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Research Notes

Yielding Memories of Nubian bodies

Les mémoires résignées des corps nubiens
ذكريات مستكينة لأبدان النوبية
Menna Agha
p. 135-144


Le texte proposé est un recueil de mémoires, racontant des histoires politiques et affectives de la migration forcée dans un village nubien. Ces histoires représentent pour moi une tentative de compréhension des effets de diverses institutions du pouvoir sur nos corps, en tant que femmes nubiennes. Je me positionne, moi, mon instruction cairote, et mes idées reçues à propos des lieux de mon village de Qustul, l’un des campements de déplacés construits par l’Etat et qui a été victime du Grand Barrage et de son réservoir dans les années 1960. J’évoque trois scènes de tension entre moi et des femmes de ma famille d’une part, et la chair de notre environnement en construction d’autre part, afin d’examiner le rôle des bâtiments dans la lutte des femmes nubiennes. Les trois scènes se déroulent dans des maisons nubiennes, des habitats construits par l’État, une école, et un centre social construit par l’état. À travers ces scènes, j’essaie de restituer, de façon intelligible, nos vécus après plus de 50 ans d’exode, et de saisir la lutte entre Etat, religion et politiques indigènes lorsqu’elles ont pour terrain le corps des femmes nubiennes.

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1The question of gender in contemporary Nubia, especially that of Nubian womanhood in displacement villages, has been lingering around my research on Nubian displacement villages. Perhaps it lingers because of the complexity of the issue, with various factors appearing to me at every research step. And maybe it lingers because the western notion of gender keeps clashing with the praxis of being an everyday Nubian, this clash that is tackled by many African womanists such as Oyeronke Oyewumi (1997) who rejects the western category and exposed its mechanisms of imposition on our African bodies.

2And maybe this question complicates itself by implicating my personal struggle to make sense of my Nubian womanhood. I am a displaced Nubian woman who identifies as displaced from where I have never been. Born in Qustul in the 80s, I was not there to see my ancestral land that was submerged more than two decades after the displacement and resettlement scheme operated by the Egyptian state during the early 60s.

3I think the time to excuse ourselves as researchers for talking about our stories is long gone. The scholarship on autoethnography has developed to benefit critical theory and reveal folds of situated knowledge. Moreover, there is what seems to resemble a consensus among indigenous scholars about the importance of inserting oneself in indigenous research methodologies. That desire to ground one’s sense of “self” is pronounced by Paul Whitinui’s (2013) and Onowa Mclvor’s (2010) analysis of indigenous autoethnography. In that path, I refuse to remove the “self” from being problematised, because knowledge seeking in indigenous realms requires the involvement of oneself and rejects individualisation politics that allows the researcher to sever ties with kin. In this text, I lean on what Evelyn Steinhauer (2002) refers to as “revealed knowledge”, which relies on an excavation of dreams, visions, cellular memory, and intuition to make sense of indigenous worlds.

4I grew up in my grandmother’s house in Qustul until economic pressures forced my father to move our smaller family to a small city near Cairo, where I received our education. Despite the urban life, my parents – as is the case with the Nubian community in urban centres – have cuddled us within the Nubian community. We were always near other Nubians in organizations such as the Nubian General Club in Cairo, the Nubian Association in our city, and the Qustul Association in Cairo made it that we lived in Nubian enclaves. Nevertheless, my family maintained annual traditions of extended visits to the village at least twice a year.

5This emotional commitment leads many Nubians like me living in urban centres to devote resources towards Nubia and the Nubian cause. So, when I ended up on an academic track, which was made possible by our education's geography, the natural question that presented itself was the question of displacement. When I started going back to my village with a research question, it was probably the first time I was perceived in a young Nubian woman's capacity and not a girl attached to her parents. My transformation into a Nubian woman was expedited because I became a mother to my girl Bahr. But the layers of privilege I accumulated in a city have allowed me a different performance and entitlements of gender, with which I could operate without many of the burdens attached to a Nubian woman’s body if I chose to. Still, in my attempt to claim some sort of foolish authenticity, I would, at times, allow these burdens to control my performance of womanhood.

