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Lamenting Old Nubia Through Music: Between Past and Present, Egypt and the Diaspora

Complaintes nubiennes. Chanter le déplacement entre passé et présent, Égypte et diaspora
رثاء النوبة القديمة من خلال الموسيقي: ما بين الماضي و الحاضر، في مصر و المهجر
Fayrouz Kaddal
p. 173-185


Cet article examine la relation entre la mémoire, la musique et l’espace dans les villages nubiens déplacés, près de Kom Ombo. La construction du haut barrage d’Assouan (1964) et le déplacement de 113 000 a laissé ces dernier.e.s face à un traumatisme de perte et de chagrin. Un nouveau genre de musique nubienne, appelé aghânî al-tahgîr ou chants du déplacement dans lesquels les déplorent la perte de leurs maisons, provient de cette expérience traumatique. Ces chansons constituent des archives vivantes et contribuent à raconter une histoire que les Nubiens ne racontent que dans leurs veillées nocturnes, dans les rassemblements (gâ’da), dans les clubs nubiens et sur les plateformes de médias sociaux.
À travers l’analyse des poésies, des musiques et des paroles recueillies tout au long de mon travail de terrain de master (2018-2020), je donne des exemples de la façon dont 1964 et l’ancienne Nubie sont commémorés et déplorés différemment par divers groupes de vivant dans des villages déplacés de Nubie, mais aussi par des groupes vivant en ville ou à l’étranger. Lors de mon terrain dans ces villages autour de Kom Ombo, j’ai recueilli des chansons de trois groupes ethniques: les Kunûz, les Fâdîkkâ et les Arabes de ‘Ulayqât. En dehors de Kom Ombo, j’analyse les chansons d’un groupe de musique nubien alexandrin appelé High Dam Band et d’Al Sarah & the Nubatones, un groupe soudano-américain.

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  • 1 According to a conversation with Menna Agha, a Nubian scholar, Fadidja means Fifth section – Fa (p (...)

1Nubians are an ethnic minority living along the banks of the Nile River between South of Egypt and North of Sudan. They are known to be descendants of the ancient Kingdom of Kush. The Fâdîkkâ1 and the Kunûz are the main two ethnic groups in Nubia. The Nile River, being a major trade route throughout history, has allowed more groups to settle in Nubia, such as the Arabs of ‘Ulayqât. During the 20th century, Nubians have experienced displacement repeatedly, for regulating the Nile flood, maximising usage of water and land farming and generating hydro-electric power. In 1902, the British-Ottoman authorities constructed the Aswan Dam, heightened in 1912 and again in 1933. In each of these dates, the Nubians had to move, leaving their agricultural lands to drown under the Nile to move uphill. In 1964, under Nasser’s government, an estimated number of 113 000 Nubians had to be relocated to a new area, near Kom Ombo, for the construction of Aswan High Dam, resulting the drowning of temples, archeological sites and the drowning of 40 Nubian villages, under Lake Nasser. Sudanese Nubians in Wadi Halfa also had to be relocated to New Wadi Halfa.

  • 2 This fieldwork (2018-2020) was conducted for my MA thesis in Sociology-Anthropology at the America (...)

2This paper is based on an auto-ethnographic account of my positionality as a musician and a descendant of a Nubian family. I examine the relationship between music and displacement in the Nubian resettlements in Kom Ombo, near Aswan. For my fieldwork2, I stayed in my great uncle Hussein Kaddal’s house, in Toushka El Tahgîr (the displaced), near Kom Ombo. In this paper, I focus on the intersection between space, memory and music, and I ask: how is Old Nubia remembered by the Fâdîkkâ , the Kunûz and the Arabs of ‘Ulayqât, living in the displaced villages of Nubia today? And by those living in the urban centers, as well as in the diaspora? How despite all Nubians living the hardships of displacement, expressing lament can be different from one group to another?

