Nubia, Sudan, Travel

The Hungarian Kendaka

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Ancient Nubia drew its power from its women.

Even when the King was male, as the Arab historian Ibn Abd al Zahir wrote, “it is the tradition that the Nubian kings be directed by women in affairs of the state.”  Leo Africanus records of his visit to Nubia “they are governed by women, and they call their Queen Gaua.” Ancient Nubia was a matrilineal society, with family identity and inheritance passed through mothers.

After what the scholars of Egypt called the late period, including the 25th and 26th Dynasties in which all of Egypt was reunited and the culture revived by Nubian pharaohs, Egypt regained its lost territory and the Nubians retreated further south.  Egyptian power eventually declined, and it came under the rule of a series of foreign rulers, including Persians, Greeks and Romans. Nubia at this time was known as the kingdom of Kush.

These foreign invaders knew that Kush was the source of Egypt’s gold, and as such made many attempts to invade and conquer this land.  They were repelled time and again.  In this era Nubia’s military reputation was earned both by its famous archers – one of the historical names of Nubia was “Ta Seti”, or “land of the bow” –  and by warrior queens known as Kendaka.  These queens not only held their ground; they would ever so often venture north and attack Egypt to put in check any ideas of military misadventures on the part of the foreign invaders.

One story has it that the Nubian Kendaka Amanitori, riding elephants at the head of impressive battle formations of the famous Nubian archers, intimidated Alexander the Great from venturing southward despite the known abundance of gold.

While little is known about Alexander’s misadventure, more is known about the attempts the Romans made to subjugate Nubia. The historian Strabo recorded that the Nubian Queen Amanishekhato attacked a Roman garrison in Aswan, defeated it, and moved further north to Thebes and defeated yet another Roman garrison.  According to Strabo the Queen “enslaved the inhabitants, and threw down the statues of Caesar.” She lopped off the head of one statue of Caesar and buried it under the floor of her temple at Meroe so that every visitor would walk over it. This head now resides in a museum in London.  The Romans would in fact later sign an agreement in which the Romans paid tribute to the Nubians in order stop attacking Egypt’s southern flank.

The Persian king Cambyses, the son of Cyrus the Great, also made the journey up the Nile, occupying but ultimately failing in his attempt to conquer Kush.

It is clear from these stories that Nubian women could hold their own. Centuries later, society has been transformed, but women still play a prominent role.  I think of modern Kendakas like my late grandmother whose century-long journey from the Nubian village to Cairo to California included not a day of rest, my mother who was managed to raise us after my father’s stroke, my other grandmother Miska who recovered from the early passing of my grandfather, and prominent women in the larger family who are or were fighters for social justice such as Souad Ibrahim Ahmed, Magda Mohamed Ahmed Ali, and countless others.

It is fair to say that in all societies, women are frequently the carriers of deep culture and social capital.  So we asked to meet older Nubian Kandaka who I was told had much of the history of Nubia before the flood in her memory. I was told her memory was still vivid. For this important meeting I put away my western clothing and wear my only formal Sudanese jellabia.

We found her in a house surrounded by friends, wearing a blue thob and chatting with lots of energy.  The biggest surprise to us was that she had blue eyes, and was part of the Magyarab tribe.  The Magyarab are the descendants of a Hungarian regiment of the Ottoman army that was brought in to hold Southern Egypt in 1517.  General Ibrahim, who was from Buda (the old part of Budapest), his five sons and many of his troops married local Nubian women and occupied an island within the Nile near Wadi Halfa.  For hundreds of years this tribe lived in relative isolation, retaining parts of the Hungarian language and customs, but forgotten by Hungary itself until it was discovered by Europeans in 1935.  In fact an offshoot of the Hungarian group was recently found in Congo with even more of the Hungarian language still intact.

This Hungarian Kendaka, peering at us with the blue eyes of her Hungarian forefathers, explains with pride about their society prior to the flood.  Life was wonderful; society was harmonious, and people were happy.  As the video shows, she speaks only in the Nubian language, but with some Arabic thrown in and yet more meaning from her hands gestures.  In one of the few Arabic words she uses, punctuated with her hands, she described the extent to which they were “Mabsooooot” or truly happy.

She explains about the various traditions, and what happened when news came of the coming flood.   She speaks about wedding ceremonies and births, and how the earth was formed and covered with a cloth to form a cradle for the newborn.   She explains that life was communal; multiple families would eat together as rather than in their individual homes, what was grown by one family was available to another.  She explains that Fakir Yusuf, a religious figure she holds with a great deal of respect, came to live among the Magaryab and built the first Mosque which became a key part of their community.

The flood meant that the Magyar island would be lost, and they needed to find new homes.  At this time many foreigners came to document the lifestyle of this offshoot of Hungarian society, and she charmingly depicts the motions of photography.  Small samples of earth were taken from various parts of Nubia, including Magyarab island, and she boasts that only the soil from her land was able to be replanted overseas.

This video would be great to have subtitled, if any Nubian speakers would like to help I would be grateful.

I come away from this encounter amazed that there was such a thing as a Magyarab tribe still intact, privileged to have had a chance to be learn from her, grateful to be able to share a little of her story, and honored to have been in the presence of a true Nubian Hungarian Kendaka.

A wonderful meeting

Nubia, Sudan, Travel

The Lost Water Wheel

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Emerging from the home of my mother’s parents and grandparents, we follow the path out toward the river, through the cultivated field, through the grove of date palms, and to the edge of the water.   On the way, I ask to see the water wheel.

The farms of the village were watered by a Saqia, the old water wheel that Hamza al Din used to sing about in his gravelly old voice.