6To cast certain actors for my stories, I would like to centralise Nubian women who have spent their entire lives in the displacement village. I see three other actors that affect their daily lives: the three power institutions actively operating simultaneously, sometimes in contestation, but always in flux. In the process, these power dynamics redefine gender performance and reconstitute spaces. These institutions are:

  1. The state and its national tendencies along with its hypermasculine disposition and modernist feminist rhetoric (ex: women’s right and birth control).
  2. Religious institutions claiming the voice of a god and funded through the Wahabi project (ex: the village sheikh was a theology student under a Saudi scholarship).
  3. The indigenous cultural institution, that manifests itself in everyday performance of self, struggling to maintain itself among other hegemonic institutions.

7Each institution imposes a distinct gender contract and performance, as gender performance for Judith Butler (1988) is what creates the social phenomena of gender itself. As Nubian women, we can perform all gendered contracts induced by different political institutions that have jurisdiction over our bodies.

8Even though these stories took place during different times from the early to the late 2000s, to me they represent moments of capture for phenomena I have always sensed and couldn’t put in words. They never occurred vividly or coherently enough for me to put them into words, or perhaps I was too young and unequipped with the sense making tools I needed; these moments, indeed, are faint echoes of the political and social changes inflicted on Nubian displacement villages in the late 20th century – such as the nationalist overtones enforced in the 60s and 70s and the rise of religious fundamentalist voices in Nubian displacement villages in the late 80s, fuelled by employment migrations to Saudi Arabia. But to me, the temporal markers of these stories are defined by my moments of cognition, their clarity of appearance and are induced by contradictions in the cultural labour requested from me as a young teenager when in my village and amongst my people.

9I didn’t exhibit the same gendered performance of the Nubian woman living in the settlement her whole life. I was emboldened enough to wear jeans trousers to the train stations and aware enough to not wear them to the village. I would not put on my headscarf until our car reached the Ballana barrier, then and only then, my hand would move automatically to my shoulder and start covering my hair. The same movement to my shoulder would take place every time we sat in the street and a man passed by, to make sure my hair was covered with the transparent chiffon headscarf. It is the continuous code-switching that I found myself repeating, a switch I sometimes elected in compliance with norms.

Figure 1. A map of the displacement villages in Kom Ombo valley by the author

Figure 1. A map of the displacement villages in Kom Ombo valley by the author

10That position of being the insider-outsider has invoked what Edward Said (2000) called a “state of outsiderhood”, a state in which I am cognizant of the social codes yet removed enough to have a critical distance. I am able to take part, but also able to disassociate my body, in both states I have to confront the tensions that operate every day on Nubian bodies. Awareness of existing tensions is the reason this text appears, because the story allows me to be part of the happening in my artless promotions for more freedom, or at some times, the story kicks me to the position of the struck spectator and puts me to analytical work. So, in this paper, I position my body, my memory, and my experience in relation to the surrounding bodies of Nubian women, to dissect these phenomena and their relations to macro-political trends. I will recite these memories in the form of scenes, each with a conflicted, switched or dissociated gendered performance that has arisen. The names in these scenes are changed for privacy, but the description of these encounters are accurate in time and place.

Scene 1: Soraya going to work (December 2014)

11We woke up early on a Saturday morning, despite me being on holiday, but our elderlies preferred early starts for the day and often scolded us for waking up “after the sun”. I had spent that previous Friday with a cousin who is close to me in age, she insisted that I stay the night and not walk back to my grandmother's house in the cold. Sleeping over and the early start made it possible for me to send off my cousin, Soraya, to work and be part of her preparation process. She works at the school, which is only ten minutes’ walk away from her house in the settlement. The state-built schools like the one in our settlement were part of the promise of modernization sold to Nubians prior to their displacement in the 60s. The state promised Nubians free and equal education, just like their fellow Egyptian citizens. The schools now are staffed with Nubians, mostly women, as men seek higher wages by moving to work in Gulf countries, like Soraya’s husband.

