Nabra Nelson: Salam Alaikum, welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, and SWANA, or Southwest Asian and North African theatre, from across the region.

Marina Johnson: I’m Marina.

Nabra: And I’m Nabra.

Marina: And we’re your hosts.

Nabra: Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets, like kunafa, and perfectly warm tea, or in Arabic, shay.

Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA and SWANA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.

Nabra: In our fourth season, we focus on classical and historical theatre, including discussions of traditional theatre forms and in-depth analysis of some of the oldest and most significant classical plays, from 1300 BC to the twentieth century.

Marina: Yalla, grab your tea. The shay is just right.

Nabra: This episode is long overdue, in my opinion, since it’s about Nubian theatre, and I am Nubian. It’s about time. We talked about this in a previous episode, but our intro and outro music is by my great uncle, Hamza Alaa El Din, who is a very famous Nubian musician. Today, I have the pleasure of highlighting another very famous Nubian artist, my grandpa, Mohy El Din Sherif. In fact, many of Uncle Hamza’s songs were written by my grandpa. I’m overdue for bragging about my incredible grandfather, but we will also be talking more generally about Nubian theatre and interviewing a guest from Nubian Geographic, Mazen Alaa.

Marina: Since the history of Nubia goes back to the dawn of civilization, naturally, the history of Nubian performance dates back nearly that long. Nubia is the area in the south of Egypt and north of Sudan, and Nubian civilization dates back at least ten thousand years. The Nubian kingdom, known by many names over the course of history, including the kingdom of Kush, predates the Egyptian civilization and continues to today, partially on its ancestral homelands as well as in the diaspora.

Nabra: Marina says “partially” because most of Egyptian Nubia, including my mother’s village, was intentionally flooded by the Egyptian government when they built the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s, which was the second major flood in Nubia due to the construction of a dam. And the second one was also, by far, the more destructive one. Eighty thousand Egyptian Nubians were forcibly displaced to government villages in Kom Ombo, near Aswan, and a whole people and culture was shaken. Nubians, including myself, are still reeling from this displacement and its dangerous effect on Nubian culture throughout this generation and the past generation.

We’ve gone from a thriving culture, growing and evolving on our indigenous lands, to a people who need to focus on cultural preservation in the midst of a very recent diaspora and lasting threat to our culture and language. This includes the arts. Our guest will elaborate more on how the flood affected theatre in Nubia. Very often, you will hear Nubians talk about “the old village” and “before the flood” to distinguish one of the most significant moment in our long and ancient history.

Marina: From the little we know, largely through Nabra’s own oral histories passed down through her mom, Nubian theatre throughout history consisted largely of oral tradition in which folktales were passed down matrilineally through generations. Nabra’s first full-length play, Nubian Stories, serves as a preservation of the folktales that are passed down to her mom, Mona Sherif Nelson, and then to her.

Nabra: Fast-forwarding to my grandfather’s time, I know from my mother that my grandfather and the other men of the village would create and perform original skits regularly. Both before and after the flood, men would get together and devise theatre that has to do with local issues, the problems of the village, the market, the household, and the farm. They would rehearse at the local sports club and perform for the other villagers. My mom says that they would make these sketches since there isn’t much to do after dark when the work for the day is done.

Marina: It’s important to note that the arts are an incredibly important part of Nubian life, especially in the village of Abu Simbel, which is where Nabra is from.

Nabra: It’s true. I’m from the Fadijja tribe of the village of Abu Simbel. And Abu Simbel is known as the hub of the arts for all of Nubia. My mother says that this is because of Ramesses II. Many of you may know about the temple of Abu Simbel, which includes a temple to Ramesses and a temple to his wife, Nefertari. Nefertari was a Nubian from my village. In fact, her original name was Ashranda, which in the Nubian language means “the most beautiful.” It was a scandal that a Nubian woman would marry an Egyptian man, and it’s still scandalous to marry outside of Nubia today, although that is slowly changing with the diaspora.

