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September / 2002

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24 Syria Street
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Cover Story
Sold Down The River

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Sugar High
I Have a Dream
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I Have a Dream
writer: Nour Amin
photographer: Karim Mohsen

"The dam deconstructed my life. I was born in its year, and it was an evil omen for me. The dam expelled Siyam from our village. Anxiety and eagerness swamped me and I was painfully hit by deprivation. Oh people of the river crash the dam and furiously erode its muscles... Be a strong flood not only flowing on its sides but butting its high walls turning them into thousands of small rocks. Carry the remains and scatter them away... far away, and throw the final rock there on their salty sea, in the palace where Siyam serves, wearing his white galabiya and red waistband."excerpt from The Departure to the People of the River, by Haggag Odoul

Photographer: Mohsen Allam
"Writing is like draining a cup and hoping it will fill up again. For me, as a Nubian writer, the cup will be ever abundant with dazzling ideas,"says novelist Haggag Odoul with a warm smile. Although he had only experienced the real old Nubia for three months as a child, his heart and soul are inextricably bound to the ancient land of his forefathers.

When he was 10 years old, Odoul, who lived his entire life in Alexandria, went with his mother for the first time to visit their native village. "There I went aboard el-bosta, the only means of transport linking Nubia to the rest of Egypt. I remember being on board the ferry and how I kept throwing a small steel cup tied with a string into the Nile. I'd then pull it back and drink. I can still taste the sweet water on my tongue," he reminisces. "When we reached my mother's village, I stood there watching naked children bathing in the Nile. Hesitating to imitate them, I felt like a stranger in my own land. All I did with children of my age was chase scorpions by throwing stones at them. I was thrilled to find so much space to play. The whole desert was my own property, my playground."

It was this overwhelming experience that shaped Odoul's artistic temperament. One of four contemporary Nubian writers, Odoul, 58, began writing in 1984. Within the span of 18 years he published four collections of short stories, three novels and four plays, in addition to three books on the history of Nubia. His first collection of stories Layaly El Misk El Attiqa (The Ancient Nights of Musk, 1989) was well-received by critics and in 1990, he won the State Incentive Award for literature. The jury applauded Odoul's ability to resurrect the ancient world of Nubia with its rich traditions. Here he writes: "We ran on soft shining sands and inhaled the fresh air into our chests. We counted the colors of the marvelous Nile. It spread from the top of the mountain, spiraling its way into the blue color of the sky, some parts appearing like silver sheets reflecting the sun's rays. We approached it as we descended. Its color darkened into mingled shades of grey. We ran towards it on the green strip. It turned to brown silt. We swam naked in it only to find it pure and transparent. God bless you O Nile! Our river Nile! We got tired and lay down on your banks. The sun received us with a warm embrace and its hot and sweltering rays roused us."

Among the enthralling themes in this collection is the portrayal of the Nile's creatures and their strong bond with the Nubian people. In another of the stories, the heroine symbolically submerges herself in the deep waters to live with the river's creatures, which she calls Amoun Nutto in her native language. In Odoul's oeuvre, the Nile is conspicuous as a basic element through which all plots can be woven. "Common to us all is the river's impact on our lives. The Nile ran through our land and provided us with nourishment and water," says Odoul. But when most of the Nubian people were forced to leave their land and settle in Komombo, an arid desert in Upper Egypt, they lost faith in such legends. "However, I still believe in stories about the Nile's creatures. My own parents believed that there were evil beings called Amoun Dugur living there. Such stories were inherent in their daily lives. My parents used to throw pieces of bread into the Nile to appease these evil beings. They never ate any fish, nor did they throw any waste into the Nile," he explains.

The moment of ecstasy for me as a writer is when I sit down at my desk and feel that my ancestors are dictating their mysteries to me.
Odoul's first long novel Thunaie'et El-Koshar (The Duet of El-Koshar, 2000) was commended for its unique spirit of nostalgia. It is about how the migration of a group of people from their native land came to destroy their identity. Here Odoul tackles a common theme in Nubian literature. He portrays the submersion of the land during the flooding season and the search for el-koshar, that is, the ideal way to overcome the flood. The interaction between the spirit of the ancestors and legendary creatures with ordinary people, whose aim is to save the land, is depicted as a natural phenomenon. The protagonist Samaseeb has supernatural powers that reflect the strength of his community. Inspired by the cult of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis - the devoted goddess of magical powers who roams the earth in search of the corpse of her husband Osiris - Samaseeb plays the role of the dedicated, untiring seeker of el-koshar. To fulfill his mission, he throws himself into the unfathomable river to consult the goddesses and priests. El-koshar for Samaseeb finally emerges as a symbolic manifestation of his own strength and that of his community, which lies in their unity, faith and reason.