12On that specific Monday Soraya was visibly frantic, between her apologies to me for having to work that specific day and her desperate search for the black skirt that she wore to work. Trying to ease her stress I said, “Why don’t you wear your gargaar, or just take mine”. The gargaar, a black translucent attire that covers the body from neck to toe, is the daily dress code for Nubian women, it is often paired with a colourful dress underneath. The gargaar is an expensive piece compared to other types of garments, which made it a shock for me to hear my cousin say, “No way, do you want me to get reprimanded, the supervisor is coming today”. I knew that government employees in the settlement didn't wear their traditional dress to work, but the prohibition was a surprise to me. I immediately went on a rant about civil rights, and how disgraceful it is that our cultural traditions are demeaned. Amid my naive speech, my cousin interrupted me by saying “What can we do, you know every place has its orders”, and she walked to the phone and called her neighbour.

13In a relaxed Nubian language, Soraya said to her friend and neighbour “Good morning, how are you and how is your mother today, does she still have a cold?”. The answer seemed to be yes with a description of the ill mother. Soraya replied “Oh God, this flu is all over the village”, then continued, “Do you have my black skirt?”. My surprise surpassed my curiosity for the answer to the next question; “Can I wear your black abaya?” Apparently, the answer to this question was positive as the neighbour knocked on the door a few minutes later with said garment. The abaya, a black dress similar to the Nubian gargaar in coverage, is a relatively novel item for Nubian women, it started to be a common and acceptable replacement for the gargaar during the last decade when husbands working in the Gulf started buying them for their wives, then it became a sign of wealth. My objections were raised again in the same naive “activist” voice, asking why the abaya be acceptable but not the gargaar.

14In the past five years, the Gulf style abaya has replaced urban attire as the work dress for Nubian working women. Urban attire is used to describe clothing items that resemble what people wear in urban centres, usually cotton or crepe blouses and skirts. The urban attire represented modernity for Nubian women for it was what people in urban centres wore, it has now been replaced with the abaya that represents wealth and faith, as they came in conjunction with religious tenets from places like Saudi Arabia. The school, that space of civility that represents the agency of the state accepts the abaya, an element of representation for a socio-economic institution. Nevertheless, the system is adamant in alienating gendered performances of Nubian culture in the example of the gargaar.

15There is no denying that direct prohibition of Nubian traditional attire is a breach to Nubian’s right to perform an identity. Sawt el Nouba newspaper reports about superiors in the Egyptian Ministry of Education in Aswan, who conduct surprise visits and suspend Nubian employees coming to work in galabeya (for men) or gargaar. Nevertheless, I find my cousin’s description of the school as the other place to be more telling of a dislocated identity. To her the school does not stand in the same place as does other Nubian things, like her gargaar. Rather, the school occupies a space of higher civility that requires a different gendered performance that starts with changing her third skin, the outer look. Moreover she herself, a Nubian subject, is forced to recognize the power of that dominant space over her, as that is the source of her income and has no choice but to acknowledge its superiority. Eventually, she sees her gargaar as inferior to urban fashion.

Scene 2: Nagat and the community centre (January 2016)

16As part of my doctoral research on the architecture in Nubian displacement villages, I travelled to my village to conduct what I thought was “fieldwork”. I had been very familiar with the place but I needed some hard data to appease a rigid understanding of scientific research, from which I have thankfully moved away. My first instinct was to seek help from the most resourceful relative, Nagat, an aunt of mine who works for one of the government offices in the settlement in the morning and is well versed in the afternoon activities. My research goal was to learn about kinds of architecture that are able to accommodate women and their activities in the settlement. As an academic whose training includes a strict code of ethics, I followed the protocol in disclosing what I do to my aunt in detail, her semi-formal disclosure resulted in her seeing me and what I do in a different light.

17“Listen, I will take you to the community centre” she said. “I also called the sheikh from the Mosque to give you an interview” which I didn’t ask for. “I will also take you to a young girls’ empowerment meeting near the school, today they have a lecture from volunteers coming from Cairo” she continued. “We will also meet Mona, a distant relative, who is the only woman in the village board”. Eventually, she said, “When we are done with your work and you have everything you want, we can go to Sanaa to see the new clothes she has in her store”. Ironically, Sanaa’s shop was the most valuable for my study, as it was a place of organic assembly for women. However, the agency brought by me speaking an academic language led my aunt who sees me as her niece to start treating me as she treats a state official, and direct me to buildings of value, all of which are state-led and run.