Lamenting Nubia

When I asked Dalia about her memories of the displacement, she said: “We had new colorful dresses made especially for the day of displacement. We were told that we would live in heaven. Yet, the reality was completely the opposite.” (Fieldnotes, July 2019)

3The contrast between expectations of a life full of prosperity and a dire reality, reported by Mohamed Fikri Abdul Wahab, Fernea, Kennedy and Hussein Fahim, all through their work (Hopkins and Mehanna 2010), has inspired Nubians to lament their sunken homes. Hisham Batta, Bisenbiss, Ahmed Hemat, Am Abdel Ghaffar all are highly renowned Fâdîkkâ musicians and singers, and have talked about lament songs. In his book Crying Shame: Metaculture, Modernity, and the Exaggerated Death of Lament, James Wilce quotes De Martino saying: “Laments are windows on culture insofar as they represent the ways people confront crises challenging the order of life” (Wilce 2009, 10). Lamenting Nubia was a way to collectively overcome the dreadful new life, as well as to present a living archive for future generations, a form of collective oral history. An archive not in the material sense of documentation, but rather an intangible proof of hardships lived through the 1964 displacement. Songs lamenting Nubia are still sung today in weddings, gaadas, gatherings and by bands such as the Toushka Folklore Troupe.

4Throughout my fieldwork I have learned 18 songs lamenting Nubia: 9 Fâdîkkâ , 6 Kenzi and 3 Arabs of ‘Ulayqât’s poetry. However, these 18 pieces vary from each other, depending on the history and the experience of displacement of each ethnic group. Some are about migrating for work, returning to old Nubia and others are about the hardship of living in Kom Ombo. In the following sections, I highlight the different ways of lamenting loss of home, by analyzing examples of lament songs by the 3 ethnic groups, as well as by Nubians born and live-in urban centers and in diaspora.

The Fâdîkkâ

“احنا ماشوفناش البلد القدیمة، احنا عرفناھا من أغانیھم”

"We did not see Old Nubia; we have learnt about it from their songs” (Hisham Batta, Fieldnotes, summer 2019)

5Probably every person interested in Nubian music would know the song Abbayassa Would it be possible?, which was first written and sung by Ahmed Mounib and then became very popular through Mohamed Mounir.

Song 1. Abbayassa

Song 1. Abbayassa

6This song is performed in a gâ‘da Ahmed Mounib’s house in 1982, with Mohamed Mounir on the drum and singing along with Ahmed Mounib on the Oud. The drum plays a very steady rhythm, with very simple ornaments that reflect in my mind people’s feet walking away slowly and sadly, thinking about all their lives in Old Nubia that has become only a memory. Mounir’s soft fingers on the drum felt as if he was caressing and comforting his ancestors leaving Nubia. Mounib’s holding of the Oud and gentle singing reflects his ancestors’ hopelessness and grief. The video captures occasional smiles shared between Mounib, Mounir and their friends to celebrate the fact that they are gathered to share memories of Old Nubia, music and lament. The song also expresses resistance to the mind’s ability to forget the fact that Nubia is now lost underwater, and the need to move on. Only hope for destiny to bring them back for a return that makes the present bearable. Fâdîkkâ lament songs are unlike Kenzi songs, where lamenting Nubia focuses a lot on the event of being displaced as well as life in Old Nubia and the surrounding nature.

The Kunûz

Figure 1. Photo taken by the author in 2019 of Am Eissa in his home

Figure 1. Photo taken by the author in 2019 of Am Eissa in his home

7Am Eissa is a renowned Kunzî Tambour player living in Toushka Gharb (West). When I asked him about songs of the displacement, he recited the words mentioned in Song 2. The song does not have a title nor the composer is known. I was surprised that a highly skilled musician like him would have a hard time remembering the melody, but the lyrics were strongly engraved in his mind. The devastating experience of losing a home and the fear of not being able to return may be the reason why Am Eissa cannot remember the melodies. Alia Mossallam (2012) talks about her quest for songs sung during the construction of the Aswan High Dam. Surprised at her question, Mossallam’s interlocutor explains how the construction site of the dam was close to a battle ground, where songs and melodies seem to be a luxurious practice. In a similar way, in not remembering the melody of the song, it seems that the displacement and the post resettlement life conditions were so tough to want to sing or think of a sequence of melodies.

  • 3 First in 1912 in the first elevation of the Aswan Dam, second in 1931 in the second elevation of t (...)

