Nubia: A glimpse of folk culture

Amira Noshokaty , Thursday 7 Nov 2013

It's hard to resist falling in love with the Nubian people, still full of colour and holding to traditional customs 50 years after being displaced, dozens of their villages submerged beneath Lake Nasser


It's hard to resist falling in love with the kind hearts and honest faces. Even after 50 years away from the Nile River, Nubian displacement villages kept their traditions very much alive.

Along the Nile, stretching from the south of Aswan's Fourth Cataract and up to Egypt's border with Sudan, lies the ancient land of Nubia. The word Nubia is derived from the ancient Egyptian “Nbu”, meaning gold, in reference to the abundant gold mines dotting the area. Famed for its wealth and pre-historic multilayered civilisation, the "Land of Gold" was in the 1960s flooded by Lake Nasser — the High Dam's water reservoir. Some 44 Nubian villages were submerged, along with 12 million palm trees.

Historians face difficulties identifying the precise origins of the Nubians, placing them within the band of Civilisation “X” which falls between the end of the Meroe era and the beginning of the Christian era. According to historian Mustapha Abdel Qader, Nubia encompassed the inhabitants of West Bank between Meroe, Kaboushia and Deba, according to Greek geographical scientist Aristaninous (240 BC). The Land of Gold was marked for it's cultural as well as material richness.

Ethnographically speaking, Nubians derive from three intertwining tribes: the original inhabitants of Nubia, also known as Al-Fadiga; the Arab Al-Orayqat (originally bedouin traders who migrated from Hijaz), and Al-Konoz, also known as Al-Matoka (a mix of Arab tribes, the biggest being Al-Gohayna tribe, from the Arabian Peninsula).

This mélange of tribes managed to respect each other’s dialects and slight variations in traditions, Abdalla Hassan, mayor of Thomas w Affia displacement village, explained to Ahram Online.

Thomas w Affia is a merger in New Nubia between two villages that are now submerged, explained Hassan. “The name Thomas is derived from the Ancient Egyptian word meaning the good son. Affia (meaning good health in slang Egyptian) is the name of the only village that held a health clinic in old Nubia, hence the name."

Here the houses are not the customary bright colours of Nubian folk heritage. Away from the Nile, the houses are in the colour of sand — modest but extremely neat and clean, an authentic Nubian quality. In the small village of Abrim, known for its unique dates, neither soft nor soggy, a small house acts as a showroom for Nubian traditions. Largely forgotten, in one room a wooden box for a bride sits in the corner, bright red with a date inscription from over a 100 years ago. Known as a shewar, the box would traditionally be filled with new clothes, all bought for the bride by the groom, to mark a new life and as a token of love. “Now we use modern luggage instead,” says Hassan.

On the other side of the room lies a large colorful tray made of palm leaves, with which the bride would customarily roam the village to invite the young ladies to her wedding. Each house would give her something in return. Be it popcorn, wheat, or money. The tray should be always full.

Dangling from the roof is a unique shaped bowl that was used to keep food cool before modern methods of refrigeration.    

Many customs of the Nubians remain intact. Women, who are mostly camera shy, still wear the gergar (derived from the slang Egyptian megargar, meaning touching the floor) — a transparent long black dress with colorful galabiyas underneath. They still use the saga (a plain metal rounded plate above a small burner), on which they bake their crepe-like traditional bread. And their hands are tinted with decorative patterns painted with Henna.

Despite being almost 25 kilometres far away from the Nile, this Nubian village has kept its relation with the “blessed water" as they refer to it. Be it a wedding or for newborns, Nubians still use water to mark events in their lives, even if only drawing on the nearest canal. And they have songs for almost everything.

On our way out of Al-Shebak and Al-Genina, we heard speakers inviting fellow villagers for a wedding. Soon after the announcement, donkey carts appeared stacked with piles of aluminium cooking utensils, roaming the village. Another custom, showing to the village what will fill the bride's new home.

Their homes may have lost their authentic colours, but their souls still bare all the vivid and serene beauty of Nubia. They embody it as people, wherever they go.

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