18The minute we landed in the community centre, my aunt started talking to people and describing the happenings to me. To my shock she unintentionally switched into a dialect resembling people in urban centres. She was introducing me to people as a researcher and initiating dialogues with the volunteers, who I learned are from the Jesuit organization and are here to offer self-help lectures to young girls in the village. I was admittedly upset, as I often followed their Facebook page that depicted work in villages in-need, people in Qustul have economic hardships, but I never saw my village and my people as “in-need”.

19Nagat became another woman, with a different accent, a different manner of speech and attitude. Moreover, when we met Mona, a distant cousin that I know very well and have talked to numerous times, she also had that accent and manner of speech. As if the air in that large court in the community centre was not the air in my grandmother’s house. Nagat and Mona had gone on describing the role of women in the development of the village, and her role as the first women on the community centreboard, a role she obtained due to a quota, as the community centre is a state-built and state-run organization. Such conversations that echo conventional discourse on women’s “empowerment” was never a concern for Nubian women, as the source of their power did not relate to markers of professional success. Their performance of womanhood and what it means to be a woman has changed with the change of the building and the institution to which it performs agency.

20A long day had passed, during which I encountered strange conversations, positioning me as the other; the academic, the sophisticated, and the civilized. In the end, we went to Sanaa’s shop, where we found two or three other groups of women like ourselves coming to see the new clothes she had to offer. At Sanaa’s, my aunt returned into the loud Nubian woman I know, arguing over price and faking a fight with the seller. I jokingly asked her “Woman, if I look at you now, I don't recognize you from an hour ago”. She laughed and explained to everyone where we had been, then said “That was the community centre, and this is Sanaa’s shop” before looking at Sanaa in a fake-fighting demeanour adding “And here we are among our own, who will give us a discount”.

Scene 3: The hidden dance of Iman (July 2010)

21Summer is wedding season for Nubians, and we get ready to spend a long period of time in the village with a long itinerary of weddings we are obligated to attend. The wedding often takes several days; it is a large production requiring assistance from all relatives and neighbours. Iman is one of my younger aunts; she had worn the niqab a few years before that wedding season. She started furnishing her shelves with religious easy reads and became the haram police of the house. The niqab and her new religious expertise had gained her significant cultural capital (2011[1986]) in her area. She was sincere in her beliefs that often stemmed from fundamentalist teachings of Islam.

22The wedding of one of our close cousins was going on, in which Iman, myself and other women of my family were working. After days of cooking and cleaning came the night of the arageed. Arageed, which comes from the Nubian verb araga, meaning to dance, is the dance party that crowns the Nubian wedding. The day started with a non-stop discussion about the rules around dance in Islam, a discussion widespread when a person like Iman is in the room. Whether she starts the discussion by declaring women’s dance “haram” or others provoke her into the discussion, the result is a long repetitive discussion about the female body and its movement.

23A woman said, “That belly dancing they do in Masr (this Arabic word literally means Egypt, but it refers to Cairo) is haram (meaning forbidden), but our dance is good and respectful”, to which another voice argued that “[female bodily] movement is a distraction to men and is forbidden”. A negotiating voice declared that a slow Nubian dance that has sexes separated from each other is possible, but fast Nubian dances are not. The discussion didn’t bring about a fruitful outcome, and everybody left with the opinion they came with when it was time to get ready for the arageed. All the women are obligated to attend and be seen at the party, whether they will spend six hours dancing or only watch the ring exchange and go home. Therefore, everybody needed to clean up.

