“You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places to make room for houses and liveable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”
– Toni Morrison, The Site of Memory
Dressed in all-white, Fikry Kashef sits on a wicker chair strumming his oud, a pear-shaped stringed instrument popular in the Middle East and North Africa. A dozen men or so from across Egypt, many of whom have come from neighboring villages outside the city of Aswan, sit around him, on the floor or on the couch, surrounded by a cacophony of ashtrays, cups, and plates. Kashef’s voice is filled with melancholy as he sings. “Feel pity for you who have deserted me. God knows how much I adore you.” In a call and response, the chorus of men around him joins in, mourning in unison their first love: the Nile River. It sits to their left, just out of reach. “God knows how much I adore you,” the men sing.
Kashef, 69, is one of Egypt’s most renowned Nubian folk singers. His songs—often recited in Nobiin, an endangered Indigenous language spoken by the Nubian people in the Nile Valley—are an archive of history and loss. When some 135,000 Nubians were forcibly displaced from their homelands in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, mostly in 1964, Kashef bore witness.
Now three generations after the tahjir, a word used by Nubians to describe their displacement, Kashef is fighting to keep his people’s cultural memory alive. But in the wake of catastrophe, and as the impacts of the climate crisis loom, survival is uncertain.
Descendents of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, Nubians are believed to have lived in the Nile Valley, an 800-mile-long strip on either side of the Nile, as far back as 5000 BC. And every year, predictably, when the river flooded, swamping the fields, sometimes requiring farmers to harvest crops from traditional sailboats called feluccas, sometimes drowning villages altogether, Nubians stood watch, understanding that the floods were part of a larger ecological order that transported more than 125 million tons of sediment rich in potassium and phosphorus to the sea each year. The river’s volatility during the high tides—and its coolness during the low—instilled a sense of admiration, fear, and reverence among its neighbors, who understood the power and alchemy of the river.
The Nile is alive—and believed by Nubians to be guarded by a network of angels and spirits. Belief in the angels persisted even after the region’s conversions to Christianity just before 600 AD and Islam in the early 14th century. They are frequent figures in Nubian songs, which use a pentatonic musical scale, five notes per octave.
The heart of the music is the daf, a circular wooden-framed drum. Its sound, which mimics the rhythm of waves against fishing boats, creates a constant pulse that drives the music forward. The vibrato of the oud, the instrument Kashef plays, oscillates through a range of frequencies to create a harmony so sweet that it glides above the beat. The songs, often led by a single vocalist, are supported by a chorus of voices that intermittently respond to the singer’s calls. The result is a multidimensional soundscape that requires active participation from all who listen: a tapping foot; a bobbing head; a body moving, swinging, and swaying in appreciation.
“Those who drink your water are protected. Those who protect you are my brothers.”
In this way, music-making is a communal practice, a “way of being in the world,” wrote ethnomusicologist Regan Homeyer. Through its performance, a song “offers Nubian listeners in displacement a type of real engagement through sound that takes them home,” she wrote in her 2020 master’s thesis.
Kashef’s uncle, Dahab Kabbara, born in 1934, recites a song to me that he remembers, as a young boy, the girls from his childhood village would sing. Returning from the river at dawn and carrying pails of water, the girls, in a candied harmony, would gently hum. “Goodbye, my angels, until we meet again tomorrow.”
It was customary then for Nubians to throw offerings directly into the river to the angels—sandalwood, dough, or rice—in exchange for a blessing. Elders—like Saffiya Mahmoud, 87, who remembers those days—believe the angels are still alive in castles hundreds of miles below the surface: “Of course, they are,” Mahmoud said.
Kashef was 10 years old when the tahjir disrupted everything. In an effort to bolster Egypt’s economic might, better manage the flooding season, and generate hydroelectricity to light homes across the nation, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the construction of the Aswan High Dam in 1952. This process—which required his government to flood Nubia to make way for the dam—stretched over 10 years. By the time the project was completed in 1970, Egypt had produced the world’s largest artificial lake at the time: Lake Nasser (known as Lake Nubia in Sudan), a 2,000-square-mile reservoir built on top of the land where tens of thousands of people had once lived.
Under these circumstances in 1964, Kashef, his parents, and siblings had to pack what they could of their belongings and move away from the Nile to one of 44 new and desecrated villages in arid regions of the country about 30 miles north of Aswan. Kashef’s family resettled in Tahjir Abu Simbel. Colloquially, the name of each village is appended by the word “tahjir,” an Arabic word meaning “displace” in the present tense: a people presently and always in the act of being displaced.
Though Egypt had promised Nubians that their new homes in the relocation villages would resemble their homes in Nubia—stand-alone compounds usually centered on a courtyard—they found hastily slapped-together, cramped houses, some of which cracked or collapsed soon after families moved in—if they found houses at all. In some areas, the new homes were merely chalk outlines on the ground for structures yet to be built. Initially, little of the land could be farmed because no canals had been constructed to bring water to crops.
Everywhere Kashef turned, he was surrounded by grief. The elders, in particular, who had spent the greater part of their lives in Old Nubia—where his neighbors grew fava beans and jute “by the bushel,” as Kashef described to me, and the forest of date palms from across the field “hung like stars in the sky”—were overcome by an inexplicable sadness. Many of them died shortly after the move, a consequence of heartbreak. Many children died, too, a consequence of their unfit living conditions.
Meanwhile, miles away at the dam’s grand opening, Nasser and Soviet Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had supported the construction of the $1 billion High Dam, posed for cameras as they threw granite stones into the water. The mining of granite, a rock commonly found throughout the region and alongside the dam, played a significant role in bolstering the country’s newfound economic prosperity.
