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Speaking through Silence: Delving into Nubian Literature

June 9, 2023
Courtesy of Trip.com

“This is your last day. Be strong. Don’t hesitate. Cut and run. An exit with no return.”

This is how Nubian writer Idris Ali opens his novel Poor (2005). Read without any context, one may assume that the sentences describe a hopeful situation: a coming of age, a leap of faith, or the culmination of years of effort to reach an ultimate goal.

Yet, what Ali was truly describing was a situation of helplessness and pure vulnerability. At that moment, the Nubian narrator has decided — determinedly — to end his life.

Penniless and shoeless, the narrator utters these sentences as he wanders around the crowded streets of Cairo on a scorching August afternoon, where he contemplates his life after being exiled from his hometown in Nubia.

The death of Ali’s narrator is likened to the death of a fly — while it may be seen as utterly insignificant, it can also be catastrophic. The opening of the novel, thus, poses the question: how much should we worry about what we kill and squash, even if it seems as small, and as trivial, as a fly?

Speaking through silence 

Courtesy of Trip.com

The discourse around development and economic growth has largely celebrated glossy achievements, like the building of large dams, long roads, and huge factories.

While infrastructural investments aim to deliver the highest public good, it can also be a key source of corruption and injustice, as projects like the above involve enormous amounts of resources — human, natural and economic — and financial investments.

Development involves more than just the mud and steel of a newly constructed building; it should also account for the perspectives, experiences and priorities of people who are often displaced and marginalized within the planning process.

Following the construction of the High Dam in Aswan, over 120,000 Nubians were displaced from their homeland. In her research, Nubian researcher Menna Agha studies the emotional capital of communities that is often ignored, and challenges Western understandings of building and construction, which disregard Nubian’s emotional connections and contributions to building their homeland.

Traditional conceptions of what progress looks like is usually associated with more tangible results, such as the completion of a mega project. But there are also intangible impacts, such as the breakdown of social and emotional ties, that can accumulate over the years.

As Christine Gilmore states in her research on the links between literature and development studies, communities are usually seen as lacking the “social and cultural tools necessary for executive or even advisory forms of decision-making…that pertain to development projects.”

Literature allows communities to speak even through silence — their written pieces of fiction articulate their experiences and struggles with displacement more clearly than vocal speech, violence, or loud resistance.

By offering a public platform for challenging hegemonic discourses that equate rapid development with modernity, and articulating political demands that regular people may be reluctant to voice in public, Gilmore argues that the literary sphere can become one of the key battleground for communities’ struggle to become part of the development discourse.

The fiction of Nubian authors like Idris Ali, Muhammad Khalil Qasim, Yahya Mukhtar, and Haggag Hassan Oddoul represents a breadth of material charting the long-term legacy of displacement fifty years after the construction of the Aswan High Dam — a massive dam that spans the Nile in Aswan, Egypt, built between 1960 and 1970.

The Aswan High Dam yielded important economic benefits, such as protecting people living near the banks of the Nile from floods and drought, increasing the electricity available to homes and businesses, and helping farmers irrigate their crops all year. Yet the construction necessitated the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Nubians. Today, only 20 percent of Nubians live in Aswan, according to a Universal Periodic Review (UPR) report published in 2019 by Egyptian non-governmental organizations.

When people become displaced due to the construction of large infrastructure projects, they not only lose their homes, but also lose means of support, social networks, as well as access to the natural resources that supplied them with fresh water, fish, land, fruits and vegetables, and natural medicines that helped them survive.

Ali’s novel serves as a symbol of the economic impoverishment that Nubians experienced after exile. Through his writing, he vividly describes how the Nubian narrator saw the water rise quickly and flood his surroundings, destroying his crops, houses and livestock. As the narrator says: “there was a direct link between the flood, the dam and bread – not to mention the dreadful locusts that sometimes appeared.”

The displaced are seen as “problems or victims… without agency”, as researchers Behrooz Morvaridi and James Scott argue, and questions about what “adequate protection or resettlement and rehabilitation mean” are never usually asked.

Their displacement is seen to be/ made/ rendered as invisible as the death of a fly. But in economic development, the death of a single fly can also bring about tragic consequences, such as severe economic impoverishment and collective trauma. Although major global development banks, such as the World Bank, have repeatedly underscored the importance of cooperating with local inhabitants and displaced communities, there hasn’t been real discussions or solutions on how to bring that to fruition.

To materialize and conceptualize the level of trauma that communities may encounter, there are multiple works of Nubian literature that amplify the voices of Nubian people.

Muhammad Khalil Qasim’s novel Al-Shamandra (The Buoy, 1968) portrays the way of life in a Nubian village that flooded in 1933, which inspired many other Nubian writers to explore the history of their homeland.

Yahya Mukhtar’s Jibāl al-Kohl: Riwāya men al-Nūba (Kohl Mountains: a Novel of Nubia, 2001) ignites the consciousness of Nubians through creating an “imaginary” Nubian homeland where Nubians can return to through their collective conscious.

Similarly, Haggag Hassan Oddoul’s collection of short stories Layāli al-Misk al-‘Atiqa (Nights of Musk: Stories from Old Nubia, 2005) provides a dream-like glimpse into a world that has long since vanished.

The common denominator among all of these literary works is that they revise our understanding of what development means, and who it should benefit. Going beyond 20 minute podcast episodes or two-day conferences, literature captures the true depth and long-term impacts of development.

Today, conflicts over water are anticipated to be among the wars that define the twenty-first century. While most coverage is focused on the master narratives by various states, the literary works of Nubians reveal how writing can move the parameters of development discourse, and instead, shine a light on the plurality of priorities and experiences that people can face.

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