Anyways, because of this, Ramesses II built this huge temple for Nefertari in her home village to honor her family and people. In fact, it was the first temple ever built for a pharaoh’s wife. So, to decorate these two huge and elaborate temples, of course, he needed lots of artists. And so, many of the artists of Nubia moved to Abu Simbel to work on the temple and stayed there. And until today, Abu Simbel is where the artists of Nubia are known to be from. The documentary on Nubian theatre that our guest will be talking about today is specifically about theatre in Abu Simbel for this reason. And you’ll find that most of the famous Nubian artists are from Abu Simbel, like my grandfather and Hamza.

Marina: So, the men who would essentially devise theatre spoke to the local community, which is also in line with traditions of Nubian folktales. Notably, Nubian folktales always take place in Nubia, unlike many other folktale traditions. Even though they might have magical elements, the setting is in Nubia in some time and place, even back when monsters and magic existed. The sketches would usually include singing and dancing, which are regular features of daily life in Nubia, and most of them would be comedic.

Nabra: One interesting element is that only the men would act in these sketches, and they would often dress like women. They would have sketches about the problems women were facing or marital issues, all acted by men. This is largely due to the gender structure of the villages at the time and the roles that men and women played. Women had a lot more to do than men after dark, preparing meals and cleaning and such. So, that might be a reason why the men would retreat to rehearse these plays at night without women. But in the 1990s, that changed, and all genders and ages were acting.

Before we bring on our guest to talk about Nubian theatre and the Abu Simbel theatre and the village, I wanted to talk about one show that my mother told me about that she saw. It was performed in Cairo, since my family moved there shortly after the flood and displacement. As our guest talks about, a lot of people hated the displacement villages, including my family, and they couldn’t live there, and they had to move to Cairo very shortly after being displaced. So, they moved to Cairo, and my grandfather, Mohy El Din Sherif, continued to make theatre and make art in the diaspora in Cairo.

The piece that we’re going to talk about was an opera, again written by my grandfather, Mohy El Din Sherif, called Opera El Aml, or The Worker’s Opera. It was performed at the Cairo Theatre in the late 1960s or early seventies. It’s the first, if not the only, Nubian opera. And no, opera Aida absolutely does not count. And notably, it was also performed in the Nubian language. The opera was about the Nubians and their role in the development of Egypt and their great sacrifices for the advancement of Egypt, including, of course, the sacrifice of their homelands, which was involuntary, for the Aswan High Dam. Before the Aswan High Dam, Egypt was just seen as a source for material to other global powers. It didn’t have any major factory movements. The dam, as a major source of hydroelectric power, led to rapid modernization.

The opera introduces the Nubians as people who have always been hardworking. Then it transitions into them digging the fields and singing traditional songs. And then, with the same rhythm and enthusiasm as they sang the work songs in the field, the actors transition into fighting to bring Egypt into the modern world. This included their personal and familial sacrifices, but also their role in actual fighting, especially around foreign invasions, notably by England, Israel, France, and the US, concerning the Suez Canal. The opera talks about how Nubians will fight anything that stops us from developing ourselves. And the show is very purposeful about making the audience aware of how Nubians are also Egyptians and that we know about our role in the development of Egypt in the modern era, facts that many Egyptians may not have known about and still may not know about.

My grandfather started the mawwal in the opera the same way, but with a Nubian rhythm. Then, the mawwal fluidly transitioned into a traditional Nubian song. This was an ingenious dramaturgical choice.

The show had very communist, socialist vibes. It was very much about national pride, the Nubian identity as part of the Egyptian identity, and the role of workers in economic development and modernization. It was meant to empower people, especially Nubians in Egypt. Elder Nubians had a feeling that Egyptians thought Nubians were not aware of what was happening and didn’t understand their impact in Egypt. My grandfather wanted to make sure to enforce that and make Egyptians and Nubians proud of the Nubian contribution to Egypt. And as you can imagine, the whole opera was just very epic, as my mom recalls.