The Eskale as it was called the local Rutana language, was powered by an ox, a gorondi, who turned a wooden wheel around its axis, which was geared to a vertical wheel, a goshor, that in its course dipped clay pots, Feshai, into Nile water that, having traveled from the mountains of Ethiopia or Rwanda, found its destiny in irrigating the small but intensively cultivated fields.  The rhythm of the Saqia, the oxen slowly turning the wooden wheel, the sound of the ropes on wood, the sound of clay pots entering the river, lifting, pouring out just enough water and not more, marked time in those villages, marked the day into two shifts of agricultural work, carved the week into work days, the year into the three seasons – the flood, summer and the bitter, cold winter.  And so in the valleys carved by the Nile grew date palms, wheat, oranges and okra (oyai) in abundance, which sustained a civilization, a people called Nubians, since before there were pharaohs or great men or anything called history.

For such a society to persist for seven millennia in such a confined space, it required deep reserves of what Buddhists might call Dhamma-vinaya, or Western philosophers might much more simply call ethics, as a basis for social harmony.   There was a balance between nature, on the one hand, and man’s desire to accumulate wealth on the other; a desire called “Al Takathur” in Islam.  In Nubia this was determined by the simple technology handed down the same way since before the Romans.  The Saqia and the ox turned at a speed that determined how much water could be drawn, and therefore how far away from the river the canals could stretch; and therefore how much land could be worked, and therefore how much each could accumulate and own.  Man’s animal spirits were held in check by the animal’s speed.

Courtesy of Nubian House in Abu Simbel, here is an example:

Water wheel in Nubian House, Abu Simbel

These natural limits forced Nubians to adopt social rules that emphasized cooperation while also maximizing the output from those small plots.  The water wheels and canals could not be built, and the scarce land could not be productive if every individual worked for themselves.  Success required some harmony.  Grandfather Abbas’ father Mohamed and the other families worked together to maintain the Saqia, and the sons and men of those families also helped with the farming.  The farmers that worked would receive their due for their labor, along with the investors that shared in its cost. As such a system which combined community ownership and individual effort emerged.  The Nubians figured a way to jointly invest and build assets, maintain records of the shares that belonged to each, and even trade these shares.  This way the village avoided the fate of many societies, the curse of inheritance dividing and fragmenting the land into smaller and smaller plots, until it could not be farmed productively and left the young generation little choice but to leave for want of a chance.

We walked toward the river, on a path between the fields. Through the grove they point to the place where the water wheel stood.  There is no water wheel.  Only a small remnant of the wheel remains intact, and this piece is being pressed down by a black water pipe that leads directly from the river to the field.

This wonderful technology was gone, and the remnant was now holding up a black pipe. The power of the ox has been replaced by the power of a diesel pump.  it brought water with ease; it surely allows more land to be cultivated, and saves time. But there is no beauty in this black pipe.

What remains of the Escalay
The last remnant of the water wheel, pressed down by a pipe from a diesel pump bringing water from the Nile

I reflect on this.

I wonder how much of our culture and identity was tied to the water wheel. We know culture as the set of beliefs, artistic expressions, knowledge, morals and customs that we acquire as a result of being part of a particular society; it is our collective inheritance. Part of the culture of the Nubians, since at least 200 BC and until very recent times, was this water wheel. But would many small changes like this eventually have eliminated what we knew of the culture of Nubia even without the high dam?


I cannot blame anyone for wanting to use modern technology.  Nubian men often worked away from their village and left the farming to the families left behind, led by their wives.  It was difficult work.  A diesel pump would make life easier.

But just as this imported technology displaced something genius and home grown, does this imply that the ideas, culture and identity would also be displaced, or would it have been integrated and absorbed into a new Nubian culture?  Has it eliminated some of what bound Nubians to each other; the need for collective effort to maintain the canals and the water wheel?  I don’t imagine songs will ever be written about this black pipe or the beating sound of the diesel pump.

We make some more visits, see stop by a house where another family recalls my older brother Semir who had visited this village in the late 1950s or early 1960s.  We enjoy a wonderful tea and the typically Nubian dried sweetened bread, gargosh, which is taken with tea.  We enjoy a conversation, a recollection of old times.  The people are here for each other.


Through these changes I still see the outlines of a beautiful culture, a village called Serkametto where 50 years later one can visit and ask about their deceased ancestors, and still find their friends walking around and recalling them fondly.

There is change, but there is continuity.

Nubia, Travel


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It was a dazzlingly bright day, as we got back on the highway.  As the last six hours of our journey to Wadi Halfa the night before had been conducted in darkness, we only now noticed the dark hills on either side of the valley, or Wadi, gradually etched through the hills by the Nile.  The hills had strange shapes; some of which look like naturally carved pyramids; others in black granite stood in contrast against the tan desert sand and cloudless sky.

We retraced our route south toward Khartoum for around 150 km just east of the Nile, until we saw a small green sign, I think it was for the village of Diabeen.  We turned off the main highway and on to a gravel road, heading west toward the river.  Tariq and I were filled with anticipation as we saw, through an opening between the hills, the palm trees lining the glistening water.We passed the village.  A second green sign appeared, in Arabic and English,spelled in a way I haven’t seen, announcing our arrival in Sarkamatto.

Arrival in Sarkamatto

I’ve heard this word all of my life.  My grandfather Abbas and grandmother Ruqaia were born in this village.  Until she departed this world in 2013, probably around 100 years old (I say probably because no one actually wrote down the year or day she was born) she probably told 10,000 stories about life in Sarkamatto.  I thought it was a myth; now we find ourselves walking through the very home of her childhood, and in fact the village lives on.

My grandfather Abbas was the son of a farmer, Hassan, a hard-working man of faith, who was the son of a farmer, Mohammed. I imagine that before the fajr prayer at dawn, Abbas rose in the dark to help his father till the soil, pull weeds, feed the oxen, tighten the ropes around the water wheel, just as Mohammed had helped his father Anno Hassan, and Anno Hassan had helped his father Yusuf (Joseph), and Yusuf had helped his father Daud (David) back in the nineteenth century, and so on over centuries.

And so they worked the alluvial soils on the mighty river winding down from Ethiopia, Eastern Sudan, Lake Victoria, Southern Sudan and Uganda, that started as a trickle in the hills of Rwanda.  Together with the other villages up and down the Nile they drew life from this river, with respect, as it made its way to Egypt and on to the Mediterranean and to all that it touches.