24The house was then empty from all the helpers, except for me, Iman, and another cousin. We dressed up and started hearing music from the out-of-tune keyboard, the main contemporary Nubian wedding instrument. The party had started, but the bride was late; therefore, we did not feel the rush as the wedding would end in the morning. It is a relatively small settlement of five hundred houses; the wedding location was at the central football field. That and the large central courtyards in every house made the music unavoidable. The vivid sound had driven Iman to the centre of the courtyard where she started dancing. I jokingly said, “Isn’t this haram?” She yelled from the large courtyard centre “I know, but I can’t”, then stopped and said: “Forgive me, god”. I stood there witnessing an internal conflict between her bodily performance as a Nubian woman, and the power of her faith’s teachings, trying to decide her performance. It was as if two institutions were fighting for power over her body.

Figure 2. Iman breaks into a dance in my grandmother's house, illustrated from memory by the author

Figure 2. Iman breaks into a dance in my grandmother's house, illustrated from memory by the author

25When discussing three different institutions that produce three different gender contracts, it is not a discussion of good and evil. An “institution” – by definition – can be seen as an act of violence. The argument here stems from the desire and the right to self-determinism in a culture blighted by a mechanism of cultural violence. The fact that the Nubian institution is dispossessed within the hegemonic mechanism doesn’t mean that its current gendered contract does not require reform and growth. The threat I see from these hegemonic relations pushes indigenous institutions towards preservation modes instead of allowing themselves to develop.

26My biggest concern about the tensions over Nubian womanhood is the way they reach discourse. They are implicit, latent, and subliminal in their dynamics; they become fluid and undefined power struggles, which are won through coercive hegemonic imposition in micro and quotidian politics. A Nubian woman in a displacement village knows and can analyse and articulate how wearing the “modern” attire will translate into career stability and upward social mobility, even though she knows it will come with a ceiling due to her geography and identity. And we collectively acknowledge that the increase in the severity of the rules that govern women’s bodies are connected to our men’s diasporic search for resources in Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf. However, these tensions become verbalised as a decided reality instead of how I see them, an ongoing struggle. It remains undecided as long as we live and identify as Nubians.

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Bourdieu, Pierre. 2011. “The Forms of Capital. (1986).” Translated by Richard Nice. Cultural Theory: An Anthology 1: 81-93.

Butler, Judith. 1988. “Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory.” Theatre Journal 40 (4): 519-31.

McIvor, Onowa. 2010. “I Am My Subject: Blending Indigenous Research Methodology and Autoethnography Through Integrity-based, Spirit-based Research.” Canadian Journal of Native Education 33 (1): 137-151.

Oyěwùmí, Oyèrónké. 1997. The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Said, Edward W. 2000. Out of Place: A Memoir. London: Granta Books.

Steinhauer, Evelyn. 2002. “Thoughts on an Indigenous Research Methodology.” Canadian Journal of Native Education 26 (2): 69-81.

Whitinui, Paul. 2014. “Indigenous Autoethnography: Exploring, Engaging, and Experiencing ‘Self’ as a Native Method of Inquiry.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 43 (4): 456-87.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. A map of the displacement villages in Kom Ombo valley by the author
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,4M
Titre Figure 2. Iman breaks into a dance in my grandmother's house, illustrated from memory by the author
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Menna Agha, « Yielding Memories of Nubian bodies »Égypte/Monde arabe, 23 | 2021, 135-144.

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Menna Agha, « Yielding Memories of Nubian bodies »Égypte/Monde arabe [En ligne], 23 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 02 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Menna Agha

Menna Agha is an architect and researcher. She is the assistant professor of Design and Spatial Justice, at the School of Architecture at Carleton University (Canada). Menna holds a PhD in architecture from the University of Antwerp, and a MA in Gender and Design from Köln International School of Design. In 2019/2020, she was part of the inaugural cohort of the Spatial Justice fellowship at the University of Oregon, and she coordinated the 2021 Spatial Justice Agenda at the Flanders Architecture Institute. Menna is a third-generation displaced Fadicha Nubian, which ushers her research interests in race, gender, space, territory. Among her publications: “Emotional capital, and the Other Ontology of the Architect”, “Nubia still exists: The Utility of the Nostalgic Space”, “The non-work of the unimportant: The shadow economy of Nubian women in displacement villages” and “Liminal Publics, Marginal Resistance”.

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