One very cool element of the opera was its mawwal. Mawwal is a specific traditional way of singing, kind of like the blues. It uses a certain note or rhythm upon which an improvisation is built. Mawwal is an important part of Arabic musical tradition, but Nubians didn’t have mawwal. So, my grandfather decided to make a Nubian mawwal for this opera. A mawwal always starts with “ya layl ya ein,” which means, “Oh night, my eye,” or, “Oh, beautiful night.” My grandfather started the mawwal in the opera the same way, but with a Nubian rhythm. Then, the mawwal fluidly transitioned into a traditional Nubian song. This was an ingenious dramaturgical choice. Through this mawwal, he was able, musically, to illustrate the strong connection between Nubian and Egyptian identities, that they are one and the same, yet have their own distinct attributes as well.

It also helped identify specifically with Egyptian workers, since they would be especially familiar with the mawwal in the farming communities and among the working class. It helped all audiences know that the show was an Egyptian perspective but through a Nubian perspective. To quote my mom, it was, “A way to tell Nubians, “You are part of Egypt. We can participate within what is enjoyable to Egyptians, but at the same time, we are still imposing ourselves as Nubians and what we are going through.” When I met with my mom, Mona Mohy El Din Sherif, to talk about this piece, she was actually able to recall this mawwal and sing it in Nubian. And so, let’s listen to that beautiful recording of her singing.

Mona Mohy El Din Sherif Nelson: [singing the mawwal from Opera El Aml in the Fadijja Nubian language]

Marina: That was so beautiful. In addition to his theatre work, Mohy El Din Sherif is well known for his songwriting, paintings, and published books, one of which is entitled Old Nubia: Stories and Memories, and it’s available for purchase through Nabra and Mona’s organization, the Nubian Foundation for Preserving a Cultural Heritage. As the cultural leader of Abu Simbel, Mohy El Din Sherif was a staunch advocate for the Nubian people throughout his life and was a leader in most Nubian movements of the 1960s through the nineties, including the establishment of the Nubian Museum in Aswan. His daughter, Nabra’s mom, Mona Mohy El Din Sherif Nelson, continues his legacy today as a culture bearer and artist, and we are so appreciative of her insights on his theatre work.

Nabra: Now let’s zoom out and talk more broadly about Nubian theatre, especially in the villages. We are excited to have Mazen Alaa from Nubian Geographic as a guest. Nubian Geographic aims to document the heritage, history, art, and languages of the native people of the region along the Nubian Nile, between Aswan and Central Sudan. You can follow them on social media, where they post so many amazing photos, facts, features, and stories.

Mazen, hi, salam alaikum! It’s so good to have you. Can you first start by introducing yourself?

Being Nubian, it’s kind of weight that you hold on your shoulder here in Egypt, because you’re being burdened with a cause.

Mazen Alaa: Okay, I’m Mazen Alaa El Din, a Nubian man coming from the seventh generation of Nubians after displacement. Being Nubian, it’s kind of weight that you hold on your shoulder here in Egypt, because you’re being burdened with a cause, like lose some rights that you are fighting entire life in order to gain and in order to get your rights as any citizen in Egypt. And our area is not well-known with rights for minorities or Indigenous people in general, so starting from day one, I think it is a burden that you have on your shoulder. And you’re trying to make your life, your individual life, better and your community life better in ways that you can handle or that your skills can help you to get.

So, starting from my twenties, I think I have been active with what we call it here, “with the Nubian cause,” because you know that the Nubian had to move from the original land of Nubia, starting from the beginning of the last century ending by ’60 or ’64 to be specific. And the agreement or the promises came from the government by this time that when the water level will be settled, you’re going to be brought back to your original land. And it’s been almost sixty years and none of these promises are fulfilled. And that’s why that generation after generation, starting from the ’60 until recently, the Nubian community have been always demanding for the return of… the right of return. And it is a main cause for the Nubian community, as long as some other rights, like diversity and recognition of the Nubian culture inside the fabric of Egypt identity and criminalizing, the discrimination based on color, background, or any other classification.