8The song verse is a conversation between a man and his wife, where they question the notion of home. The verse gives the impression that the Kenzi couple are used to moving and rebuilding homes, due to the multiple forced displacements that the Kunûz living in Toushka Gharb had to face3. But also, this may be due to Kunûz’s labor migration, leaving women taking care of the households. This theme contrasts with the songs sung by Fâdîkkâ singers where lament only reflect the 1964 displacement.

Arabs of ‘Ulayqât

“أنا أصلا عربي من عرب العلیقات، وجغرافيا نوبي”

“I am originally from the Arabs of ‘Ulayqât. Yet, geographically I am Nubian.” (Hassan Abdel Rahman, Fieldnotes, Winter 2020)

9The Arabs of ‘Ulayqât have settled in Nubia coming from the Arabian peninsula centuries ago. In 1964, they were also relocated with the Kunûz and the Fâdîkkâ to Kom Ombo. During a gaada ‘Ulayqât’s lamenting Nubia is different from the Fâdîkkâ ’s, where the later uses a call and response pentatonic singing. Hassan’s poetry highlights the mastering of a complex form of Arabic language, as well as a unique gift of poetry improvisation. He refers to elements that are specific to the ‘Ulayqât’s ceremonial life, such as mentioning the terbala dance. Therefore, while the displacement was experienced by all three ethnic groups, their lament is different.

Poetry 1. Yâ Halîl – How Beautiful !

Poetry 1. Yâ Halîl – How Beautiful !

The Wadi Halfa Experience of lament songs

10While this paper focuses on examples of Egyptian Nubians lamenting Old Nubia, in this section I look at the Sudanese Nubian perspective in lamenting Old Nubia and the displacement. Nubia is lamented by Sudanese Nubians such as El Balabel, Mohamed Wardi or Thabet Tabet, a Tambour player that I met in summer 2019. Originally from Mahass, in Wadi Halfa, Thabet moved to Cairo for a few years and currently lives on Elephantine Island, Aswan. Thabet’s wife was born in Wadi Halfa El Gedida (the new Wadi Halfa). They both explained how important it is to live by the Nile, which was their main reason for relocating to Aswan, despite the active cultural life in Cairo. In his home and with his Tambour, Thabet lamented Nubia through the following song:

Song 3. Anâ Asmarr Nûbî – I am a Dark Nubian

Song 3. Anâ Asmarr Nûbî – I am a Dark Nubian

11Thabet’s usage of words like loss, home and referring to the ancient kingdom of Kush reminds us of a lot of Fâdîkkâ and Kunzî lament songs. Yet, he makes sure to specify that home is in Sudanese Nubia in Wadi Halfa. His playing on the Tambour is very unique to Tambour players in the displaced villages of Nubia, where there is more grove to it – an element that is more common in Sudanese music, than in Nubian music, where the melody is steadier and more repetitive. The cheerful upbeat melody of his song, played in a moderate fast tempo, goes against our imagination of lament songs being slow and melancholic. It reflects a lament of a person who has never lived the displacement, yet still relates to Nubia and the displacement.

The Urban experience through High Dam Band

  • 4 A musical festival in Alexandria.
  • 5 Al-Tîr al-Muhâgir or the migrant bird is a song by Mohamed Wardi but also a term that has been use (...)

12Since musical production is a reflection of the soundscape surrounding its practitioners, it is important to study lament songs by young Nubians born and raised in urban Egypt. High Dam Band is a Nubian Alexandrian band of people who have never witnessed the displacement. In June 2013, for the occasion of the Oufuqy Music Festival4, the band released a song to all migrant Nubians around the world called Ya Tîr or Oh bird5, written and composed by Loon, lead singer and guitarist of the band at the time. In this section, as I was the flautist of the band (2011-2015), I share my thoughts and feelings as an insider.

Figure 2. Picture of the High Dam Band. Source: Facebook page

Figure 2. Picture of the High Dam Band. Source: Facebook page

13The band’s musical arrangement is based on lead and bass guitar, heavy drums, percussions, keyboard, vocal and flute. Such a sonic mixture is more complex than music produced by Fâdîkkâ , Kunûz or the Arabs of ‘Ulayqât living in the displaced villages of Nubia, which, as demonstrated in earlier sections, is based on mostly one or maximum two instruments playing; the Oud and Keyboard. Such complexity is only in harmony, as older drumming playing in Nubia allowed a set of five or six drums to play together completing one another. Melodic and harmonic instruments in the displaced villages of Nubia serve as an accompaniment to the singer. Ya Tîr is a reflection of the band’s experience of being sons of migrant Nubians to Alexandria. However, songs lamenting Nubia written especially by Fâdîkkâ and Arabs of ‘Ulayqât living in the displaced villages focus on creating an archive to remember Old Nubia.