Despite his success, Odoul does not have a pretentious bone in his body. He is a serious man who refuses to take himself too seriously. The product of his emotional state of mind, his work is pregnant with myths. "I only write myself as a Nubian," he maintains, which is, however why he was sometimes criticized for advocating the formation of an independent Nubian ghetto. But he refuses the implication. "My concentration on Nubian themes does not insinuate that we are separate from Egyptian society. Moreover, the Nubian race is wrongly thought of as a pure one. My mother had nearly white skin. My tribe's name is Al Muradab, that is, the family of Murad, who was the son of Abdel-Galeel whose corpse is buried in Isna in Upper Egypt. It is said that he came from the Arabian Peninsula. In my village Tomas Wa Afiya, a tribe came from West Africa, settled in our land and mixed with our own tribe. We are a mixture of races," he notes.

Odoul was also attacked for his prolific use of legends. Some intellectuals argued that this only served to perpetuate the pervasive image of Nubia as an illusion, a lost story that has been dropped from the national memory. Again he defends his position. "My use of legends only happens unconsciously," he states. "It has a lot to do with the fact that I come from a culture in which legends and myths are rife. The moment of ecstasy for me as a writer is when I sit down at my desk and feel that my ancestors are dictating their mysteries to me."The way Odoul utilizes these legends is, in fact, one of the most fascinating elements in his work. Especially in The Duet of El-Koshar, the Nubian landscape too shares the role of protagonist, setting the stage on which a diverse number of historical legends - whether Pharaonic, Coptic or Islamic - are intermingled. His juxtaposition of chants from the ancient Book of the Dead with old Nubian songs and verses from the Bible and Quran further enhance his style and underline the cultural melting pot from which he draws his inspiration.

Photographer: Mohsen Allam
Yet even though Odoul's writing is feverish with myths, his mother never had enough time to tell him any stories about old Nubia. "She was always unhappy, preoccupied with problems with her new neighbors, and sharing the troubles of my more-often-than-not jobless father. But sometimes she would get together with her female relatives, sit on a big carpet on the roof, chat and recount tales of their lost land. They talked about their pain, their yearning to go back to their homes, and how much they suffered from living in such a crowded city," he recounts. Odoul lived in a poor district in Alexandria whose inhabitants were all Nubians. "People from adjacent areas called our district Ezbet El-Barber, [The Monkeys' District,]" he remembers. "In my adolescence, I was always reminded of my black skin. People used to call me Sambo, a derogatory term referring to any black man who speaks the Nubian language."

People acquire their identity through existing in a certain place, if the place loses its people, there is no place and no history.
The place where they lived in Moharram Bey overlooked El-Hadra prison. This triangular area was much like a fortified zone, Odoul recalls painfully, explaining how much his parents felt isolated in their new exile. He describes how he witnessed his father suffer for years working as a watchman. "My father was proud to be a Nubian. He didn't accept being insulted or discriminated against on account of his language or color so he quit many jobs because of that. He learned some French, Italian and English and used to read the papers every morning. Unfortunately this man, who bubbled over with intellectual vitality, led an extremely monotonous existence as a watchman," he adds. Also etched in his memory is the image of his mother, in her moments of extreme anxiety, muttering Nubian songs, daydreaming of a lost land. "Although it wasn't easy for a child my age to understand what made her look sad all the time, I realize now that she resented her inferior position in the city. She was looking back in anger, longing to go home," he says.

This persistent dream of return was the subject of Odoul's first screenplay. The newly released documentary film The Nubian Train, directed by Attiyat El-Abnoudy, documents the moment of departure to the Nubian homeland as a rare moment in the history of Nubians who live in Alexandria. The 35-minute film depicts the mixed emotions of thousands of Nubians throughout their journey from the Alexandria train station to new Nubia in Komombo north of Aswan. Thousands of people are filmed carrying luggage and presents to their relatives, while others are there to say goodbye. Recording such unforgettable moments in the modern history of Alexandria, Odoul says, fills him with pride at the feeling that he achieved something extraordinary by preserving a small part of the history of Nubians in the mind of all Egyptians. The film, produced by the National Council of Cinema, also illustrates the trip itself, which takes place every year before El-Adha feast and lasts for more than 18 hours. Scenes of people recounting their memories or singing old Nubian songs to celebrate the union of a newly married couple are the most intimate parts of the film.