Farms of Sarkamatto

We pulled up and found two ladies walking, and they direct us further down the road.  We find Gornas Abdu Ali Shelabi.  We explained who we were and the purpose of our journey. He immediately recognized the names of our family, which brings him nearly to tears.  He offers to show us around the village.  What was in my mind cluster of small houses next to each other along the river was transformed, as in fact the houses were spread out, each having a large vegetable garden and were at some distance from the Nile.  Closer to the river were the large working fields, planted in lubia beans, behind which were the palm groves, and then the Nile.

Hospitable residents of Sarkamatto

I want to see my grandparents’ house.  We walk on, another 10 minutes or so. Tariq is followed by a donkey, probably amused to see Tariq holding a book over his head to create some shade.

In Sarkamatto, villagers guide our way
In Sarkamatto, villagers guide our way

There we found Suad Ali Himmat, who was just heading out with her daughter to tend to the field.  We asked her if she knew my grandparents.  Immediately, she replied “Of course I knew them! How could I not know them?  They were great, may God rest their souls.  How are you, and how is your mother Loula and your brother and sister?”  She has a bright smile, as the wind whips her scarf, and she holds the hand of her daughter as well as a small scythe for her tasks ahead.  I am amazed by her vivid recollection of someone who hasn’t been to that village in nearly half a century.

Sarkametto conversation

She points to a particular house, deteriorated but standing proudly.  It has a grand entrance, three arches, and the walls all around the compound are carved with a series of triangle openings.  The entrance way is carved, one could imagine flowers lining the entrance. All of the walls are intact, but there are no windows, and the plaster that covers the walls has faded away.  The roof is in patches, exposing the beams and the thatch, but the structure of the house is intact.  It was a large house; I had imagined my grandmother to have lived more modestly for some reason.  After the entrance where visitors were greeted, there is a large courtyard.  Opposite the courtyard is a series of rooms from left to right with windows facing inward.  Tariq walks through an arched doorway and finds himself in the bathroom.  We see what must have been several bedrooms.  We step back outside, and take note of the view; looking out over the farms and toward the river.

Grandmother's House
Grandmother’s House

 The roof, still largely intact

I recall some of the stories Nena would tell us of her childhood in this village.  As a child, she had explained, anyone could walk into anyone’s house and drink from the water aman horki cooled in the tall clay containers; eat of their food; get scolded by the parents of that home if need be.  Everyone knew everyone else, so a mother could straighten out someone else’s kid and would expect another mother to do the same with hers if the need arose.

After school (for boys at the time), or a day on the farm, the kids would run through the village, play with a ball made from wrapped up rags and leaves, while the young ones played with the goats or puppies, or build little model houses from sticks and mud.  All of them, boys, girls, young and old, almost always end up with a swim, korkid, in the river.  Before doing so they would gather some eggs, Kombo, from someone’s yard, and bury them in the sand to cook while they swam and played.  When they returned from the river, the eggs would be fully cooked and they would enjoy them.

She told us of her fall from climbing one of the date trees, and would complain of it whenever her shoulder gave her pain.

She told us stories of coming in to play one day, at the age of six, and being told that she was promised in marriage to the only husband she ever knew.  They did not live together until she was older, when he took her to a life they built in old Cairo.

My thoughts return to the village.  Gornas, Amir and Tariq are taking pictures in front of the house, and I join them.  One of the pictures is the cover photo of this blog.

At the entrance

We follow the path out toward the river, through the cultivated field, through the grove of date palms, and to the edge of the water.

Farms of Sarkamatto

View of the Nile from Sarkamatto


Tariq’s Notes in Wadi Halfa

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After a long delay, caused by work, we’re going to catch up with a few blog posts.  The first is from Tariq, who took notes during the trip, especially when I remembered to stop and translate what was being said, or when he asked questions.

Tariq in Kerma

In Wadi Halfa, we wanted to hear the opinions of Nubians that decided to stay near the site of flood after being given the opportunity to move to the new settlement and be granted aid from the Government.

Villagers that decided to stay near their original villages (after being given the option to move to New Halfa and receive aid from the Sudanese government) were far more satisfied than those who chose to leave. What were the components of their definition of satisfaction, and what made them claim to feel that way?

Would any Nubians consider themselves more satisfied with their current positions in comparison to life before the flood? Nubians that were less wealthy before the flood could have taken the flood as a change to restart and have an opportunity to gain wealth and compare with wealthier villagers before the flood.

We met a number of Nubians who did not move, but rather stayed in Nubia over the last fifty years.  “Before it was flooded, it was the most beautiful city in Africa”  Wadi Halfa had the second largest international airport in Sudan and the best hotel.

The timeline for relocation was very short, especially for a new country.

  • 1959-Water Sharing Agreement was signed
  • 1962-Houses and trees were counted for compensation
  • 1963-Immigration preparation
  • 1964-First trains left

Villagers that did not move were pleased with their decision. They explained that the Egyptians would have taken their land if they had moved. “There was not much of a future for the people who left”.

During 1964 when the trains left the government removed all services such as electricity and schooling. Electricity did not return until last year. The villagers established their own schools and relied on generators for electricity.

I find it interesting that villagers that didn’t chose to emigrate still feel more satisfied than those who did emigrate, despite the fact that the government didn’t provide basic services until last year.

But still they have many problems to work on.  “The trade between does not benefit the Nubians; there isn’t much to export to Egypt. Egyptians are only looking after their interests and much more than Sudan look after theirs.”

“Looking around, you can see that the government isn’t supplying much”

Now, gold has been discovered here. People from other parts of the country are coming in, but the Nubians aren’t benefiting much. “So many people are coming in that we cant find space for our next generation.”

