My experience with the Nubian Language

By Nabra Nelson

I spent the first few years of my life in Los Angeles, with my Nubian mother and Euro-American father. I primarily spoke English at home, with some Arabic sprinkled in. I always considered both Arabic and English my native languages even before I moved to Egypt when I was eight years old, but I am only fully fluent in English. I didn’t know much about the Nubian language until I was a teenager, having only heard it at family gatherings when my relatives would burst into traditional songs, or at my uncle’s concerts (he plays a type of stringed instrument called the Oud). Sometimes I would hear my older aunts conversing in Nubian. One time when I visited a relative in the hospital, many of my relatives came from the village came to Cairo to see him and I remember a group of them speaking in Nubian in the hospital gardens. It was the largest group of people I had ever seen speaking Nubian in casual conversation. Arabic has been the primary language of the Nubian people since the flooding in the 1960s displaced so many of them to Cairo and Alexandria and away from their traditional villages where Nubian was spoken. So although my mother’s first language was Nubian, my generation grew up speaking Arabic instead. For that reason, the amount of native Nubian speakers is rapidly diminishing. Most of my cousins who spent their childhood in Cairo, like me, don’t speak any Nubian at all. I, of course, am an anomaly because my first language is English.

For a few months when I was about 15 years old, my mom brought my brother Shams and I to Nubian language classes at the Nubian Club in Cairo, Egypt. It was really amazing to learn a little bit of my ancestral language. I loved speaking it, and Shams and I would put together silly sentences with the few vocabulary words we learned. For example, in the margins of one of my notebooks from that class I wrote “Ta goob ai nabe?” which translates to “You deny I am dangerous?” I am not sure if the grammar is correct, but we had fun making up creative sentences. In that class, I learned that the original alphabet for Nubian is lost, since it is such an ancient language. The Nubian language dates back to the time of the Pharoahs – so the original script is something like hieroglyphics! But unlike the ancient Egyptian language, there is no equivalent to the Rosetta stone for Nubian. Only Scribes and Priests knew how to write it, and archeologists never found a way to translate it. We speak it today because we passed the language down through oral tradition. But at some point, Nubian scholars decided to map the language on to a new writing system, which was based in the Ancient Coptic and Greek script. So my interest in physics in high school helped me to more quickly learn the Nubian alphabet, since many of the letters used in physics are the same as a Greek alphabet (like alpha, delta, mew, row, and many more). 

While I was taking Nubian language classes, I also taught English at the Nubian Club, since it is such a useful language to know all over the world. I loved to teach, and that may have helped lead me into the Education job I have today. It was also wonderful to get to know Nubians who were not my direct relatives and to contribute to my community.

It was very difficult to learn Nubian since I did not have anyone to speak it with to practice, and at the time we didn’t use any textbook in class. I am not sure why we stopped going to the class, and I wish we had not. Recently, however, I have been trying to learn some more of the language. I started by trying to translate the songs of my Great Uncle, Hamza El Din, who is a famous musician, with many of his songs available on YouTube with Arabic subtitles. I worked to map the Arabic to the Nubian and then translate it to English. I managed to make a rough translation of a couple of his songs, which I put on the Nubian Foundation website (an organization I am working to revitalize).   

I started with a song that my Grandfather, Mohy El Din Sherif, wrote for Hamza, called “Nabra.” It was not written for me, unfortunately, but rather for one of my grandfather’s ex-girlfriends. But throughout my upbringing, whenever that song played at a concert, the Oud player would always call me up on the stage to dance. Nabra is no longer a common name in Nubia, so I am one of only a few, and certainly the only part-American one. So it is easy to pick me out of a crowd. My mom would play the song for me and sing it to me as a kid, so I wanted to learn that one first. I ended up memorizing it in Nubian and am proud that I can sing it now.

After working on the song project, I wanted to go deeper, and knew that my parents had a Nubian language learning book in their home. So I asked them to send it to me. It is in Arabic, so it’s pretty difficult for me to learn from. But through that, I learned the alphabet and how to count. Then, I somehow came upon a Reddit thread about the Nubian language, which taught me pronouns and conjugations, and linked to an entire language learning book that was available online! I recently printed that out, and am working through it to learn some more vocabulary and useful sentences. Amazingly, that book is in English.

I have a lot to learn to be able to converse even a little bit in Nubian, but it is important work to me. It is such an ancient language, and one that is dying due to the flood caused by the Aswan High Dam that has led to so much assimilation with Egyptian culture, including widespread use of Arabic instead of Nubian. Learning Nubian is political and is a part of preserving the culture. We need as many Nubian speakers as possible to keep the language alive, even if they only know a little bit of it. I doubt I will ever become fluent in Nubian, but I hope to at least learn enough to contribute to the continuation of our culture and traditions. 

Here is a poem I wrote about my experience with the Nubian language, which integrates some of the few Nubian words I know:

Article included in the University of Michigan’s Nubian Odyssey – Narrating Nubia project