Project Unsettled


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This Report is a documentation of the “Qustul Survey,” a fieldwork study that aims to understand the spatial transformation of Qustul settlement in the south of Egypt, after half a century of displacement resettlement. Qustul is a Nubian village, occupied with Fadikka Nubians. Nubians of Qustul are displaced; they had to leave their -thousands of years- old villages, which were submerged under the lake of the High Dam. The survey is a part of a doctoral research titled “To be seen: Gender-conscious analysis of displaced publics (a case of Qustul).” Research focuses on spatial injustice in the case of resettled societies, with a particular focus on gender injustice. The research aims to understand spatial issues and explained these phenomena within macro political trends anticipate changes and produce tools to influence spatial production towards a fair shared space of the marginalized and the displaced. This project aimed to contribute to knowledge about Nubian places, as well as look at subtle public stigmas, with the unwavering goal of researching local communities from within, looking critically at data offered by the state and international development organization. The intended product of this research will form a considerable database for a relocated Nubian village and a model for mapping other villages as well by installing an open source platform for crowdsourcing efforts to eventually give the power of documentation back to the people.

Our old village was a piece of paradise by the river [Nile]. There we had everything; vegetable, fruits, fish and so many palm trees that you could not count, we did not need the [Egyptian] government to give us anything" This nostalgic statement was a repeated one that Anna Zolikha -my grandaunt- said to me while standing next to her cracking house. Her house is a part of the settlement scheme planned and built by the Egyptian government in the 60th, and she was one of an estimated 100,000 Nubian displaced by the High Dam. The Egyptian government called the newly build housing project New Nubia, but Nubians called it Tahgeer, meaning the place of displacement, as a mean of refusal. Three generations later, we still call the resettlement housing villages Tahgeer.

Nubians are an old African population, with a history of matriarchy, that had a deeper structure of the matricentric unit and its ideological and cultural reproduction in the social structure and an ongoing tradition of -informal- matrilineality Nubians grow up hearing stories of great Kindaces. Historically, Nubians have populated areas between the 1st and 5th cataract of the Nile for Millennia. The 20th century had brought about several uprootings until Nubians lost all their land in the 60’s under the water of the High Dam reservoir, now known to the Sudanese as lake Nubia, but known to Egyptians as lake Nasser named after the -then- Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The High Dam was Egypt’s largest national project in modern history, and Nubians were forced to relocate to a large resettlement project, sacrifice was thought necessary by the Egyptian post-colonial state to modernise the nation. Nubians lost all their land in Egypt and a large part of their land in Sudan to the High Dam, Nasser’s flagship project and its reservoir have submerged approximately 500 km of land by that Nubians inhabited along both banks of the Nile river.

The High Dam was not the cause of Nubians’ first displacement; several moves preceded the 1960’s events caused by the Aswan Low Dam. The low Dam was constructed on the First Cataract by British colonialists in 1902 and subsequently heightened twice – in 1912 and 1933 , The Low Dam was a cause for a grave loss and agony for Nubians, as it caused the water levels behind it to rise significantly and devastate Nubian crops and houses. Nubian Historian Ezzeldin Sakoury documented the stories of his mother and women of her generation in his narrowly disseminated Book "Al Samedoon", or the persevering. The book contains tragic stories about the water coming to Nubian house at night and drowning sleeping people and causing a disturbance in the ecosystem that brought snakes and scorpions to the valley and inside their houses.

Renowned Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy praised the recovery process for the damage caused by the low dam in 1933. In his preface of Omar el Hakims book about Nubian Architecture , Fathy wrote about the efficiency of community efforts in building entire villages that were devastated by the water, he was especially impressed that Nubian men and women were able to rebuild a big portion of their land in 12 months with very little compensations from the government.

However, the loss in agricultural land was irreversible, as the river had gradually sunk its cultivable banks and pushed Nubia to the rocky mountain. Consequently, The male out-migration rate was sixty percent; leaving the women were left behind in the villages, migration had become institutionalized, which was rejected by Nubian women as we learn from the literary legacy of the Nubian poetess “Shalawia”, who urges her husband in her verses to come back to his village, reminding him that Cairo and its bridges are not his.

But what made Nubians displaceable? What rendered their disposition since 1902 acceptable? What made the Egyptians public, the international community and to Nubians themselves accept such fait for this ancient community? Nubians saw themselves within the process of building a dam as a subaltern, we find them acknowledging their lack of power as this quote from a Nubian man in 2012 implies: “Naturally, he [then president Gamal Abdel Nasser] wasn't going to let a few villages get in the way. We just wish he had relocated us to a higher place in our old area instead of sending us here," says Ramadan Ahmed, 59. This man’s statement that he gave to an Egyptian journalist, reflects the overarching understanding Nubians have of their status within Egypt.

Notwithstanding, a plan of a resettlement near their original land was not in the works; s Abdelnasser was adamant to remove all Nubians who live within the Egyptian borders from their kins in Sudan in fears of secession of unified Nubian state as Nubians in their native land were not only numerically superior but ethnically dominant. However, the -then- President Nasser employed the term ‘development’ as a ‘tool to distract from social and political issues’, and the ostensibly neutral language of development explicitly was used to justify the relocation of the Nubians.

