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A Nubian journey
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 28 - 01 - 2010

Despite changes in their ways of living, Nubians today prize their traditions as much as they have always done, writes Haggag Ouddul
Nubia is a forgotten jewel, a place that since ancient times has bonded with the Nile, borrowing its strength and mimicking its beauty. Egypt may be the gift of the Nile, but Nubia is its cherished daughter. The Nile doesn't just give life to Nubia, it gives soul.
Nubia is as soft as the Nile's mud, dark as the Nile's water and powerful as the Nile's course. Like the great river, Nubians may throw the occasional tantrum, exploding all of a sudden like the flood. But then the water recedes, moods clear up, and it's sunshine again.
The ancient Egyptians may have worshipped a Nile god called Habi, but the Nubians have maintained their veneration of the Nile to this day. You will never see a Nubian polluting the Nile. When washing out their mouths during ablutions, Nubians spit the water out towards the land, not the river. Nubians let their children swim in the river, but tell them not to pee in it while swimming. For them, the river is not just a source of water, but of devotion.
Nubians also christen their children in the Nile. A procession of women and children walk down to the river, carrying along with the newborn infant a bowl of sweet thickened milk, a model of a ship bearing a candle, grain, the infant's placenta and a piece of the mother's own clothes when she was an infant.
On the bank, the women rub the child with sacred water. Then, using vegetable dye they draw a cross on the infant's forehead while praying for the child and for the Prophet Mohamed. Having done that, they push the model ship into the water.
At this point, a boy comes running from afar while brandishing a knife. He looks as if he is going to attack the procession. But as he approaches he sees that the model boat has sailed into the river with a candle burning on board. The would-be assailant thrusts his knife into the ground, signalling his failure to assassinate the newborn.
After this ceremony is complete, members of the procession celebrate by drinking the sweet thickened milk. The scene they have been enacting is inspired by the story of Moses and his escape from death at the hands of the Pharaoh.
The model boat the Nubians use is also steeped in Egyptian culture. It is the same symbol as the one sometimes seen in the domes of mosques in this country, one example being the dome of Imam Shafei's Mosque.
While the procession heads to the river, the women sing a popular verse that goes, Er mari marin tu, ya salawi al-nabi, which means "O Mariam and son of Mariam, peace be on you both."
Writing was not available to many Nubians throughout their history, which is why their traditions are preserved to this day in the form of oral history, songs and dance. During aragid, or weddings, a traditional dance is performed, with women and men lining up to face each other across an open space. Inside the space, some men play the tambourine and sing a few lines, and then the men and women on both sides answer them.
The dancers on both sides take a few steps back and forth, symbolising the waves of the Nile. Eventually, some of the dancers become more animated and walk into the centre of the circle. There, they dance in circles, imitating the movement of whirlpools. Others join them, slithering as if they were fish struggling in fishing nets.
Weddings in Nubia are big affairs, as guests come from nearby villages in their hundreds. The management of these affairs is highly sophisticated, as the timings of slaughter, cooking, baking and dancing must be choreographed to the last detail. During Nubian weddings, men prepare animals for slaughter, women bring water from the river, bread is baked on an iron disk called an eldio, water is cooled in earthen jugs, and drinks are served to guests in metal cups.
Even Nubian women's clothes are affected by their adulation of the river. Women wear a translucent black dress called a gregar that ruffles as they walk, mimicking the translucent water of the river. When they sit down, the gregar folds over their knees, like the waves of the river.
Now imagine this gregar in white. Wouldn't it look like the bridal gown that is well known in Cairo and elsewhere? Why don't you ask the bride to rest her arms on her waist, pushing the elbows outwards? Doesn't that remind you of the dolls sold during moulids, or saint's birthdays?
The houses of Nubia have traditionally faced the river. Made of unbaked mud, they are particularly cool in summer and warm in winter. However, after large parts of Nubia were evacuated to make room for the High Dam in 1964, things began to change. Food and housing were altered, and weddings too.
Now the bride goes to the hairdresser before the celebration, and the married couple is photographed wearing city clothes. Yet, the scent of the old traditions has not completely gone. Whether they live in what remains of Nubia, in Aswan, or in Egypt's northern cities, Nubians still cherish their past.


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