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Lady's fingers and hibiscus
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 09 - 2009

Gamal Nkrumah washes away authentic Nubian dishes with herbal drinks that taste of the epic saga of Nubia's rich cultural heritage
Nubian girls set the pace of the courtship. Nubian men compose the most romantic poetry in honour of their paramours, but it is the virtuous Nubian belle who understands the subtlety and multifarious modulations of the tone and texture of black fabrics. Beautiful black women, draped in the most heartfelt blue black, wearing deep raven Nilotic green lipstick with midnight kohl adorning their almond-shaped eyes, prepare magly, puréed dates with cardamom and tamarind. Nubian women's soulful eyes, shrill ululation and girly giggles contrast with their sombre outer garb -- the gergar, the traditional dress of this ancient land. Their hands deftly and nimbly at work.
Nubian women never wore black in the past. Their attire was loud, bold and colourful -- purple, orange, crimson and turquoise. Today, as Nubian men headed for Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf countries, they insisted that their women mimic the Arabians and adorn themselves in coal black. This outer garment with an eye-catching trimming on the black bodice is called the galabeya sufra. The design, like the demeanour of the Nubian bride, is strictly prescribed by custom. The colour is fixed, the shade of black variable, but the pattern, weave and texture of the cloth vary. Black women draped in black.
The Ramadan dishes of Nubia are unique. Yet such cuisine is a staple part of the Nubian diet. The Sudanese Nubians have retained the ancient recipes much more than their Egyptian counterparts. In Cairo one can sample typical Nubian dishes in restaurants across the city -- in Maadi, Ataba and Ain Shams. There are, moreover, several Nubian villages scattered all over Cairo in the five-star hotels and tourist haunts. Al-Helw Al-Morr, or bittersweet, is an especially refreshing and nutritious drink drank during Ramadan -- both at Iftar, breaking of the fast, or as part of the Sohour, the light meal eaten during the wee hours of the day before the fast. This particular drink is corn flour based and infused with generous doses of mixed spices -- and hence the bitterness of the brew. Wild honey and sugar to lend it its unique flavour sweeten it.
Abrih Abiad is yet another popular and distinct Nubian drink. Like, Al-Helw Al-Morr, it is prepared long before Ramadan in order to ferment the concoction of flour, lemon and lime. This is a typical Nubian Ramadan drink rich in vitamin C and other nutrients. These drinks are designed to wash down heavy Ramadan meals.
Al-Molouh Al-Akhdar, the Egyptian molokheya -- or Jews Mallow -- cooked very differently from the Egyptian variety is another authentic Nubian Ramadan dish. Another alternative is the weika okra, called by the Nubians Mallah Al-Tagliya. These vegetable stew dishes are eaten with the Nubian "staff of life" kisra -- a soft and wafer-light crusty bread.
Porridge, Asida, and Al-Garrassa, corn flour bread, are Nubian grain-based specialties that are essential accompaniments to Nubian stews. The Nubians of Egypt still occasionally prepare these dishes, but such cuisine is far more popular in Sudan.
The Nubian women of Egypt now speak mainly Arabic, as opposed to their native Nubian tongues. They draw the veil, the tarha, and a second black covering -- the kumikol -- over the galabeya sufra. The Nubian women, with the traditional shawl, milaya, as yet another additional folder of protective cloth, work in the fertile fields and when they wearily return home after a hard day's work they weave reed baskets and mats to sell at the markets and curio shops of Aswan.
The black coverings, layers and layers of distinct hues of black of intricate texture, are supposedly to shade the Nubian damsels from the merciless glare of the sun of the tropic of cancer.
Or, is the dismal black a pronouncement on the heartache that has befallen the Nubian people since their land was inundated forever -- lost in Lake Nasser?
The black kerchief, or mandil, is a symbol of mourning -- of grief over the loss of land, heritage and ethnic identity. The mandil is an emblem that Nubians are Egyptians like the rest of their compatriots.
There is growing evidence that the ancient Nubians domesticated cattle and grew several distinct grains by 10,000 BC and even as early as 16,000 BC cultivated sorghum, millet, barley and certain strains of wheat, long before the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia. The Nubians were the first people in the world to do so. They know that they were trendsetters and they are a proud people.
Nubia straddles the heart of the Nilotic line of communication between sub-Saharan Africa and the Mediterranean. And the country, far less fertile than Egypt proper, had a checkered history.
