The Nubian challenge
BY FATMA EMAM
Nubia is my homeland. It is the heritage, culture and language that I belong to but hardly know. It is part of my multiple identity, one that springs from a deep rooted civilization that is a source of pride for me, inextricably linking me to my ancestors. Yet the joy of being Nubian is tainted by an equal share of agony.
I write this at a special moment in Egypt’s history and the Nubian community, as the nation embarks on the second republic and attempts to shake off the ugly legacy of the first one; a legacy of corruption, human rights violations, economic failure and despotism. We are trying to enshrine a new social contract where the Egyptian citizen comes first and discrimination is not tolerated, whether it is rooted in gender, religion, sect, ethnicity, culture or color.
For the Nubian community, the post-revolution phase was full of momentum. High profile meetings were held between government official like Prime Minister Kamal El-Ganzoury and representatives of the Nubian community to tackle long-ignored issues including the right to return to historical Nubia, compensation for Nubians who were forcefully displaced, the reconstruction of homes in Nasr El-Nuba and developing the region.
Besides the economic demands, there were also more controversial cultural demands which are, however, crucial for the survival of the community and its identity. These include teaching Nubian history as an integrated part of Egyptian history, acknowledging the Nubian language as a local language and teaching it to Nubians at school, acknowledging Egypt’s cultural and ethnic diversity and stating that in the constitution and, finally, preserving Nubian heritage.
There was fierce debate over the creation of a Nubian electoral constituency in Nasr El-Nuba to guarantee Nubian representation in parliament, hence reversing a 1980s decision to cancel it by then interior minister Refaat El-Mahgoub. The appointment of a representative for Nubia in parliament, Omar Saber, a Nubain academic, was an unprecedented step in Egyptian parliamentary history.
During the presidential race, almost all the candidates raised the Nubian issue, each claiming that he is aware of the historical injustice suffered by Nubians and promising to retrieve their rights. Front-runner Ahmed Shafiq, ex-air force pilot and Mubarak’s last PM, promised a Stalin-inspired counter-forced-displacement strategy to “transfer” Nubians back to their land, a promise that betrays a complete ignorance of the concept of community consulting. His attitude was typical of Egyptian statesman only used to top-down communication.
The Freedom and Justice Party’s candidate, now President Mohamed Morsi, was also caught in the dispute triggered by leading party member Essam El-Erian, who in an op-ed described Nubians as one of Egypt’s colonizers, leading to a protest by Nubian youth in front the General Nubian Club. The FJP and their candidate Morsi apologized many times for the gaffe against the Nubian community in Egypt, once more perpetrating the fallacy that Nubians are not equal citizens of this country. And Nubia frenzy continued in President Morsi’s first speech when he mentioned respect for Nubians twice as part of Egyptian nation.
Despite paying lip service to the issue, many questions abound: How could a community of 5 million out of 85 million Egyptians be represented in the constituent assembly by only one member? To add insult to injury, Human Rights activist Manal El Tibi was selected under the category of public figures, not as a representative of the Nubian community. Why was there no clear representation of Nubians reflecting our demographic mass?
What is the fate of Nubian demands in the constitution? The withdrawal of El-Tibi from an assembly session after the refusal of three Islamist parties (Al-Wasat, the FJP and Al-Nour) to include respect for racial diversity in the draft does not bode well. Their belligerence reflects a society where only a one identity is celebrated, ignoring the fact that Egypt is a product of the accumulation of different civilizations, cultures and races.
The unacknowledged epidemic of racism is one of the reasons why respect for racial diversity must be enshrined in the constitution and discrimination based on color and race must be criminalized.
Egypt’s cultural and racial diversity must be raised to another level by including it in the constitution, as well as ensuring that it is mainstreamed in other types of legislation and embedded in the culture and practice of governmental and non-governmental actors. There should be no tolerance for mocking black people in the media, spreading stereotypes and hate speech, even under the pretext of art production. While a legal framework criminalizing any racial act against any Egyptian citizen must be instituted, without a concerted social effort to raise awareness, fight stereotypes and celebrate the beauty of multiplicity, such laws would be futile.
Despite the tragic Nubian history marked by forced displacements in 1902, 1912, 1932 and 1964, Nubia has proved that it is beyond land, houses, palm trees or language. It is the land of gold, and, like gold, if you put in fire, it purifies it and makes it even more beautiful. Nubians have always proved that they are survivors and fierce fighters. Today their fight is to claim their place under the Egyptian sun as equal citizens.
Nuba Mali Salam, Nubia all the warm greetings to you, my beloved home.
This article was written in commemoration of the International Nubia Day earlier this month.
Fatma Emam is a Cairo-based commentator and Research Associate in Nazra for Feminist Studies.