  • 6 Arâgid is a form of dance performed by Fâdîkkâ in weddings, where people form a circle and with ho (...)

14I remember that, when performing Ya Tîr, my feet kept taking small steps to keep the pulse resonating in my body, but also to keep my anxiety on stage under control. Loon also had his feet moving as if we were, as a band, performing Arâgid6, locked together forming a chain where our minds and hearts lament Nubia. By the time the song ended, I had tears in my eyes as if I was personally displaced from Old Nubia and lamenting it’s drowning.

Song 4. Yâ Tîr – Oh Bird !

Song 4. Yâ Tîr – Oh Bird !

The diaspora with Al Sarah & the Nubatones

15Nuba Noutou is a very famous Fâdîkkâ folk tune, rearranged by Al Sarah, a Nubian Sudanese American singer and ethnomusicologist, based and moved to the US as a child with her family. The Nubatones, her band, are also all migrants to the US. Her musical arrangements and fashion reflect a fusion of American retro pop and Sudanese styles. In August 2018, I attended her concert in Darb 1718, a concert room in Cairo. She gave a beautiful poetic introduction to Nuba Noutou, in which she talked about the challenges that Nubia faced being divided by British colonizers and suffering from the 1964 displacement that has equally impacted Sudanese and Egyptian Nubians. She completed her introduction by emphasizing the importance of Nubian reunification and how Nuba Noutou should be the national anthem of Nubia.

Figure 3. Picture from Al Sarah & The Nubatones.

Figure 3. Picture from Al Sarah & The Nubatones.

Source: Facebook page

16As a member of an audience and a Nubian descent, for me Al Sarah’s speech was very moving and powerful for its invitation to think of a return to Nubia and belonging. Al Sarah & The Nubatones’ production of this song reminds us of black American soul music production for it putting the drum and bass guitar groove at the forefront of the track along with the singing. Also, the backing vocal answering Al Sarah’s singing is produced with Al Sarah’s main voice with special effects added as well as singing in harmony to the main melody played by the Oud. This all suggests that the way in which Al Sarah & the Nubatones are lamenting Nubia reflects their experience as migrants to the US.

Song 5. Nuba Noutou.

Song 5. Nuba Noutou.


17Lament songs offer an archive that gets to be passed on from one generation to another. It also offers an alternative way of telling history events such as the 1964 displacement. As a young Alexandrian Nubian myself and a musician, it was through Nubian lament songs that I got to be interested in Old Nubia and to learn about the displacement. Despite not speaking the Fâdîkkâ language, yet the catchy melodies of these songs have invited me to want to translate and understand its lyrics. It was through these melodies that I felt a sense of belonging to Nubia, especially as I haven’t met my great grandparents to ask them about Old Nubia or how the displacement happened. Lament songs, as well as Nubian literature, were my gateway to learning about 1964 and becoming Nubian myself.

18In this paper, I demonstrated through lyrical as well as musical analysis the ways in which Old Nubia and the displacement have been and still are remembered by different ethnic groups living in the displaced villages of Nubia, near Kom Ombo, in Alexandria, as well as in the diaspora. Sonic texture, musical arrangement and lyrics all contribute to showing us how people remember Nubia, but also, from which part of the world they come from, what do they miss about Nubia and how do they remember it.

19The 1964 Nubian displacement has been a very traumatic and harsh experience, but also inspiring. Talking about it and remembering it keeps finding its way to the present through contemporary creative practices by Nubians everywhere around the world. In addition, it is through sonic texture and lyrics that these creative practices reflect the particular geographical space and experience of displacement and migration lived by music practitioners. Yet, it is important to ask whether we will see in the future more creative practices remembering Old Nubia and the displacement? By whom? How will it sound and look?