“The economy is growing. Halfa is now the best city of Northern Sudan”

-A man explained that his father was crying when he came back to Nubia in the 1970s because the top of the mosque that he used to pray in as a child was underwater; he was living in Egypt at that time. He came back to Nubia last week and observed that the entire village had been rebuilt and reborn. After seeing it 41 years ago in flood and ruin, he is pleased to see that it is back in order.

Even though nearby villages were not drowned in the river, they were dependent on Wadi Halfa. It was the main economic center of the Northern Sudanese region. Eventually, this caused emigration from villages that weren’t flooded by the high dam.

Many people wanted to form a union with Egypt. There were two positions created; pro independence and pro union. Later on, an Egyptian prime minister was seen to be interfering with Sudan’s relations with Southern Sudan.  Many Northern Sudanese were displeased with this act, and pro union members joined the pro independence position.

After these movements and arguments, Abboud took power in Sudan and immediately went through with the Water Sharing agreement between Sudan and Egypt. The Sudanese were completely unprepared for their agreement to be signed, and Egypt had offered only 10 million pounds in compensation for the destruction to come. The side threw out an estimate of 20million pounds without any research. They reached an agreement of 15million pounds. Later, when Abboud visited Nubia, he began to cry, as he did not realize that the area was so developed. Later research has been done and the calculation have lead to an estimate of 120 million pounds for the 700,000 date trees alone. Only one pound was given in compensation for the majority of the trees, and ten pounds for the better date trees.

Another issue was the state of education. Before the flood, education in Nubia was superior and the region was able to send 360 students to Khartoum University, the best in Sudan. The quality of education has now suffered and for the last decade they have not been able to send that many students as they did during that one year.

All the development that has occurred since the flood has been as a result of political pressure.

A man that we interviewed mentioned that instead of looking back at the flood and its history, we have to look forward and come up with ways to further develop and return the region to its original state. He came up with ideas such as exporting organic fruits and vegetables, because the soil has enough silt to grow the food without pesticides and chemicals.  The future of Nubia will depend not on blaming the past but on more ideas like this to rebuild a new Nubia.

Gold mining operation


Wadi Halfa: A painful history

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We arrived in Wadi Halfa around midnight, a full day’s travel and a historical detour behind us.  Our pace had slowed as the hours went on, the highway lit only by our headlights had grown more serpentine.

Yet we were surprised to find that Hamu, with whom we would be staying, was not only still awake, he was ready to greet us with a Sudanese dinner.  He now working as a shipping agent on the newly opened border post between Egypt and Sudan, I knew his brother living in the US.  He and his brother generously opened their home to us.

The next morning, we woke up to the sound of the children of the house laughing as they headed off to kindergarten, wearing their backpacks.  From Jakarta to Juba, seeing children heading to school is always a good sign, giving hope that society has its priorities in order and is preparing for a brighter day ahead.  Maybe the next generation will overcome our many failings.   I was carrying a guava from the tree in my father’s house that I intended to plant in Halfa.  But the girl’s laughter was too charming and I gave it to her.

As they headed off my thoughts turned not to the future but to the ancient past.  I came to experience the place of my grandfather’s birth, and his grandfather, and his; that part of our identity that I referred to as “Halfawi,” or “from Halfa” even though I could never set foot in that submerged village that was evacuated two years before my birth.  Having met the neighbors that were relocated to New Halfa, and having walked through the house my father was allocated, this visit could only be about understanding the story of the flood from those who had refused to emigrate.

On the other hand, my mother’s side of the family came from a village some 120 kilometers to the south; a village called Sarkametto just beyond the reach of Lake Nubia.  We had passed it during the night but it was too dark to notice.  After visiting the city center, our plan was also to visit there, to search from at least some traces of my ancestors above the water line.

As we drove to the city center, Hamu pointed to the Lake at approximately the location of the villages on my father’s side were located.  There is no village; we only looked out at a vast expanse of water more like a sea, with some sparse vegetation growing at its banks.

Overlooking the Nile, where there were once thriving villages At the water's edge, where our ancestor's villages may have stood

I asked to step out of the car.

As we walked to the water’s edge, Tariq and I looked out over the horizon and tried to imagine the villages in the valley below, teeming with life.  We were greeted by silence, except for small waves lapping up to the shoreline, and the sound of wind.  The water looked dark; impenetrable; cold.  This proud river, the world’s longest, was not going to easily forgive us for turning it from the source of life to a source of dislocation.  I felt compelled to offer a small prayer, recognizing the countless generations of deceased in the cemeteries below who, unlike the living, could not board the trains to higher ground.  These prayers could not penetrate but rather skipped along the surface like stones thrown by a father and son.  It was a feeling not of closure but of distance.  Too little, too late.

Fifty years too late to see the Wadi Halfa in its prime, as one of the most beautiful cities in Sudan.  In ancient times it was a trading city; the southern extension of the navigable stretch of the Nile that led to Aswan.  In modern times it was served by a train station to Khartoum and a steamer that would link it to Abu Simbel, only 70 kilometers to the north, and Aswan further downstream.  During the British conquest of Sudan, avenging the death of Charles Gordon, Wadi Halfa was the headquarters of the army of Lord Kitchener who had brought with him a war correspondent named Winston Churchill.

During World War II the allies used Wadi Halfa was a communication post. The British had built a railway in the 19th century that linked the country to Sudan.  Wadi Halfa was the economic and administrative center of the region between the first and second cataracts.  It contained tree-lined boulevards and the beautiful Nile Hotel that housed famous visitors throughout its history including a stream of dignitaries and royalty who supported efforts to salvage and document its history before the flood.

Our plan was to find Nubians, older than fifty, who had refused to be relocated to New Halfa and had experienced life over the last 50 years in Nubia itself.  They could convey to us what life was like and how they coped as Lake Nasser, called Lake Nubia in Sudan, filled up.  As the water line rose and pushed them back; these Nubians picked up their homes and rebuilt them, as well as the town itself, further back away from the rising waters.  They did this several times, as the Lake did not stabilize until the early 1970s, nearly a decade after the trains took the majority away.

