Language – Narrating Nubia: The Social Lives of Heritage


The following is an abridged report written by one of the collaborators for Earth Odysseys: Nubia and a sample of guided student responses.

Fragment of an Old Nubian Text with the image of a Bishop. BM EA82963


Nabra’s Report:

I spent the first few years of my life in Los Angeles, with my Nubian mother and Euro-American father. I primarily spoke English at home, with some Arabic sprinkled in. I always considered both Arabic and English my native languages even before I moved to Egypt when I was eight years old, but I am only fully fluent in English. I didn’t know much about the Nubian language until I was a teenager, having only heard it at family gatherings when my relatives would burst into traditional songs, or at my uncle’s concerts (he plays a type of stringed instrument called the Oud).

Sometimes I would hear my older aunts conversing in Nubian. One time when I visited a relative in the hospital, many of my relatives came from the village to Cairo to see him and I remember a group of them speaking in Nubian in the hospital gardens. It was the largest group of people I had ever seen speaking Nubian in casual conversation. Arabic has been the primary language of the Nubian people since the flooding in the 1960s displaced so many of them to Cairo and Alexandria and away from their traditional villages where Nubian was spoken. So although my mother’s first language was Nubian, my generation grew up speaking Arabic instead. For that reason, the amount of native Nubian speakers is rapidly diminishing. Most of my cousins who spent their childhood in Cairo, like me, don’t speak any Nubian at all. I, of course, am an anomaly because my first language is English…

…I have a lot to learn to be able to converse even a little bit in Nubian, but it is important work to me. It is such an ancient language, and one that is dying due to the flood caused by the Aswan High Dam. The building of the dam has led to so much assimilation with Egyptian culture, including widespread use of the Arabic language instead of Nubian. Learning Nubian is political and is a part of preserving the culture. We need as many Nubian speakers as possible to keep the language alive, even if they only know a little bit of it. I doubt I will ever become fluent in Nubian, but I hope to at least learn enough to contribute to the continuation of our culture and traditions.

Nabra writes powerfully about her experiences integrating the different parts of her background and of exploring her Nubian heritage. We have two questions for you:

1) Do Nabra’s experiences make you think of anything you’ve experienced?
2) Why do you think it is so important to Nabra that she learn more about her Nubian language and culture? Does Nabra’s poem (not shown here) offer any clues about this?

Student Responses

The following excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity and student anonymity.

Student I: “My connection is that my family is teaching me Vietnamese to preserve my family’s culture. I think it would be very important to learn the language because it is her Mom’s culture and her culture. It would help connect with Nabra’s heritage and if there was a person who could speak Nubian, she could communicate with them. Lastly, Nabra could communicate with relatives in their native Nubian language.”

Student II: “I feel like it is really important that she learns Nubian. If she has some relatives that only spoke Nubian and not English that would be really nice. That way she can also get closer with her relatives. It’s important also because she can learn a lot about her culture with just the language. That’s what I think BYEEE.”

Student III: “I think it’s important that she should learn the Nubian language because it would connect her family history/family. It’s important to be connected to your family because if she were to go to Nubia and some did not know English she would have to speak the Nubian language. It would also be cool to learn the history because if she went [to Egypt] she would be able to identify what happened in certain places. She would also be more connected to Nubia if she learned more about it and she would learn even more by going or studying Nubian! Have a great rest of your day everyone!”

UM Mentor Responses to Students

Initial student responses are further guided by mentors to help students reflect on their own lives.

The following excerpts have been lightly edited for clarity and student anonymity.

Student IV: “I am Muslim and my parents want me to learn 2 languages and that is Housa and Arabic. My parents are from Niger and their original language is Housa but since I am Muslim, my parents love for me to learn Arabic. And I am taking classes right now every Sunday and my parents are trying to teach me Arabic on their own.”

Kathleen, UM Mentor: Hi [Student]! I like your response because it’s very similar to what Nabra was deciding – for her learning Arabic was challenging but not nearly as challenging as Nubian, because so many fewer people speak Nubian and there were so many fewer resources. Do you find Housa or Arabic harder to learn? Is there one you like learning more? Why?

Student V: “I have tried to learn things that seem impossibly difficult. The best example of this is when I learned to program. When I was seven, my dad decided that it was a good idea to teach his kid to program. Eventually he gave up but I wanted to be able to now. Four years later and I am really good at it! I probably couldn’t learn a full language in four years, but the similarities are undeniable. On the second question, learning a historical language especially if it is dying.”

Kathleen, UM Mentor: I think your comparison is really strong – a lot of people say programming is a language of its own, and similar to how Nubian doesn’t even use the same alphabet as English, programming doesn’t use the same alphabet as English either. To learn programming, I imagine you were able to practice it a lot and look up books or articles about how to do different things, or ask your dad. Now, imagine you were trying to learn programming and you couldn’t practice it on an actual computer, you could only practice it by writing down the commands on paper or talking to your dad – how much harder do you think it would have been? That’s how I imagine it was for Nabra to try to learn a language that you can’t write down & very few people speak…

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