The offering, intended to mark Egypt’s emergence on the world stage, was a far cry from the offerings of sandalwood and rice that had once honored angels all those years ago. In a move toward modernity, Nasser drowned a civilization that had made the Nile its home for several millennia.
The High Dam stopped the Nile’s natural cycle of flooding and radically transformed the river’s ecosystem. Today, much of the sediment that once enriched the soil fails to pass through the dam. As a consequence, farmers are forced to use synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This has led to high levels of wastewater pollution in the Nile.
“The Nile is not dead,” said Nubian archivist Mohammed Sobhy, “but it is dying.” Sobhy, 74, grew up and still lives on Elephantine Island, one of several islands in the Nile alongside the Aswan High Dam where Nubians have long resided; the tahjir did not uproot them. The water still irrigates the crops that line the perimeters of the islands and supports the date trees that bloom each year. But the water has changed: “It doesn’t taste the same,” said Sobhy, sitting before me in his home, which he has transformed into a museum to preserve Nubian heritage.
Climate change poses further risk to the river, which currently supplies more than 90% of Egypt’s water. Changing rainfall patterns and the volatility of temperatures have increased the vulnerability of regions throughout Africa, threatening those who bear little to no responsibility for the climate challenges brought on by mass fossil fuel consumption.
Researchers from Dartmouth College—using climate models and population trends to anticipate the next 50 years along the river—have predicted that the Nile won’t be able to meet demand, bringing water scarcity to anywhere between 20% to 40% of the Nile basin’s population.
Worst-case scenario climate models forecast that, by 2080, water supplies will decline, potentially leaving over half of this population without enough water. That’s roughly 200 million people deprived of water: the rough sum of Egypt and Ethiopia’s current populations. This is why there is such an urgent demand for the Nile’s current resources and why geopolitical tensions between Egypt and Ethiopia continue to embrittle the region today.
The Ethiopian government witnessed the successes of the Aswan High Dam and announced in 2011 the construction of its own dam: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Blue Nile, a tributary of the Nile on the country’s western border. For the more than 60 million Ethiopians without access to electricity, the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam offers a much-needed solution.
But for Egypt, less access to water poses an existential threat. Before the water reaches Egypt, a downstream state, the Nile must first pass through Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Sudan, and Sudan. As a consequence of the dam, the flow of freshwater to Egypt will decrease by 25% and the amount of electricity generated from the Aswan High Dam will decrease by a third. The Nile delta, which supplies over 60% of the country’s agricultural land, will also likely suffer from shortages of irrigation water.
“The Nile is not dead, but it is dying.”
In the meantime, the Nile River is becoming more and more unpredictable. Scientists estimate that variability in the river’s flow could increase by 50% this century compared to last century—meaning that the Nile Valley may experience intense floods one season and consuming droughts the next. Ironically, a river that humans have tried to control through the construction of dams and the passing of policy is finding itself perversely and inordinately uncontrollable.
As a result of climate change and all that it brings, the World Bank estimates that, by 2050, 216 million people—86 million of whom come from sub-Saharan Africa—will have to leave their ancestral lands due to impacts, including water shortages.
“We’re going to experience the same thing that our parents experienced when they went to the desert,” said Manar Imam, 25, whose grandparents were victims of the tahjir in Egypt. “We’re going to go through the same trauma, but now, there are going to be witnesses.”
For Kashef, the impending climate disaster is just one more issue amid an already difficult livelihood. Since COVID-19, the city of Aswan “looks like a graveyard,” he said. Egypt’s poverty rate is the highest in the southern region known as Upper Egypt, where a majority of displaced Nubians currently reside. In 2011, Aswan’s poverty rate stood at 54.4% and was even higher in rural areas outside the city, including the displacement villages. Egypt wasn’t doing much better last year.
Through all this, music has served as a written record. An integral and communal conduit of Nubian culture, songs became vehicles for grief during the displacement. They became a means to articulate the collective loss that overwhelmed the dispossessed villagers. More importantly, songs served as an archive, a witness to the cruelties their singers endured.
“Nubian songs, like the Nile, capture and embody ‘flow’ by singing of geographies that transcend national boundaries, of an experience beyond marked epochs of time, of a force of nature that no longer flows in resettled villages,” wrote historian Alia Mossallam in her essay, “Nubian Historiography and the Eternally Beating River of Return.”
Songs link the past to the present and convey a history often ignored in official accounts of Egypt, ancient and modern. Mossallam described to me the stories conveyed by these songs as “a haunting.”
Presently, Nubian songs haunt the collective conscious amid looming threats of extinction of both Nubian culture—and life. Music documents the responsibilities Nubians have to the water; it documents the traumas the water and its people have endured. In Nobiin, Sobhy, the archivist and museum owner, sings me a song he returns to often: “Those who drink your water are protected. Those who protect you are my brothers.” This sentiment has not been lost on Nubians who continue to fight for the Nile and their ancestral lands with their lives.
Sitting in a café overlooking Aswan, one hand in his lap and the other gripping the spout of a hookah, Kashef shares with me his hopes for Egypt and his dreams for the coming years. He spends most of his time at Eskaleh, an eco-lodge on the edge of Lake Nasser that he built by hand and opened in 2005.
The lodge, a replica of a traditional Nubian home, complete with an outdoor courtyard, sits on land just a few miles short of where his childhood home once stood. He used mud from silt to make bricks. He painted the walls a rustic orange. He plowed the soil by hand and planted rows of fava beans and jute along the water, just like he remembered as a child.
As Kashef explains all of this, he suddenly leans forward and sings, “Angels, you left us, and you will pay for what you have done.” As if remembering the lyrics for the first time in ages, he trips over the words: “You had all this power. You bring a person to life, you bring plants to life. How could you have left us?”
He pauses almost as if to say more before stopping himself to say, “I think that’s how the song goes.”