Downtown, we found three of them; Sawi Mohamedi Biteik, a retired educator, Yunis Mohamed Abdel Majid, President, Cooperative Union of Farmers, and Faisal Hussein Abdel Latif.  After walking around and seeing the present day town, very much a market that supported the new found gold wealth in the region, and the ferry that left every few days to Aswan, and now an increasing border trade with Egypt.

We sat down to a breakfast of fish, caught from the Nile, and fresh bread, and listened to their stories.  Like the residents of New Halfa, they bore the resentment of neglect and marginalization.  They first offered me a history lesson.


They explained that the Sudan was completely unprepared for the negotiations with Egypt, and for this reason the compensation and resettlement efforts were completely inadequate.

In the 1950s, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had made the High Dam a symbol of sovereignty and independence of Egypt, and a key part of his bid for leadership of the Arab world.  After the West refused to finance the dam, Nasser used this as a pretext to nationalize the Suez in order to generate the necessary funds.  After the ensuing Suez crisis, Nasser aligned himself with Kruschev who offered to finance and build the High Dam.

Implementing the High Dam would require that the Nile Waters agreement between Egypt and Sudan, in place since 1929, to be renegotiated.  Discussions with Sudan had taken place in 1952 that were inconclusive, as Sudanese negotiators were wary of continuing a very one-sided deal.

At the same time, Egypt was negotiating both with the British and Sudan over Sudan’s self-rule.   Egypt conceded the principal of Sudan’s right to self-determination in its discussion with Britain.  The agreement on self-rule called for a three-year transitional period, after which Sudan would decide either for unity with Egypt or for independence.   Egypt was confident Sudan would opt for, as King Farouk had touted, “unity of the Nile Valley.”  In fact, 1953 Parliamentary elections resulted in the party favoring union with Egypt winning 51 out of 97 seats.  The Nationalist party that favored independence on won 20 parliamentary seats.

This made it likely that Sudan would vote for unity after the transition period.  But not wanting to take any risks, Egypt deployed Major Salah Salim, a member of Nasser’s Revolutionary Command Council, as a senior liaison with the Sudan.  He went on a campaign to influence the outcome of Sudan’s decision in favor of unity.  His campaign in the north included radio transmissions from Cairo to Sudan which constantly tried to persuade the Sudanese.

On a trip to Southern Sudan, he spread cash and made numerous promises in order to win the favor of the southerners.  When he was greeted with a traditional Dinka tribal dance, in which the men dance nearly nude, Salah Salim shed his cloths and joined them.  Salah Salim was interfering in the Sudan while at the same time presenting Egypt’s foreign policy as one that favors non-alignment and non-interference.

His campaign of interference ultimately backfired.  The position of the Unionists, who had won the upper hand in Sudanese Parliamentary elections, was undermined.  The Prime Minister Ismail al-Azhari, whose career and ideology was built on a strong relationship with Egypt, recognized the popular discontent with unity with Egypt and called for full independence.  Thus January 1, 1956, Sudan became the first newly independent country in Africa – independent of both Egypt and Britain.  The nationalist party took power, led by Umma (Nationalist) politician Abdullah Khalil.

Independence did not solve every problem.  Between 1956 and 1958, Sudanese leaders from both major parties sought to find solutions to the intractable problems of building a new nation.  The task of forming a constitution was difficult.  Al-Azhari, the first Prime Minister, made little progress.  Khalil, the Umma party leader and second Prime Minister, also failed to overcome the country’s economic, political and security weaknesses.  Khalil allied himself with the United States, which immediately drew the enmity of Nasser and Egypt.

By November 1958 the situation had reached a boiling point.  The military led a coup d’état on 16 November 1958, to end, in the words of the Commander in Chief, “the state of degeneration, chaos, and instability of the country.”   With those words, Sudan’s first experience with democracy came to an end.  The third leader took power.  The country was not yet three years old.

This leader’s name was Abboud.  Two years later he would be invited by President Kennedy for a state visit to the White House and a tour of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  My father was dispatched from his job representing Sudan in UNESCO to help prepare this visit, which is why I was born in the US.

As a military man, Abboud had great admiration for Nasser, and was ready to reopen negotiations on the Nile Waters Agreement almost immediately.  By many accounts, he had improved Sudan’s position in the agreement, which was reached in less than a year.

But he was completely not prepared for an accurate estimate of what should be requested to compensate Sudan for the loss of Nubia south of the border.  He hadn’t visited Nubia.  Sudan’s negotiators went to Egypt with no request for compensation.  Egypt, strapped for cash to finance the dam along with a large public bureaucracy, offered 10 million pounds.  The Sudan countered with a request for 20 million, unsupported by facts.  Abboud and Nasser decided to split the difference and agree on 15 million points.  Simple as that.  The compensation for the loss of a thriving, beautiful trading town, the homes and farms and livelihoods of 50,000 Sudanese, the incalculable loss of archaeological history of ancient Nubia, was negotiated as if haggling over the price of shoes in a market.

They place the larger blame on the Sudanese side. They likened to a carpenter who cuts first and measures later.

The Nubians I spoke with had still not gotten over that fact, nor the subsequent neglect at the hands of the authorities. Many projects have been done in Sudan, benefiting from the Nile; ancient monuments were lifted, but nothing was done for those left behind.

When the new government turned to the issue of relocation, it first sought to consult and obtain the consent of Nubians but later chose to ignore their wishes.  Those who refused relocation stayed in a place that became cut off of all government services.  They had to rebuild their lives by themselves.  And yet, comparing the residents of Wadi Halfa and New Halfa, the old residents seem more satisfied overall.  Tariq took some notes on these meetings which will be shared in the next post.

Kerma, Nubia, Sudan

500 Miles, and a 5,000 year detour: Kerma


African cities, particularly in countries touched by conflict, tend to sprawl as waves of the innocent, dislocated and displaced seek refuge along its borders or new lives within it.  As we approach Khartoum, it is hard to tell if we’re actually in the city, whose outskirts have been growing for decades, until we’re in the middle of the chaotic traffic, fast food places, neon lights, and see planes descending into one of the world’s few downtown airports.

