First Nubian language dictionary published by volunteers

The Nubian culture is a symbol of the cultural diversity of Egypt, where each region has its own traditions and distinct culture.
Sunday 19/01/2020
Koma Waidi volunteers in Aswan.  (Courtesy of Koma Waidi)
Koma Waidi volunteers in Aswan. (Courtesy of Koma Waidi)

Agroup of activists determined to rescue the Nubian language from total loss has produced a dictionary-style booklet, the first in a series collecting Nubian words.

The booklet containing 230 rare Nubian words published under the Koma Waidi initiative, a Nubian phrase meaning “Tales of the Past.”

“It is important to act now to save the Nubian language from total disappearance,” said Hafsa Amberkab, a volunteer in the initiative. “This great language sustains a new loss every day.”

The loss of historical Nubia in southern Egypt in the 1960s dealt a staggering blow to the Nubian language. Egyptian authorities demolished dozens of Nubian villages to allow for the construction of the High Dam.

The demolition of Nubian villages and the relocation of tens of thousands of Nubians to other parts of Egypt devastated Nubian culture, including the language. The Nubians left everything behind them: their homes, their culture and their language.

They had to mimic other Egyptians in the cities where they started a new life. They included speaking Arabic, considered a foreign language in the villages where they were born. This led to a great diminishment of the language, which has its own alphabet and vocabulary.

New generations of Nubians never learnt the language of their forefathers and the death of each older Nubian means fewer people capable of speaking the language. Some elders try to pass the language on to their children and grandchildren. They are the people targeted by the Koma Waidi initiative.

Amberkab and other initiative volunteers travelled to dozens of villages in southern Egypt to collect Nubian words from the mouths of those who still speak the language. They filmed old Nubians as they spoke in their native language and took the videos to specialists who translated the words into Arabic, English and Spanish.

“It was very useful documenting these words before they are either forgotten or dead with the people who can still speak them,” Amberkab said.

It took Koma Waidi volunteers several weeks of interviews with Nubian elders and three months to produce the booklet.

Amberkab said they hope the publication will be the first step towards producing a Nubian-language dictionary. He said it would be a great achievement to preserve the language that has never been written or documented.

“The Nubian language is only alive in the minds of those who lived in Nubia before the construction of the High Dam,” said Mustafa Abdel Qadir, a Nubian culture specialist. “A huge number of the terms and the words of the language have already died with the people who knew them.”

This is why Koma Waidi volunteers are racing against time to rescue as many Nubian words and expressions as possible.

The Nubian culture is a symbol of the cultural diversity of Egypt, where each region has its own traditions and distinct culture and speaks a different dialect of Arabic. Those in Egypt’s northern coastal cities, for example, speak a dialect of Arabic different from the one spoken in Cairo. Bedouins in Egypt’s deserts speak their own Arabic dialect. Each Egyptian city also has its own cuisine.

This cultural richness is what drives the Koma Waidi volunteers. Self-funded but adamant to complete their mission, they say the loss of the Nubian language will be a major human loss.

“We started this work because we are afraid that the Nubian language can be something of the past one day,” said volunteer Fatma Ghadar. “New generations of Nubians can learn this language only when it is documented.”

Cover of the booklet produced by Koma Waidi about the Nubian language.  (Courtesy of Koma Waidi)
Cover of the booklet produced by Koma Waidi about the Nubian language. (Courtesy of Koma Waidi)
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