So, during my twenties, a few years before the revolution, 2011, I was a part of the Nubian Youth Democratic Association that was a part of the political movement in Egypt, try to make change and overthrow Mubarak. A few years later, Mubarak was stepped down as… And as most of Egyptian this time, we thought, “Okay, that is a new beginning for our country, and it’s time for every group, like religious group or ethnic group or any other people, coming from non-common background to gain the rights.” For Christians, for people who follow some other religions, some people coming from some different cultures, it was the time for us. We saw that it was the time for every single citizen to gain the right. But as you may have heard about what happened after the revolution: the old regime regained the power in some sorts, in some ways.

So, after the Muslim Brotherhood then Morsi came, who kept turning the struggle in some other way. And it was just one year, I think, Mohamed Morsi was in power. So, after that came some transitional period between Mohamed Morsi and the election of Sisi. So, in this particular period, we were succeeded to have our first representative in the committee of the constitution. So, we saw that if you’re wanting to build a new country, you have to work with the basic ones, with the constitution, that will define what is citizenship and what the power and how this relationship between the one holding power and the ordinary citizen. So, we succeeded to have Mr. Haggag Oddoul as our representative in the constitution committee, and he also was successful to have some article that define our rights in the constitution.

And then it was very inspirational for me that, “Okay, you’ve been working in this field for six years or maybe more, and after that, finally you gained some of your rights.” But unfortunately, after the constitution, the regime doesn’t follow its constitution, the Sisi regime. And as you may know, it’s not well-known by following the constitution or anyone. So, that is basically what I was doing over the last, you can see, fifteen years. And being a part of Nubian Geographic is another way. If there is no much freedom for my community to trying to enhance our rights, so we switch it to what is more safe, like trying to enhance our cultural and our… in a way that we can work under the recent circumstance.

Nabra: That makes so much sense, and of course, Nubian Geographic is, in that way of uplifting a underrepresented culture, is political and is a protest and is resistance in some way, but in a way that’s very inclusive and is uplifting of our culture as Nubians. Can you tell us more about Nubian Geographic, what you do and when did it come about in that history that you shared of your work in the past fifteen years? And also tell us a little bit about the theatre work that Nubian Geographic is doing now.

We’re trying to revive this kind of art that we lost, unfortunately, in our villages.

Mazen: Okay, Nubian Geographic was established in 2015. I wasn’t in the first team or first group or anything. I was just a Nubian man who was just fascinated by this page that that has some, you can say, some scientific background and gave us information about a history that is not easy to get from ordinary schools or from curriculums in the school or any other sort of governmental way. So, I was fascinating that finally you have some kind of platform that can provide us with some reliable information. And I was taken by this page, so I was maybe a Top Fan for this page and following, and you were posting about language, about the history, the geography, or even the tradition.

And you know how we’re close as a Nubian community. So, I will just message them, and I found that he’s one of my cousins that’s running the page. So, after a while, they offered, “Okay, if you want to post about any topic that you want that hit our standard, okay. You can do it.” And I said, “Okay. For sure, I would love to do it.” So, I joined Nubian Geographic one week later, like 2016. And it is volunteer work, so sometimes you just have so many to do in your life, so you just get a little bit slow in your page. So, the first thing were we’re just so busy with life, so it became on me and other people came to run the page. And yes, since then, I think we are slowly recruiting some people to join us into running this page. And before, I think it was 2020, we had also members coming from the Sudanese part of Nubia. It was great.

It was very nice a chance to have our relatives from Sudan. And they are telling us more and more about Nubian Sudanese and with a lot of information that our side in the North Nubia weren’t aware of about this specific information. And for the last two, three years, I think Nubian Geographic had some more… slowly turned to have some collaborations at colleges and universities. For example, we have an ongoing project with University of Michigan, and the project is called Narrating Nubia, made by Dr. Yasmin Moll. Another one was University of California. This more about the recordings on people who witnessed old Nubia to share their memories and tell us about the landscape and everything, single details and origin of Nubia.