Having been to the place to which Nubians were resettled, our aim is to see the land we’ve heard about since childhood but never seen, the place where our grandmother used to swim with her friends in the Nile as her mother and father worked the land.  I’ve seen pictures of the top of the minaret above the waterline, holding its head above water for a last breath before succumbing to the flood.  We’ve spoken to those who took those fateful trains to their new land.  But we’ve never walked on the land or breathed the air from which they were removed.

Wadi Halfa is 580 miles to the north.  Khatir wisely decides to change the tires, oil, and brakes.  We adjust our plans and join Wagdi for breakfast before heading out.  He also sends with us food for the journey for which we are grateful and later enjoy.  Tariq stocks up on Doritos, which amazingly are found in Khartoum.

As we head north from Khartoum, we are immediately are immersed in the traffic that is in part a legacy of the British, who thought it best to lay out Khartoum in the form of Union Jack.  We cross a bridge near where the Blue Nile, which has descended from the mountains of Ethiopia, meets the White Nile which has meandered slowly up from Lake Victoria through South Sudan.  The two rivers marry here and begin a journey as one to give life to Northern Sudan and Egypt.  We head out through Omdurman, the center of so much of Sudan’s history, including the headquarters of the descendants of the Mahdi who led a nationalist uprising against Egyptian and British rule in the 19th century.

As we emerge from Omdurman it is already past noon.  We take guesses as to the time we will actually arrive at the Wadi Halfa milestone 924 kilometers to the north.  Tariq, more of a realist than I, guesses 20 hours to my 14.  Amir, who guesses 10 will be the closest.

Whereas the road to New Halfa went through farms and villages, the scenery on the road to Nubia is dramatic in its stark emptiness.  The black asphalt road stretches out in front of us, straight as an arrow.  The sun beats down intensely.   The milestones alternate, left and right, and count out each kilometer like giant footsteps. There are no herds of anything except high voltage power lines and mobile phone towers powered by the sun.

Meroe pyramidDue to the late departure from Khartoum we decide not to stop at Meroe, the site of 64 Sudanese pyramids I visited maybe five years ago along with Ibrahim Elbedawi, Musallam, and Alan Gelb in the photo.  But I’m determined to see Kerma, one of the world’s earliest organized cities which flourished from around 2,500 BC.  Kerma is one of the three capitals of the series of Nubian kingdoms that vied for control of the Nile Valley.

Tariq asks for a “nature break” and the rest of us, who had been holding back, readily agree. We step out into the wilderness.  As far as the eye can see, it is the tan sand of the Nubian desert; a barren landscape with dramatic rock formations jutting into the sky.  The wind-whipped air is pure, clean and dry.

Nubian desert nature call

As I return to the car, the shadow is of an elephant.

We are passed by a series of trucks carrying camels in the back.  For centuries this route has been taken by camel traders who ride for forty days to sell their livestock in Egypt.  Now they ride in an open truck, appearing to enjoy the journey, staring off into the distance. Two are clearly arguing over space.Elephant shadows

After cutting through the desert for hours, we see that the road has approached the river.  This is evident because of the groves of date palms that grow on its banks stand in sharp contrast to the surrounding desert.  Where there is water, there is life.

We stop to refuel and find a group of German tourists in a convoy of land cruisers who are touring the archaeological sites of Northern Sudan.  They have stopped to have tea in a roadside open air café.  Some of the Germans are having an animated conversation with the waiters.  I have some sweet aromatic coffee, spicy with the taste of cardamom and clove.

We pull off the main road into a village to start asking directions.  Amir, who has joined us from New Halfa, starts asking directions in the Nubian language, and there is a connection.  Each villager points us further down the road, deeper into the village toward the museum.  We see kids going home from school, others playing soccer, neighbors on their doorstops talking to one another.

???????????????????????????????Finally, we arrive at the museum at Kerma.  It is near sunset, and the guards are closing the museum and getting ready for the evening prayer.  The doors are locked, but through the glass we see the statues found in 2003 on this site by a Swiss archaeological team led by Charles Bonnet; statues of the most famous kings of Nubia, including those of the 25th dynasty Nubians that conquered Egypt and became Nubian Pharaohs.   But the museum is not the main attraction, it is the site itself.

Kerma is remarkable.  It was the capital of ancient Nubia, known in various periods as Napata or Kush from 2500 to 1500 BC.  As early as the sixth dynasty (2,300-2,400 BC) there were diplomatic, cultural and economic relations between the ancient Egyptian capital city of Memphis, near modern Cairo, and Kerma,

It was a trading city, with homes for the wealthy traders and dignitaries that helped move the product north, east and west.    Bonnet’s team found hundreds of seals that were remnants of concluded trade deals.

Over the next millennium, Kush’s power grew along with that of Memphis, a co-existence that included periods of cooperation, rivalry and conflict.  Ancient Egypt and Kush vied for supremacy for millennia; Kush grew more powerful when Egypt was weakened by invaders from the north; Kush in turn grew weaker through its conflicts with neighbors to the south.

This site itself, Kerma town, is just over the fence, now closed.

Kerma town

Deeply disappointed, we explain that we have been driving for seven hours to see this site; I explain that I would be happy even to look over the wall and taking a photograph, as you see above.  With no argument at all, the guard casually mentions that the door 50 meters to the west is still open.

Tariq, Amir and I virtually sprint to the door, and run into the compound, a wide open space with what looks to be a large carved hill in the middle, with geometrically-patterned short mud walls throughout the area.


Foundations and gravestones at Kerma

Kerma with TariqWe climb the Deffufa, or main temple, and from above the view is astonishing: everywhere we turn, we see the outlines of the complex city that existed nearly 5,000 years earlier.  It was organized hierarchically by a government that enforced urban zones including a religious sector with temples to worship deceased kings, royal residences, defense systems, and sectors for work, government and residence.