It is to the people of Nubia and my extended family, I have met throughout my fieldwork (2018-2020), that I owe all thanks and gratitude to. Without their generous hospitality and sharing of their thoughts, I wouldn't have been able to produce my MA thesis nor this paper. I extend my appreciation to my great uncle Hussein Kaddal for staying in his house in Toushka Sharq (East) during my fieldwork, and for sharing with me all his memories of Old Nubia and the displacement.
This paper has received a lot of attention and revision by my MA thesis committee and professors Dr. Hanan Sabae, Dr. Reem Saad, Dr. Manuel Schwab and Dr. Tom Western. Their guidance and insights throughout my two years of education at the American University in Cairo has been a major help and enjoyable unforgettable experience.

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Hopkins, Nicholas S., and Sohair R. Mehanna, ed. 2011. Nubian Encounters: The Story of the Nubian Ethnological Survey, 1961-1964. Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press.

Mossallam, Alia. 2012. Hikâyât Shab – Stories of Peoplehood: Nasserism, Popular Politics and Songs in Egypt, 1956-1973. PhD thesis, London: The London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Wilce, James M. 2009. Crying Shame: Metaculture, Modernity, and the Exaggerated Death of Lament. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

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1 According to a conversation with Menna Agha, a Nubian scholar, Fadidja means Fifth section – Fa (part) dija (number 5). It is an historical administrative designation and not an ethnic one, that is why there are different ethnic groups under this term. In this paper I make a conscious decision to use the word Fâdîkkâ instead of Fadidja, based on how Nubians pronounce it in the displaced villages today.

2 This fieldwork (2018-2020) was conducted for my MA thesis in Sociology-Anthropology at the American University in Cairo.

3 First in 1912 in the first elevation of the Aswan Dam, second in 1931 in the second elevation of the dam, and again in 1964 for the construction of the Aswan High Dam.

4 A musical festival in Alexandria.

5 Al-Tîr al-Muhâgir or the migrant bird is a song by Mohamed Wardi but also a term that has been used a lot to refer to the Nubian who is away from home.

6 Arâgid is a form of dance performed by Fâdîkkâ in weddings, where people form a circle and with holding hands they take one step left and one step to the right.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Song 1. Abbayassa
Fichier image/jpeg, 686k
Titre Figure 1. Photo taken by the author in 2019 of Am Eissa in his home
Fichier image/jpeg, 399k
Titre Song 2. Unnamed
Fichier image/jpeg, 163k
Titre Poetry 1. Yâ Halîl – How Beautiful !
Fichier image/jpeg, 819k
Titre Song 3. Anâ Asmarr Nûbî – I am a Dark Nubian
Fichier image/jpeg, 616k
Titre Figure 2. Picture of the High Dam Band. Source: Facebook page
Fichier image/jpeg, 472k
Titre Song 4. Yâ Tîr – Oh Bird !
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,0M
Titre Figure 3. Picture from Al Sarah & The Nubatones.
Crédits Source: Facebook page
Fichier image/jpeg, 951k
Titre Song 5. Nuba Noutou.
Fichier image/jpeg, 279k
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Pour citer cet article

Référence papier

Fayrouz Kaddal, « Lamenting Old Nubia Through Music: Between Past and Present, Egypt and the Diaspora »Égypte/Monde arabe, 23 | 2021, 173-185.

Référence électronique

Fayrouz Kaddal, « Lamenting Old Nubia Through Music: Between Past and Present, Egypt and the Diaspora »Égypte/Monde arabe [En ligne], 23 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2024, consulté le 14 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Fayrouz Kaddal

Fayrouz Kaddal is a MA graduate of Sociology-Anthropology (Spring 2021) at the American University in Cairo. Her interest in migration and music, as well as being of Nubian descent has inspired her MA thesis titled “ On Displacement and Music: Embodiments of Contemporary Nubian Music in the Nubian Resettlements”. She has spent between 2018-2020 doing fieldwork in the village of her ancestors, the displaced village of Toushka, Kom Ombo. Fayrouz is also a practicing musician (Flute), who is interested in folk music, particularly Nubian music. She has collaborated on a number of artistic and musical projects: KaddalMerrill, High Dam Band, AfriCairo and Felouka.

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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