Well, there is a surprise. Ironically, it was in Ramadan 31 AH, according to the hijra or Islamic calendar, that the Muslim Arab armies overran Nubia. This was in the reign of the Caliph Othman ibn Affan. At the time, Egypt was ruled by a Muslim Arab strongman, Abdullah ibn Abi Al-Sarh, who marched upstream to subdue the rebellious Nubian Christians whose kingdom spanned the area between the Nile's First Cataract and the Fourth Cataract. The Arabs were amazed at the skill of the Nubian warriors with bows and arrows. The Nubians were such proficient marksmen that the Arabs nicknamed them "Eye Scoopers" because they blinded their enemies with their expert marksmanship. Nubian archers put up a heroic stand against the Muslim armies, but King Kulaydour eventually surrendered to the formidable Arab General Uqba ibn Nafie, and Tai Seti -- the Land of the Bow as the ancient Egyptians called Nubia -- eventually metamorphosed into a Muslim land. However, the glories of Kush centred on the city of Kerma and live on in the memories of contemporary Nubians. And, after the Kerma culture subsided a new Egyptianised Kushitic kingdom emerged from the ashes of Kerma. The Nubian King Kashta used the royal appellations of Egyptian Pharaohs with the blessings of the priests of Amun. After Kashta's death, his son Piankhi was likewise enthroned in Egyptian fashion. From Napata, the capital city of Kush at the time Piankhi at the head of an enormous army moved northwards into Egypt and became truly the King of the Two Lands. He founded the 25th dynasty of ancient Egypt and his sons and grandsons ruled both Nubia and Egypt for a century until the invading Assyrians who promptly installed a puppet Egyptian king chased the last Nubian Pharaoh Taharqa out of Egypt.
Nubia survived the turmoil that ensued, thanks to its tremendous wealth -- gold, copper, ivory, ebony, cattle, hides and slaves. Meroe succeeded Napata as the new capital and centre of Egyptian civilisation. The Meroitic period was the golden age of Nubian civilisation. It gradually became Christian and broke up into three rival Nubian kingdoms -- Nobatia, Makouria and Alwa. With the invention of the Meroitic period waterwheel Nubia witnessed an unprecedented intensification of agricultural development and the productivity of Nubian farmland supported a larger population.
So if the Nubians historically embraced Islam in Ramadan, how do they celebrate it today? The Nubians of Egypt have long left their homeland in search of greener pastures in the cities of northern Egypt and especially Cairo and Alexandria. The erection of the first Aswan Dam in 1903 crippled the agricultural ecosystem of Nubia. Nubian men migrated en masse in the 1920s and Nubian women who originally were left behind became utterly dependent on remittances and the palm groves they owned. The centrality of the date palm to Nubians is today celebrated in song, but the palm groves of yesteryear now lie submerged under Lake Nasser.
Nubian women began to follow their men to the cities of northern Egypt in the 1940s and 1950s. By the time the construction of the Aswan Dam commenced in 1963, Nubians had already been traumatised by the heartache of having to leave their ancestral land to make a living in the great metropolises of Egypt, Cairo and the country's chief port city of Alexandria. There are probably more Nubians today in Cairo and Alexandria than there are in Aswan and southern Egypt. And, it is against this backdrop that the Ramadan celebrations of Nubians have to be assessed.
The children of Egypt for several years were delighted to watch the Nubian cartoon character Bakar, a witty and adventurous adolescent, during Ramadan. Who are the modern Nubians, though? It is a popular misconception that they constitute a single ethnic group. The Fedija Nubians, who used to live south of Aswan in areas now submerged under Lake Nasser, speak the Metouki language. The Kenuz Nubians of Aswan speak Mahas. The black-skinned Arabs of Aswan, whose mother tongue is Arabic, are yet another separate and physically indistinguishable ethnic group of the southernmost Egyptian city of Aswan and its environs.
For all Nubians, the completion of the Aswan High Dam was a disaster. Nubian traditional values fast eroded with the mass exodus that followed the deluge. The inhabitants of the Kenuz village of Dabboub, for instance, were heartbroken when they were forced to leave their homes. Many overcome by grief kissed their sacred ancestral ground before they left and tearfully filled their pockets with soil from their forefathers' land.
Nubia is a harsh and unforgiving land. And, its inhabitants have learned to cope with extremes of weather. Day temperatures are extremely high, but nights are cool. The cuisine is inextricably intertwined with the climate of the country. Nubian food tends to be spicier than the rest of Egyptian cuisine. The Nubian café and restaurant in the vicinity of the Nubian Museum, Aswan, offer traditional Nubian dishes. But throughout Egypt, Nubian food is readily available in haunts that only those who wish to sample the taste of Nubia have access to.
Spectacular sunsets are the hallmark of Nubia. Palm- fringed islands surrounded by flotillas of white-sailed feluccas. The scenic panoramas are idyllic especially around Elephantine Island. And, if you happen to be in Nubia during Ramadan drop in at the Nubian Restaurant, which offers after-dinner Nubian folkloric dance and musical shows, located on a tiny islet off the southern tip of Elephantine Island.


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