By 1750 BC, the kings of Kerma were powerful enough to organize the labor for monumental walls and structures of mud brick on which we stand today. They also had rich tombs with possessions for the afterlife; furniture, perfumes, pottery and food.  On the death of a king hundreds of cows, and possibly some humans as well, were sacrificed to accompany the king on his journey.


The sun begins to set, and we imagine what life might have been like in 2,400 BC from this site, looking down not on ruins but on a thriving royal city.  Thrilled and grateful for the experience, we return to the vehicle to resume our journey.

It quickly gets dark, and we our pace slows for our safety.

Near midnight, the sign for Wadi Halfa appears.

We have finally arrived.


A frayed social fabric

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We woke up knowing that we had a long journey ahead of us back to Khartoum.  Word had gotten around from our evening visit that we were interested in knowing more about New Halfa and old Nubia from the elders.

Ustaz Rushdie came to see us again, and was far more emotional than the evening before, explaining that we had provoked in him a longing for home.  Madame Amina came back wearing the traditional Nubian dress, the jirjar, so that we could photograph her as we had asked.   In a few hours we manage to see five or six more families.

We went to see the farms and the water supply that we described in an earlier post.   With a lot of blessings and well wishes from the elders, the best kind of blessing, we were off.

Salah Zekki shares his view
Salah Zekki shares his view


On the route back to Khartoum we stop in Gedaref, the agricultural center of Eastern Sudan.  It is a busy day at the market, despite it being a Saturday, since the sesame crop has been harvested, and many sacks of it are being exchanged.  It was a few days before Mawlid al Nabi, the birthday of the Prophet, and the markets were full of colorful decorations and sweets.  We stop momentarily to meet the lovely family of the driver in Gedaref.  It is a brief visit, and it is clear that the children miss their dad. A few tears were shed.

We spend a little time in the town, seeing people meeting and greeting, and getting ready for the holiday.

At the market in Gedaref
At the market in Gedaref

Seeing this town reminded me of a trip I had taken as a 20 year old.  Back in 1987, as university student, I had won a small scholarship to travel to Sudan in order to research my senior thesis comparing traditional and modern agriculture.  I had spent a few days in Gedaref with Wagdi in 1987 to better understand the more modern parfo The question was whether the semi-mechanized model in the rain-fed agriculture sector around Gedaref would flourish as an alternative to the traditional agriculture that was practiced among the Sudanese who lived in scattered villages.

Later that summer I wanted to see what traditional agriculture was like.  I decided to go to see a small town called Umm Ruwaba, which is half way between Khartoum and Darfur. My relatives did not want me to go alone, so they sent an older cousin who is now a school teacher.  But there was only one seat left on the bus.  I had nowhere to sit since a merchant was transporting six large jerrycans (five gallon plastic jugs) of cooking oil on the bus that he wanted to sell in the village.  Feeling a little guilty for taking all of the space, he offered me to sit on one of his large plastic containers.  I sat down and grabbed a pole as we made our way to El Obeid.    As the road bumped along, I held on to the roof of the bus and bounced on the large jerrycan.

The city gave way to the greenbelt, which in turn gave way to the dusty desert as the long path of asphalt stretched forward to the West. Abruptly, after two hours, the asphalt simply ended.  Undounted, the driver slowed down, eased the minibus off of the asphalt, and pressed on into the desert.  At this point the road became a roller coaster, lifting me off of the plastic, into the air, and back down on to the plastic jug.  I became dizzy, my head throbbing, nausea growing as the minibus drove over sand dunes.  After another hour I looked down and saw a patch of darkness on the edge of my thigh.  I turned to look at the source and saw that my pants were fully soaked in oil, as well as the back of my shirt and my body.

After hours of this we finally stopped.  I stumbled out into the dusty street in a daze, about to collapse.  I became ill in the street. I found a faucet and washed my face.  I had a piece of paper with an address on it, and I asked someone to guide me there.  It was easy to find, since everyone knew everyone else.  I knocked, a little kid opened the gate and let me in.  The mother of the family, seeing what a mess I was in, led me to a guest room; they showed me a bathroom and shower and I promptly changed and fell asleep until late the next morning.  I woke up, and my clothes soaked in cooking oil had been laundered and were folded next to me.  They gave me a wonderful breakfast, only a little of which I could eat.  He suggested we see a doctor.  We went, and under a dim lightbulb the doctor drew a drop of blood, spread it on a glass slide and examined it under a microscope.  He gave me the news. I had Malaria.  We got some medicine and went back home at he insisted that I go back to bed, which I did because Malaria makes one very sleepy. At that point, before I dozed off, he had a question he was longing to ask.  “Who are you?” he asked.  His family had taken me in, saved me from a deeper illness, fed me and washed my clothes, without ever asking my name.  When I told him, he was quite happy.  I stayed for days until I was strong enough to do a little of my research. But it was a sign of the strength of the social fabric, and the depth of relations between people, that one could literally trust your life with it, and that he would have done so much for me without ever asking my name.

In the 28 years since that summer, the Sudan has changed dramatically.  The population was around 18 million then, and now it has more than doubled to around 37 million.  At that time the Sudanese Prime Minister had been democratically elected, but the government was struggling with the economy.  A coup ended the regime and the brief second try at democracy.  Wars became the norm.  In 1983 Southern rebels led by John Garang resumed a war that had been in hiatus since a 1972 peace agreement, and other conflicts emerged in the East and West.  Agriculture was the central focus, and the country had just come out of the devastating droughts in 1984 that were the subject of various concerts around the world.

During the 1990s the new regime, at the time a combination of Islamist and military, largely isolated from international lenders, had deeply cut subsidies and public sector wages to bring budgets under control.  To its credit, it stabilized the economy, but this broke the back of the middle class as consumers of staples that had become dramatically more expensive, and as teachers, doctors and civil servants who could no longer make ends meet.