This preoccupation with the theme of returning to the homeland has been a running motif in Odoul's fiction since he first began writing. Remarkably, he only started writing in his early 40s. "At 20, when I had completed my studies in high school, I joined the construction works of the High Dam. I spent almost five years there to support my family. The place was much like a small colony where we led a very harsh life. At first I had no hostile feelings toward the Dam because I believed in Nasser. But when I realized that the government was deceiving Nubians, promising them greener pastures which never existed, I started to hate the rocky Dam which killed the Nile and consequently killed us," he recalls bitterly. The construction of the Aswan Dam in 1902 had forced thousands of Nubian peasants, whose land was submerged under the Nile waters, to either flee to the mountains or migrate to larger cities. The second wave of migration was caused by the construction of the High Dam in the 1960s, when the forced displacement of nearly 1 million Nubians in 1964 took them first to Komombo in Aswan. Later thousands of them moved to Alexandria, Cairo or Suez.

Photographer:
The Nubian dream to return to their homeland is the subject of Haggag Odoul and Attiyat El-Abnoudy's documentary The Nubian Train, where thousands of Nubians in Alexandria prepare to take their much-anticipated annual trip back to their land (above and right).
After the Six-Day War in 1967, Odoul completely lost faith in Nasser, who, he says, threw the whole country into dramatic havoc. "I joined the army that year and stayed there for another seven years. It was an abnormal life. I lost many friends," he recounts. He felt alienated and unfit for any job when he ended his service in the army in 1974. It was at this point of utter despair that he decided to become a writer. "Writing has been my passion since I was a child, but I remember that I lacked confidence as a teenager. When I began writing, I was afraid of writing about Nubia because I never really lived there. So I started by [exploring] general human themes until I mustered enough courage to write my first Nubia-related story, Al-Raheel Ila Nas el Nahr (The Departure to the People of the River)."

Encouraged by two veteran Nubian writers, Abdel Wahab El-Aswany and Ibrahim Fahmy, Odoul embarked on his literary career. "I used to read a lot," he says, "especially the work of Naguib Mahfouz and Sudanese novelist El-Tayeb Saleh, whose novel Ors El-Zayn [El-Zayn's Wedding] which greatly influenced my novella Khali Ga'alu El Makhad [My Uncle is Attacked by Labor Pains]." Reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez - in the light of old Nubian legends - made him more adamant about the extensive use of legends in his work, he explains. His exposure to both classic and modern Western currents of thought was invaluable. "Anton Chekhov, for example, taught me how to understand and appreciate the weakness of human nature. I learned how to love the characters of my stories no matter how weak or evil they were," he says. His recently published novel Ma'touk El-Kheir (Ma'touk, The Good Man), which was released last month, is a 1,200-page tome and the product of three years of continuous work on the history of old Nubia and other primitive communities. The epic novel, which appears in two volumes and was published by the Higher Council of Culture, discusses the transition from agricultural communities to the emergence of cities and capitalism. In this novel, Odoul plays the role of the observer, refusing to pass judgment on either state.

Photographer: Omar Mohsen
In The Nubian Train, director Attiyat El-Abnoudy captures the primitive, virgin stillness of the new Nubia as it rests majestically in the middle of the ancient river.
Odoul attributes the recent resurgence of interest in Nubian culture firstly to the success of the two internationally recognized Nubian singers Mohammed Mounir and the late Ahmed Muneeb. The second major reason is the publication of Nubian literature in Arabic. The first collection of Nubian poems by the late Mohammed Ibrahim Idris entitled Zelal El-Nakheel (The Shade of the Palm Trees) paved the way, encouraging other Nubian authors to write in Arabic. The migration of Nubians to big cities persuaded some to become more actively involved in their new communities. Hence the emergence of Nubian idols like novelists Yehia Mokhtar and Mohammed Khalil Kassem, and singer Mohammed Hammam who played a political role as leading members of the communist party and were imprisoned for years for their political beliefs and their call for the liberation of Egypt. "But Nubian people are very peaceful. Even when we were forced to move after the submersion of our land, we did not show any acts of aggression or violence against the government at the time," Odoul adds.

In the final scene of The Duet of El-Koshar, everything departs the Nubian land: people, animals and even palms trees. Does this metaphorically imply the departure of Nubia itself from history? "After 1964 we lost our land, and now we are losing our language and most of our traditions. Generally speaking, I believe that any cultural specificity is based on two pillars: the race and the environment that creates the language and traditions. The Nubians acquired many bad habits from the cities to which they emigrated, and this has impaired our authenticity," he says bluntly. "People acquire their identity through their existence in a certain place, therefore if the place loses its people, there will be no place and no history. The soil can feel its people and, sadly, both were in a state of departure." But although he strongly believes that Nubian culture is slowly disintegrating, his ardent hope for return will forever be reflected in his works.et



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