Egypt’s Nubians struggle to save their language
Cairo - Abdullah Gamal gathers the young members of his family every week to give them Nubian language lessons because he is afraid that soon the language will disappear.
“The children of Nubians know the Arabic language only, receiving their education at Arabic-language schools,” Gamal said. “If they do not learn the language, this language will shrivel up and die when all the old people who master it die.”
Living away from their native villages in southern Egypt and scattered across the country, hundreds of thousands of Nubians work to preserve their threatened culture and mother tongue.
The Nubians, a distinct ethnic group native to southernmost Egypt, were mostly in one area before the construction of the Aswan Dam in the early 1960s. The dam was built to protect against flooding, generate electricity and store water supplies. The dam’s construction, however, inundated Nubian villages.
Thousands of families were moved to an area the government called “New Nubia” but most Nubians said they could not stand life there and settled instead in northern provinces and Cairo. However, the separation from native Nubia threatened to end the people’s culture, language, heritage and traditions.
“The Nubian culture and language are under threat of extinction,” said Tamer Hassan, a Nubian and the founder of a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working to preserve the Nubian culture and heritage. “The people who know the language and who lived every part of the Nubian heritage are either dead now or too old to keep this heritage living for long.”
Gamal said he remembers when his family was taken to New Nubia. He said his father cried as he and other relatives left their native village.
“Some people cried and others covered their faces with dust when they saw the new homes,” Gamal said. “The new villages had nothing to do with the beauty of the native homeland.”
Some Nubians did stay in New Nubia, where five of Gamal’s brothers still live. The majority, however, moved on; some left Egypt altogether.
Galila Amin, a member of the Nubian Club, the self-styled union of Nubians, says about 1 million Nubians live in Egypt and more than 2 million others live outside the country.
When he arrived in Cairo, Gamal, almost 20 then, was lost in the middle of the sprawling metropolis, while his native home, family and friends were thousands of miles away. He had to face the new reality of living as a stranger in the middle of a different language and culture.
Gamal spoke little Arabic then and had to learn the language to work and communicate with others. He married a relative and had two children.
He was required to enroll the children in an Arabic-language school and, year by year, the Nubian language dried up within family circles.
He is now retired and insists on doing his part to keep the language alive. This is why he gets his children and grandchildren together for language classes.
“Si Sukar fi,” Gamal told his grandchildren during a recent class. “This means, ‘How are you doing?’ in Nubian.”
He gets an occasional respite from his Arabic-dominated world when he attends family or friends’ weddings. When they meet on such occasions, Nubians speak the Nubian language. They happily watch Nubian dances and listen to Nubian songs but lament their inability to ensure continuation of their culture as Nubian children scrap their mother language for Arabic.
Gamal is not alone in the desire to preserve the language and culture. About 40 NGOs and other groups are also trying to do this.
Hassan’s is one of these groups. The society, which created a Nubian dictionary, documents the Nubian alphabet and preserves Nubian songs. It has monthly seminars to discuss the work of Nubian artists, novelists and poets to keep Nubians in Cairo connected and Nubian literature living.
“Language is the backbone of any civilisation,” Hassan said. “If this language dies, the whole civilisation will die.”
The death of the Nubian culture would be a great loss to human civilisation, Nubians say. Apart from the language, the Nubians have their own costumes, cuisine, songs, wedding traditions and food and drink.
Inside Gamal’s home, in the poor residential district of Boulaq al- Dakrour in western Cairo, he has created a Nubian colony.
He speaks Nubian with his wife and tries to make his children and grandchildren accustomed to it. His wife cooks Nubian dishes, makes Nubian drinks and fills the rooms with Nubian artwork.
“People like me still belong more in Nubia, not anywhere else,” Gamal said. “But, sorry to say, this Nubia will be something of the past when old people die.”