The woman reviving Egypt’s Nubian heritage

Travel

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In Nasr El-Nuba, stories of ancestral lands like Haseeba’s are cherished by an aging generation, who hold a tighter grasp on the language, despite being completely disconnected from the Nile. Conversely, those closer to the city of Aswan, 50km to the south, who still live by the river and work in tourism have kept some Nubian customs alive by marketing them as touristic experiences. (The Nile crocodile, a culturally significant symbol of strength, can be seen in shallow pits in many Nubian guesthouses.)

The word “mshkomsy”, and Amberkab’s ignorance of it, is emblematic of the state of Nubian languages today: even those that do speak them often have glaring gaps in their knowledge.

“The more songs my mother sang, the more we explored, and the more we realised I didn’t know,” Amberkab recalled. Camera in hand, the young filmmaker set out on an odyssey to find all she didn’t know about her home and heritage and share it with the next generation of Nubian youth through Koma Waidi, an Aswan-based education initiative focused on workshops and heritage documentation, which means “tales of the past” in Kenzi.

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I met Amberkab on the sun-baked roof of a guesthouse on Elephantine Island, a two-minute boat ride across from Aswan. We took respite from the heat, watched the boats pass over the shimmering river, and contemplated the fear and wonder of crocodile taxidermy – strewn about the owner’s collection of antiques lay 3m-long stuffed and mounted crocodiles. Above them, display shelves held delicate wooden carvings of traditional Nubian houses, a cabinet housed vintage 16mm cameras and British pocket-watches, and a wall was piled high with traditional clay pots, old wooden containers and a few mass-produced souvenirs.

Amberkab was deep in conversation with 13-year-old Koma Waidi participants Samaa Merghany and Doha Tarek, who had joined us to talk about their experience learning to make documentaries about their heritage. Picking up item after item from the guesthouse’s shelves behind her, Amberkab taught the teenagers about the old barter economy, marriage rituals and how to make traditional kohl, the eyeliner prevalent in cultures across the Middle East, South Asia and parts of Africa.

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