The historic homeland of Africa’s indigenous Nubian community once encompassed dozens of riverside villages in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Yasmin Moll, assistant professor of anthropology, grew up in the Nubian community in Cairo listening to stories about these villages on the Egyptian banks of the Nile in what is now referred to as Old Nubia. In 1960, then-Vice President Anwar Sadat visited Old Nubia to make the case that building the Aswan Dam would benefit its inhabitants. The dam would force the Nubians to relocate, but in exchange they would receive farmland, modern housing, and the respectful inclusion of their culture in Egyptian society.
However, that is not what happened.
After dozens of Nubian villages were flooded by the reservoir the dam created, more than 50,000 Nubians were displaced and resettled in the desert region of Kom Ombo. Whereas Nubians’ riverside homes had been vibrant and spacious, Kom Ombo’s cookie-cutter housing was monotonous and cramped. The Nubians had been promised farmland but had to wait five years to receive it. The Nubian mortality rate nearly doubled in the years after the resettlement, mostly in the very young and the very old. It was hard to say whether it was from hunger, sadness, or shock. “Forced out of their paradise of palm-lined Nile villages with little hope of redemption, Nubians took to calling themselves al-mankubin, the afflicted,” Moll says.
When the land in Kom Ombo was finally distributed, it became clear that the methods of riparian farming Nubians had used for thousands of years on the banks of the Nile would not work in the area’s arid lands. Many Nubians emigrated yet again in search of a better livelihood, making Egypt’s northern cities their home. Other Nubians settled throughout the African continent, while others went to Europe, the United States, or the Gulf. Today, Nubians live all over the world.
Historically, Nubians in Egypt spoke two main languages: Matoki and Mahas. In the Nubian villages in Sudan, other Nubian languages were spoken as well. Today many Nubians, whether in Egypt, Sudan, or throughout the Nubian diaspora, are fluent in Arabic, a language that unites them and is also tied up in loss. “The experience of losing their homeland made all the different Nubian groups see themselves as more similar than different,” Moll says. Today, many Nubians in Egypt, Sudan, and other parts of the world seek to revitalize their Indigenous languages and traditions through vibrant arts and culture initiatives.
Though the experience of cultivating their heritage in diaspora may be one that many Nubian descendants share, the culture they nurture is anything but homogeneous. Displaced and scattered Nubian identity has evolved beyond language, culture, race, or nation. “The lived realities of Nubian Egyptians,” Moll says, “refuse to map onto any neat axes of culture, history, or economy.” The Arabic word gowana, Moll says, means, “Nubia is a place ‘inside us.’”
Moll was five years into a film project about Nubian cultural activism when she was approached by her colleague Geoff Emberling, associate research scientist in the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and lecturer in the Department of Middle East Studies. Emberling had spent a decade excavating the archaeological site of El-Kurru, a UNESCO World Heritage site and pyramid burial ground for the kings and queens of ancient Kush, a predecessor of the medieval Nubian kingdoms, that is now within Sudanese borders. The Nubian kingdom of Kush flourished for centuries and shaped the region’s political and cultural landscape. Emberling had completed his excavation, but before he left he wanted to build a heritage center for, and with, the local community.
Moll and Emberling had both done extensive field research in Egypt and Sudan and had developed different areas of expertise. As they began discussing the heritage center idea, they were struck by the competing cultural narratives and the complicated history of the region. Telling a single story about Nubia, whether in Sudan or Egypt, would oversimplify the complex relations and tensions between ancient Nubia and modern people living in the region and the breadth of different languages and identities of the community. Moll and Emberling decided to collaborate on a shared project, and they invited scholars and students of different disciplines, at U-M and in Africa, to join them. A grant from LSA’s Humanities Collaboratory provided funding to begin the project, which they called Narrating Nubia.
A four-part project, Narrating Nubia is run by a team of LSA faculty, staff, and students, as well as community partners in Sudan and Egypt. With resources from the grant, Moll worked with students, Nubian Egyptian storytellers, and artists to create an animated film about the displacement experience that drew from her extended family memories, community narratives, and ethnographic photos of Old Nubia. Her portion of the project is called “Nostalgic Futures.”
Emberling leads the “El-Kurru Past and Present” portion, which aims to build the heritage center and a walking tour with the local community in Sudan. The area around the El-Kurru site is historically Nubian, Emberling says, but its inhabitants identify more closely with their Arabic and Muslim heritage. Emberling is working closely with student, community, and faculty partners in Sudan on a variety of projects with the goal of engaging visitors with the cultural and historic significance of El-Kurru and its royal cemetery. Part of that work includes developing a children’s book for students from Sudan and the United States.
Amal Hassan Fadlalla, professor in the Departments of Afroamerican and African Studies, Anthropology, and Women’s and Gender Studies, has written extensively on Sudan’s politics of identity and global connections. For Narrating Nubia, Fadlalla drew upon her cultural anthropology fieldwork in Sudan on art, music, and revolution to collect oral histories from diasporic community members in order to create a podcast called Listening Otherwise. In Sudan, Fadlalla says, the Nubian—or Kushite—culture manifests differently than it might elsewhere. Sudanese development had also forced its inhabitants to relocate from their historic lands.
