they will get in his way – no matter what repression the Egyptian state throws at them.
*Some names have been changed.
Thumbnail image: COSV Social media image: Gina Monica Butoi