As for the Egyptian society, who mostly knew Nubians as the dark skinned help, there were nationalist propaganda and racialized perceptions to help them ignore the -then- happening displacement, as state media advertized the resettlement project was a good thing for Nubians, whom they portrayed as backward peasants in need for modernization. The International community on the other hand was mostly occupied with Nubian heritage rather than the Nubians themselves, the UNESCO initiated a massive campaign to save Nubian treasures, yet it did not benefit Nubians during their displacement as they did not aim for confrontations with the state.

The aim of this research, however, is not to map narratives of othering Nubians, but rather to map the narratives of Nubians themselves, especially Nubian women, whose voices are rarely heard in the different publications about the Nubian displacement. Consequently, this research confronts formalized knowledge on Nubian resettlement with narratives of Nubians, especially Nubian women. Moreover, I explicitly look at the issue from my position as a Nubian scholar, a Nubian woman and a feminist. with a scientific training that enables me to dedicate intellectual resources to a rigorous study, along with my sensibility as a Nubian women subject to generational displacement.

Nubians are very clear about the position of the Nile river in their lives; it is the center of their economy, cultural practices, and ontological understanding. The river was a source of fertility, mobility , and recreation space. After relocation, Nubians lost their access to the river, with this they lost many significant parts of their culture. In the komombo valley, their settlement site, the river is a car ride away. However, most Nubians do not have the luxury to drive there for ceremonial practices, certainly not on daily bases. In drawing spatial comparisons between original and resettlement Nubian villages we find the orientation in the old villages dependent on the river, on the other hand, in the resettlement villages orientation depended on geological Map showing The area of displacement after 1964 cal, political and economic factors.

To understand the amount of wealth lost after resettlement, this research finds that an analysis of the change in the built environment is due. New Nubian, or the major housing project that was designed as a substitute "habitat" for residents of Nubia lands flooded during the construction of the High Dam, it was later criticized for not intending to replicate the economic habitat of the old community which alienated Nubians . The plan itself was produced by the state under the supervision of The Joint Committee for Nubian Resettlement that was established in April 1961. The planning concept claimed to take a motto of "centralization in planning and decentralization in implementation" to reconcile central planning and community participation.

However, the planning was hastily finalized and claimed to be “a replica of the original housing schemes with a socialist tinge”, which is visibility contradicted by comparing the plans of old Nubia and Altahgeer , the plans also were not based on substantial sociological or anthropological studies; as they were finalized before the Ethnographic survey on Nubia concluded its duties, who were not required to offer spatial information about Nubian houses rather they had a clear task of providing information to assist the Egyptian government in their efforts . The government then invited locals as a part of a participatory agenda, yet this was done later in the process, when most of the design decisions had already been made. The planning process -as documented in the official reports- was based on modern urban planning methodologies, hence the implementation of participatory planning techniques. However, women were excluded from decision making, this is evident in the documentations of the Egyptian government, which kept lists of locals invited. They were all men and this rendered the process gender biased. "We (the women) did not speak arabic and they (interviewers) did not speak Nubian, They spoke only to the Omda (mayor) and some men, then the men told us our houses will drown, they also said we will go to a new Qustul, we will have hospitals and schools and plenty of land (sarcastically) look around you, we were fooled" Woman. Qustul.

The typical resettlement village – in what was named New Nubia - had a modern linear grid and a linear orientation for residential buildings, with a concentration of building plots surrounded by agricultural land. The linear grid was often dominated by a main automobile street, with services such as a mosque, commercial centre, a school, sports centre and a post office in the heart of this area. The design was often referred to as unimaginative, due to its simple form and synthetic spaces that reappropriated elements of Nubian architecture but failed to offer the spatial quality of the original land.

The layout of a typical settlement is similar to plans produced by of the early modernist schools. It also was affected with the 1930 and 1940 movements of the “modern Egyptian village” that aimed to replace the existing village a with geometrically shaped ones, to introduce the Egyptian peasant to order and culture. At that time, architects and planners in Egyptian centers were educated in a system that was influenced by the British colonial regime, in which planning systems governed by using as yardsticks the concepts of amenity, order, efficiency, and environmental control. Abdelnasser’s Nubia was not aimed to create another Nubia, rather to program a new Nubian, one that will be easily governed under the nationalist regime, and a good labourer that will work for the prosperity of Egypt; which made such modernist designs a perfect apparatus to create what Timothy Mitchell describes as “microcolonialism”; an “enclosed agricultural colony, that went hand in hand with a legal architecture that constructed territories of arbitrary power within the larger space of legal reason and abstraction”.

The planning of the so called new Nubia was also a mechanism of destabilizing gender relations and serving as an apparatus of patriarchal interest, as Egypt under Gamal AbdelNasser operated under a gendered hierarchy that grants uninterrogated power to heteronormative masculinity, as it is evident in the cultural products of the era such as movies. Gendered destabilization and female disenfranchisement has been an effect of modernist planning agenda, a vast pool of feminist scholarship has established its effect, includin, this research looks at the effects of the materialities of the planned built environment of the displacement villages to see the factors that contributed to the destabilization of gendered relations due to the disenfranchisement of Nubian women.

2016 | Qustul Survey

2020 | City is a House