Michael Fahy, a lecturer in the School of Education, leads the final portion of the project, called the “Nubia Odyssey.” This semester-long, online project for U.S. and Sudanese secondary schools, which is supported by University of Michigan student mentors, teaches middle and high school students about the richness and complexity of Nubian culture and life both in the region and the Nubian diaspora.
Karson Schenk (Stamps ’21), who graduated with minors in sustainability and American culture, describes herself as an animator focused on the relationship between the land and the workings of people. Schenk is the principal animator of “Nostalgic Futures,” and she’s focused on the story of the place lost by the Nubian people in the 1960s.
Schenk’s 2-D art tells part of the story of Nubian cultural memory as well as a story of the environmental impact of the dam, which led to a loss of fertile land. “The idea of dam-building and environmental justice revolves around that relationship to the land,” she says. As Moll explains, the dam that displaced the Nubian villages produces a huge amount of electricity for Egypt even as the Nubian human relationship to the Nile—which featured prominently in village ritual life—irreparably changed. It wasn’t just Old Nubia’s culture that was impacted by the Aswan Dam: Its geography vanished too.
When the COVID-19 pandemic precluded the trip to Sudan and Egypt that the team had hoped to take during the summer of 2020, Schenk used Google Maps to understand the past contours of the Nile River. She also assembled a visual lexicon—the textures, quality of light, colors, clothing, and objects of Nubian memories—that she could use as reference points in the animation. Schenk worked with Evyn Kropf, U-M librarian and member of the Narrating Nubia research team, with Moll and images from her family albums, and with the published visual ethnographies that are a key resource for Nubian digital revitalization. Schenk and Moll came up with a set of gestures, and Schenk photographed herself performing them. Then Schenk translated these photographs into animations—an experience that connected Schenk emotionally and physically with the story she was telling in her art.
In the opening scene, a young girl, based loosely on photographs of Moll’s mother, sits on the edge of the Aswan Dam. The water transforms her into an egret, a commonly invoked bird in Nubian songs, and she flies to the Old Nubia of her childhood. Decades-old landscape photos and close-up family photos inspired the objects that fill Schenk’s drawings: tools, boats with beautifully decorated bows and huge rudders, and cows pulling up water from a well to irrigate farmland.
In Old Nubia of the 1950s, the homes along the Nile had courtyards that connected the rooms with ornate gateways. The women of the households painted colorful murals on the walls of the houses: scorpions, birds, and palm trees. These paintings inspired the thick brushstroke style of the animation. In Schenk’s animation, the creatures in these wall paintings come to life and the birds painted on the walls fly away.
Through its people, Nubia lives all over the world. In Sudan, ancient Kushite symbols for gods and royalty have been used by contemporary activists in the 2019 popular revolution, Fadlalla says, and internationally in the Black Lives Matter movement. Symbols of antiquity, such as street murals depicting kings, queens, and deities of ancient Kush, showed up everywhere, Emberling says. The power of these symbols inspired transnational solidarity too, Fadlalla says. Women in U.S. Black Lives Matter protests were given the honorific of “Kandaka” by Sudanese people, which is the name of an ancient ruling queen of Kush.
Moll says that to be Nubian is often to be nostalgic, but it’s clear in the images, language, art, activism, and histories gathered by the Narrating Nubia collaborators that Nubian culture doesn’t only look to the past. While the work of Narrating Nubia is rooted in memory, the collaborators hope that the project will resonate with the Nubian community, especially diasporic young people, whose ties to Old Nubia may be more tenuous.
“Some of the Nubians in the United States have never been to their villages, but they hold their ancestors’ memories and stories of these places,” Fadlalla says. As the team gathers these stories and memories, they are repeatedly struck by the diversity within the culture. There is no single Nubia. Moll says the work requires “listening to each other across divides.” As they’re listening, even more new stories come to life.
Learn about supporting Students and Faculty
By connecting scholars with each other and with the funding to travel, experiment, and conduct research, the Humanities Collaboratory supports collaborative, multi-generational, transformational humanities scholarship for the academy and the world beyond.
With the support of the Humanities Collaboratory (HC), LSA humanities faculty, teams of faculty from across the university, librarians, humanists, and undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral students are given the resources to experiment with team-based approaches to humanities research. It’s an opportunity for humanities scholars to work together on large-scale projects from development to dissemination, to communicate to the broader public, and to train the next generation of humanities scholars.
Audrey Becker, administrative coordinator of the Humanities Collaboratory, believes this work can radically shift how people think about the humanities. “If you thought that the humanities meant a lone scholar sitting quietly in a cubicle, these HC-awarded global, intergenerational, cross-department collaborative endeavors, like the Narrating Nubia project, are about to change that,” says Becker. Some of the other projects the Humanities Collaboratory is helping to set in motion include:
In LSA, we’re preparing students to create bold and purposeful change, wherever their individual paths lead. After graduation, Emmanuel plans to put his multicultural perspective and international studies degree to work in refugee and immigration advocacy. An LSA internship scholarship enabled him to gain precious experience with a nonprofit organization for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers — so he can start making a positive difference now.