Strolling down the streets in El-Gamaliyya district of Cairo, a couple of days before the beginning of the month of Ramadan, the attractive area for tourists is even more packed. Being the birthplace of the Fanous, Egyptians Muslims pass by holding up their new bought ‘light of Ramadan’. The manufacture of lamps is one of the oldest crafts in Egypt. The district is home to a thousand workshops collecting centuries-old craftmaking traditions.
Beside the decorative textiles inspired by the Islamic motifs, the covered Khayamiyya, the street of the Tentmakers, captures during the holy month the image of Bakkar. The adventures of the eight year old Nubian-Egyptian Bakkar, his pet goat Rashida, and his friends were drawn in an Egyptian cartoon broadcasted each year during the prime time Ramadan slot, directly after the breaking of the daily fast. At home, the theme song is played whenever the thought of Ramadan comes along.
Nubian from the outside, Egyptian from the inside
The opening song sung by the popular Egyptian singer with Nubian roots Muhammad Mounir sets the tone of the show:
From an early age he knows what it means
That in his heart and soul he’s Egyptian,
and the Nile flows through his veins.
The history of his land and country
flows in his blood,
In his heart and soul he’s Egyptian
and the Nile flows through his veins.
Although inside his heart and soul an Egyptian, in his appearance he is Nubian. “His Nubianness is referenced visually by his dark skin colour and his colourful clothing, geographically by the setting, and linguistically through some features of his speech, such as accent and vocabulary”, writes Elizabeth A. Smith in her paper ‘In His Heart and Soul He’s Egyptian, The Nile Flows Through His veins’: Bakkar as Egyptian and African (2009). She argues that “the primary objective of the show is to demonstrate that he is like any other Egyptian boy belonging to the nation.”
Historically, Nubia stretches out from Aswan in the south of Egypt to Khartoum in Sudan. Egypt’s eye on Nubia has been politically justified as a watcher for the unity of the Nile valley. “At times that also included Sudan”, mentions Viola Shafik in her book Popular Egyptian Cinema. Gender, Class, and Nation (2006). The Sudanese independence in 1956 has divided Nubian territory between the two states and for a long time Nubians have been immigrating to the cities of both countries.
Nubians at the service of the Egyptian nation
Until the 1960s, the Nubians populating Egyptian movies worked either, Shafik analysed, as “nannies, servants, doorkeepers, or waiters reflecting the reality that the most common profession of Nubians in Egyptian cities at that time was to serve in homes, hotels, and restaurants. They were usually portrayed as naive, honest, kind-hearted, and humorous, also easy to belittle because they did not speak proper Arabic.” Nubians’ on-screen positions reflected the notion of Nubians ‘in service’ to the Egyptian nation.
Today, Egyptian Nubia is buried under the water of Lake Nasser. “Each of the earlier changes of the water level necessarily wrought profound changes in Nubian life”, reports John G. Kennedy in a chapter of the book Nubian Ceremonial Life (2005). “Thus, by the time of their total resettlement in 1963-1964, the Nubians had had sixty years of conditioning for catastrophe behind them.” Shafik recounts that “already more than fifty percent of all Nubians were living outside Nubia at the time.”
One episode of the show Bakkar tackles the Nubian displacement of 1964, as reported by Sama Singer in her research (Mis)Representation, Hegemony and Counter-Hegemony: The Production of Nubian Displacement and Resistance Historical Narratives in Egypt (2017). “Bakkar’s great grandmother tells him brief details about the displacement in Arabic. She says that the Nubians were displaced from their lands ‘but they were content as they did this sacrifice for Egypt’”.
“This attitude of preparedness for change in culture was”, writes Kennedy, “fostered by the Egyptian government, which desired to integrate Nubians into the national culture.” From the 1952 revolution on, Smith argues, the Nubians were cast in a folkloric type. “In the context of the new revolutionary nation, customs and traditions of different more localised communities were collected by the state and portrayed as Egyptian.”
Nubian culture has been paternalized in service of the Egyptian national identity as claims of foreign affiliation could hardly be made. The Nubian community descends of the country’s ancient Egyptian population as Shafik explains.
A national artistic symbol
Bakkar made his debut in 1997, labelled ‘the year of the Nubian child’. The theme of the year has given rise to the Nubian character of the first wholly Egyptian cartoon on television. “A symbol of national artistic production set against the foreign animated cartoons like Tom and Jerry and Donald Duck”, states Smith.
Al-Ahram Weekly, a daughter of the Egyptian daily state newspaper Al-Ahram, attributes Bakkar’s success to its consistent use, expect for some Nubian words, of Egyptian Colloquial Arabic. The colloquial language makes up for the show’s slower pace in comparison to the full action foreign productions, dubbed in Standard Arabic, an alienating sound for children who express their world in Colloquial. The late director Mona Abu el-Nasr in Al-Ahram Weekly: “The limited budget can’t provide the same action, therefore Bakkar has to impose its own rhythm.”
“A basic problem of Egyptian mainstream film that has prevented it from enjoying considerable appreciation of local and international critics is the technical standard. Yet, Egyptian cinema has always remained popular.” A discrepancy that inspired Shafik to study what it is that ‘speaks’ to some in contrast to others. She asks: “What is it that local audiences see and critics cannot appreciate?”
“The servant character and the folkloric type are still the two most common images of Nubians in media circulation today. This may be because the images are readily available as media products”, explains Smith.
“Television during Ramadan is one vehicle driving the search for customs and traditions. The ahistorical process of folklorization for the most part locates Nubians as lower class, and rural, ignoring historical and geographical specificities, while celebrating certain aspects of Nubian culture that are usually perceived as non-political and non-threatening: primarily dance and music.”
1997 is the same year President Hosni Mubarak inaugurated his infamous Toshka project that focussed on the development of Southern Egypt. A blue sign along the road: ‘Welcome to the New City of Toshka’ is surrounded by empty desert stretching out for miles. Toshka’s premise to use pumped up water from Lake Nasser to make the Western Desert bloom eventually left the sands barren.
“The show aired from 1997 until 2007, when the project was doomed to fail. The revival in 2015 was again in parallel to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s decision to resume the project”, Singer states in her research.
A new Nubian awareness
“The massive displacement accelerated the Arabization of Egypt’s Nubian population to the point that today the Nubian languages are threatened with extinction. However, this displacement has also led to a new awareness of Nubian identity unconnected to language”, writes Richard Jacquemond in Conscience of the Nation (2008).
Shafik remarks that the resettlement has made of Old Nubia and the High Dam symbols in Nubian music, literature, and cinema. In Al-Sadd/The Dam (1990) by the Nubian film student, Sabir ‘Aqid, the trauma of a “literal drowning of a culture” is illustrated. According to Shafik “this orientation toward the past seems to cry out for acknowledgment of what has been inflicted on a community for the sake of the nation; but also an attempt to redefine Nubian identity.”
The late rise to fame of Nubian writers like Yahya Mukhtar, Hasan Nur, Idris Ali and Haggag Hassan Oddoul for Jacquemond “shows how slowly an intellectual elite is formed within a socially deprived group – and how slow the renewal of Nubian identity has been.”
A self-representation is being constructed as shown by Shafik. “While Old Nubia was dominated by old people who had been left behind, New Nubia is said to be vibrant with young people aspiring to higher education who work primarily in white-collar and professional jobs…These young people have been looking for, and producing, new forms of cultural expression”