Uncovering the Nubian Identity

by Rana Tawfik

Featuring an interview with Nabra Nelson


In continuance with the previous article, I continue to unravel the concept of identity politics in this article, where I look into the Nubian issue in Egypt. Even though I was born and raised in Egypt, I had no prior knowledge of the Nubians, and researching this article brought alight a group of people that should not be neglected and that should be given way more consideration. More awareness should be highlighted on the Nubians and their important positioning within Egyptian society.  

For this article, I conversed with Nabra of Nubian heritage to gain a better understanding of the Nubians’ background, culture, and displacement that took place a couple of years ago. 


 So who are the Nubians? Nubians, believed to be one of the earliest civilizations, are distinguished as an ethnolinguistic group who reside in both North Sudan and Egypt. Roughly, around 3-4 million Nubians are residing in Egypt. The Nubians have a distinct identity from the Egyptians in terms of culture and language. The Nubians became a focal point of discussion in the 1960s when their lands were seized by the Egyptian government as a means to use their lands to build the Aswan High Dam. Their lives have been disrupted by the move as they were forced to relocate to other parts of Aswan, Egypt, or abroad. Their cultural heritage and livelihoods, both of which were tied to their lands, were rattled by the displacement. Recently, they were brought back to the spotlight due to governmental efforts to compensate them for the loss of their lands. 

Interview with Nabra 

Rana: How do you self-identify?

Nabra: I am Euro-American-Nubian-Egyptian

R: How do you self-identify in Egypt? 

N: I’m referred to as Egyptian-American. People neither thought nor knew I was Nubian. However, I made sure to identify as Nubian-Egyptian as I grew up in Egypt and speak Arabic. Identity was not something I needed to talk about much in Egypt. 

R: Do you think of your Nubian identity as contrary to your Egyptian identity?

N: For me, they go hand in hand, mixing already modern Nubian culture and modern Egyptian culture. My whole Nubian family speak Arabic and had to learn Arabic after the displacement. There is a certain blend between both cultures. 

R: How has the displacement affected you and your family? 

N: My family felt a generational loss, a generational trauma of some sort. Something more than just the intellectualizing. Trying to understand that feeling of generational loss of the old village and the old way of being fuels my arts and activism. 

My mom was 8 years old when the displacement happened. Her whole family relocated to an area – near Aswan – where they had displaced Nubian villages. They had rebuilt houses for everyone. It was horrible. The new houses didn’t feel “Nubian” at all. They were made of concrete not mud and straw and had no life. They were also far from the Nile, which was an uneasy feeling as the Nile ran deep next to all Nubian villages. Instead of building the villages next to the Nile, the government built the villages in the desert. The Nile is a key life source for the Nubians. It is a source of rituals, stories, and games. Everything happens around the Nile. At first, they thought the move was temporary, because of the yearly flooding. And so, they left some of the things in the old village. After a while, it started to settle that they were not going back and realized it was permanent. 

A lot of the families left for Cairo. In Cairo, the Nubians had to assimilate. [Referring to her mother] She had to learn Arabic when she moved to Cairo. She had to push away the Nubian language as people were making fun of her. She looked different and spoke differently. There was a lot of pressure to fit in. The displacement affected her hugely. The old village had everything they needed. There was this constant longing to go back to the old village –to their old life. The doors were always open; people were visiting each other constantly. They were happy and secure where they were. Nubians are dignified, honest, kind, open people. They always bring dignity and pride to any job or any task they undertake. They are truly secure in who they are and their history, despite the struggles and repression they have faced. 

R: How is your family faring now?

N: Most of my family still lives in Egypt. After they have adjusted in their respective settlements, Nubians were able to develop a reputation for themselves as really incredible people with a lot of integrity. They have established themselves. 

R: What do you think the next steps should be?  

N: According to my mom, in the process of advocating for our history, we shouldn’t lose the quality of the Nubian culture. In advocating for ourselves, we hold on to what makes us Nubian. We should continue to hold on to our sense of identity, culture, and pride. 

R: Do you have a message you’d like to send out?   

N: To start, we need to focus on spreading awareness of Nubians. People should know that they exist and realize that they are modern people as well as ancient people. People should know that we are one of the first civilizations. We are older than the Egyptians. People should also know that our culture continues until today and that we’re very much a strong culture and that we are different. Folks should know that we have our language, history, culture and that our history is important to the world. We should continue advocating and supporting Nubians and spreading the word about who we are and our culture. A couple of things have been in the works to raise awareness. There is a Nubian club in Cairo that provides Nubian classes, financial support and acts as an all-around hub for Nubian culture. In Aswan and the other villages, there are a lot of people working to preserve the culture. There are schools there that are teaching the Nubian language. The more that people know, the more that they can identify. On my part, I am going to celebrate my differences. It is important to hear our voices. 

Rana Tawfik

Humanitarian Content Writer, Act for Displaced Rana is based in Cairo, Egypt. She holds an MA in Public Policy from King’s College London and a BA in Politics with Human Rights from the University of Essex. She has an avid passion for human rights and education, specifically with regards to children and marginalized communities. She hopes to one day secure equal access to quality education for all.