Late in the decade Sudan started to export petroleum and, for the first time in recent memory, the currency strengthened rather than fell.  As a result, business started to focus on imports and consumption, Khartoum grew both because of the spending in the capital, and because Sudanese living in the conflict zones fled there for safety. Khartoum for a short while became one of the biggest markets in the world for passenger vehicles.  But an oil sector might support increased consumption, but it does not create many middle-class jobs.  It tends to concentrate a lot of wealth in a few pockets and in the government.  It can help the country develop, and indeed the countries roads were far better.  But far too often it can fuel conflict by shifting more resources to security, create opportunities for corruption, make governments unresponsive to society, and create more inequality.

In Sudan, it seemed that the newfound wealth created a new elite, but one that didn’t seem to be fully accepted by society, and a new set of values that don’t seem to fit the people.  It seemed that the social fabric of the country had been torn up and sewn in a patchwork pattern; you could recognize the individual pieces of the old Sudan here and there but the overall texture, look and feel of the cloth had changed. Many of the pieces are frayed and tattered.

So it was of great pleasure to see as we passed through the market in Gedaref, and a sesame milling plant that was at capacity; agriculture was back.  It is again creating jobs and livelihoods for ordinary Sudanese, as well as migrants from Ethiopia and Eritrea. People were working.

As we drove the five hours back to Khartoum, I wondered if the succession of South Sudan would have a silver lining.  I had always seen it as both a victory for self determination and a failure of imagination –  a failure for ordinary people to see each other’s humanity, and a failure of leadership to help them see it.  Without oil income, and with a return to agriculture, would the older egalitarian values that come from hard work return?  Would that torn social fabric begin to heal itself?




The loss of Nubia for some is no tragedy, no great loss.  Just a set of villages that were standing in the way of progress.  Time will erase the sounds, the smells, the tastes of home.

As we wrapped up and reflected on our visit to New Halfa, the site where my father’s family was resettled, and walked through my father’s house, the question lingered.  Was this home for the Nubians or part of a long, incomplete journey.

Throughout history, Nubians have always made journeys.  Nubian archers were always a part of the ancient Egyptian armies, and more recently British colonial armies.  Nubian fathers have often journeyed to distant cities to earn a living for their families.  But the value of these journeys was always measured by the sweetness of coming home.  Perhaps this entire episode is just another of those journeys, and around the corner will be a forest of the familiar date palms and the silvery water, contrasted with the vast desert and wide sky.

Our history is made by journeys.  Moses had his exodus to the promised land.  The Prophet Mohammed fled Mecca and established Medina as a capital of tolerance.  American settlers had their manifest destiny.  MLK walked to Birmingham, and Selma, and saw the mountaintop.  These were all painful journeys, but fueled by a mission; the idea and hope for a new beginning in a destination that would be called home.

But the journey to New Halfa was different.  There was no will to leave the beloved home, so closely tied to their identities, beliefs, stories, myths, not for hundreds of years but for thousands.  In so many words the elders explain that they are hoping, searching for the cool, clean water of home, and find none and remain parched.  They are weary, understandably. Few understand what it is like to roam the earth in exodus but without a promised land, like itinerant soldiers with no possibility of relief or recuperation, to wander not for forty days and forty nights, but for fifty years.

In the great tradition of jazz music, a composition starts with a recognizable melody, a chord progression and cadence that is well understood and familiar.  Say, Miles Davis with the call and response with the bass at the beginning of So What.  We all recognize these few bars, connect them to some experience in our past; and anticipate the journey to something new.  He then drops an octave and joined by cymbal crash, announcing the start of the journey; the musicians step into the wilderness, drawing from their inner depths passion, anger, whimsy, or indifference as the case may be.  The tension builds as the journey wanders off into changes of chords and moods, silence, virtuoso riffs, or less so.  But in the end, the musicians look up, acknowledge to each other that it is time to bring it home.  They return to a few bars of the melody of the opening.  By returning to the familiar, we comforted and grateful for the journey.

What is home?    Home is not a roof, or walls or even a location. Home is belonging, legitimacy, authenticity, a place to set roots, to leave a trace of one’s existence on the face of this earth.  Home is a place to realize ones dreams and rest one’s soul.  As this generation of Nubians passes from this world to the next, I sense that their souls are not at rest.

At the same time their commitment to the new land is too tenuous.  This land is capable of providing, but this sense that they are in a land not of their own choosing may ultimately seal their fate.  Only by committing to the land will they prosper.  The younger generation appears ready, but it is not clear what it would take, after fifty years, to make this land home.

For the Nubians in the diaspora, the improvisation does not seem to end.  The music goes on and on, pain for some, joy for others, they struggle to return to the original bars, but the notes are gradually forgotten.  What is not clear is if the new song will at all reflect the sound of the water wheel and the birds, the wind flowing through the date palms, the spirit of the river and of Nubia.


In their own words


A series of three videos in Arabic filmed in New Halfa.  All are of Nubian elders who are reflecting on their lives since the Hijra.

Ustaz Rushdie, an educator, reflects on his longing for home, and how after fifty years he still dreams of the life he had.

He married in the new country and raised his family.  His children have not seen Old Halfa, yet in his dreams they only appear in the old country.  Nothing in the new land resembles the old, whether the trees, the agriculture, the houses.  Also, old Nubia was isolated from other tribes.  Conflicts may arise from use of land between pastoralists and farmers, which in older times were easily resolved because everyone knew each other.

The land that was provided is larger, but requires mechanized farming and is less productive.  In old Nubia, the plots were smaller but more productive.  He commented on the loss of the language, especially in the towns between the villages.

Abdel Aziz Shelabi talks of being betrayed and fooled by the authorities in 1964, and compensated at a fraction of what was lost in the flood.  He talks about the unrealized plans, and that agriculture worked well initially but that the land has grown tired.  He complains that the project really is for the benefit of others and not the Nubians.

Hassan Abdel Halim talks about the neglect of the village and its infrastructure, including an unfinished road.