Some historical trivia seems to be common knowledge among the inhabitants of Ballana, a small village in New Nubia — a desert reserve 40 km away from Aswan City, where Nubians were relocated after the state evicted them en masse in 1964 to allow for the building of the Aswan Dam.
“Did you know that Nubians used to rule an empire that stretched from Sudan to Turkey?” asks government employee Shawky Hussein.
“And that the secret signal to start the 1973 war was the word ‘osher,’ Nubian for ‘attack’?” adds Seliman Serry, the eldest in a small group gathered at one of the village’s guesthouses to meet with a parliamentary candidate.
Egypt is preparing for the first round of voting in the parliamentary elections on October 18 and 19, and for the first time in decades, Nubians will be voting for one of their own.
The Nubians lost their parliamentary seats in the 1980s under former President Hosni Mubarak. Most of the seats were reallocated to Zarqa, a city in Damietta, while two seats were shared with neighboring constituency Kom Ombo. But a reconfiguration of electoral constituencies adopted in June granted New Nubia a separate parliamentary seat.
People in Ballana had cheered the news of a parliamentary seat as a first step to long-overdue justice. But some are still skeptical as to whether this step will eventually lead to a solution for their most pressing issues.
Ballana, like most of the 44 villages in New Nubia, lacks several essential services. Medical units in the villages are not staffed with qualified doctors, forcing most sick people to travel to other governorates. And given the lack of investment in the area, unemployment is endemic.
While returning to Old Nubia is a demand the community still raises as a fundamental right, candidates and residents both say they’d rather use their new voice in the parliament to fight for more pressing causes.
“We have to find ourselves first before we find our land,” says Hussein Gabr, a Reform and Development Party member who is running against 12 other candidates for the New Nubia seat. He asserts that Nubians have to reclaim their basic rights before anything else.
One of three candidates from Ballana, Gabr is a veteran politician from a large, powerful family. He used to belong to Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party.
Madkour Ramadan, a carpenter, is another Ballana candidate. He agrees with his fellow villagers that his community has suffered many injustices, but says his campaign will focus first and foremost on health.
Ramadan’s campaign platform doesn’t get much airtime, however — Gabr is the one who really has the floor in this town meeting. He comes across as a savvy government man, fluently speaking Cairo’s political lingo.
“The simple Nubian citizen has turned into a monster, and it’s in the government’s interest to intercept this danger,” he proclaims. “We have become people who hold knives and guns and raise the flags of Israel and the Islamic State.”
His statement reflects the villagers’ anxiety about the nature of recent protest movements. Protests for Nubian rights gained momentum after the January 2011 uprising. But some locals fear they’re going too far, saying that the youth are now calling for international intervention, or are adopting even more extreme measures.
Gabr says that state neglect has isolated Nubians from their fellow Egyptians. The consummate government man, he is troubled by the fact that major national celebrations like the anniversary of the October 6 War don’t resound in his part of the country.
“Our dreams are simple,” he explains. “We don’t discuss banned books or higher politics. Our dreams revolve around food, water and shelter, and those have become unavailable.”
His words seem to belie the deeply rooted sense of injustice that many in the community feel — an injustice that stems from events spread across decades. The story begins when their families were evacuated from Old Nubia in four stages ending in 1964, and continues through the different policies adopted by successive governments since then.
The state has recently shown signs that it is not deaf to the Nubian cause. Two articles addressing Nubian issues in the 2014 Constitution gave the community hope that Nubia is finally back on the map. The articles hold the state accountable for carrying out a repopulation project for Nubian residents within 10 years, and for implementing development plans in “border and deprived” areas, including Nubia.
However, some say these gestures mean little given recent legislation that they believe is unfair to Nubians.
Some representatives of the community have gone to the courts to challenge a 2014 presidential decree prohibiting people from living in parts of Old Nubia for security reasons. The case is still ongoing.