I think the Nubian Theatre is one of the latest projects that we have incoming. It was a grant given us by other organization called Tandem Amwaj, and we were succeed to get the grant, so we’re working in the Nubian community theatre documentation for the last six months. And I think, yes, we have a deadline in one month, so fingers crossed. I think it will be great, because we know that… we had the Nubian community theatre project by chance. It was coincidence. We were talking some friends, and okay, we had a Nubian community theatre and everybody is just like “Wow, we didn’t know that.” So, we digged more, and we succeeded elhamdullilah to get to interview the people who were part of this community theatre.

Nabra: So, what started your interest in Nubian theatre? I know that the documentary will be coming out soon… You’ve done so much in six months. How did you start that project and why did you become so interested in it?

Mazen: Basically, what we know about the Nubian art is most music. So, I think that is the only source that known for us as a form of art that’s coming from the Nubian community. So, when we know that, okay, we have some actors coming not from urban cities, cities like Cairo or Alexandria, no, but from the villages, and you have a theatre, and you have people who you are paying money to attend the plays in the theatre. So, it was wild. We saw that our people, and for the rest of people, need to know about that. We tried to have this community theatre under the spotlight in order to encourage the people, okay, so we can redo it, even in a modern way. You don’t have to go to the theatre, or you can just have some plays in your cell phone and record it, broadcast it. So, we’re trying to revive this kind of art that we lost, unfortunately, in our villages, and that’s what trigger us to follow this community theatre.

Marina: That’s so interesting. And you’ve already highlighted music as an important element of Nubian theatre. What are other important elements? And can you tell us a little bit more also about the music, the dance, how that works together?

Mazen: Okay, I think I can speak from my division of Nubian, because I have like three divisions: Fadiki [Fadijja], Kenzi, and Arab. So, I think, yeah, I can tell you about Fediki. One of our famous dances in Fejika is called Arageed, when the people just dance in lines. And it’s very, very easy. And it’s only step right, only step to the left. But to have other sophisticated dances, like Feri. And Feri is a name of a fish. And in this dance, you have a woman, and again, it’s one man and the woman, do some dances or do some moves that mimicking this fish in the Nile. So, it is kind of the impact that you have from your surrounding, from landscape, because the river Nile, I think it was the backbone for our culture.

So, all of our tradition was connected to the Nile, and I think the impact of losing this landscape, losing the connection of the Nile was a huge, a huge impact, very big on the Nubian identity, not just the Nubian landscape, but even the Nubians, the Nubian individual. Our elder generation, maybe Nabra you know about this, they couldn’t survive in the new home, because they lost the connection with the Nile. So, people again, about Feri, so I think Feri was one of the most famous dance in our division, in Fejika. I think in Matooki, they have some other dances with huge drums, as it’s called Holiholi, more intense than ours, I think.

Nabra: And of course, all of these elements, from what I understand, are incorporated into any theatre piece in Nubia because often they deal with issues or conversations that are happening in the villages and among the community. Can you talk more about what topics that you heard from the people who were making theatre in the villages? What topics did they cover in the sketches and in the pieces? What were some themes that you learned about in a lot of Nubian theatre?

Mazen: The beginning of the Nubian theatre, in original Nubia, it was around twenties of the last century. And it started with the scouts. I don’t know the reason, but the Nubian villages were pioneers and scouts inside Egypt. And even the first scouts of the kingdom, when Egypt was a monarchy regime, was Nubian. So, the scouts inside the villages were so good, and they started this kind of shows, this kind of performance, inside the village in original Nubia. And they were just, the performance, were just so simple. The audience came in circles, and the actors entering in the middle of this circle and start to perform.

And most of them, I think it was a comedy. They were mocking the problems because even before the last displacement, we lost most of the land when the first dam was built. So, even if you didn’t move entirely from origin land, but you lost your income by lost your land. And that is why most Nubian men starting from twenties until ’60 had to move to big city, like Cairo or Alexandria, to work or to provide incomes back in original Nubia. And I think the topics were just like the lack of plan and how families miss the provider who’s working in big cities, like Cairo, and trying to make it as bearable as they can for them to have some connection or perhaps in this kind of comedy performance in the village in order to make it much easier for them to continue living in that circumstance.

Marina: What about Nubian theatre in Cairo and other big cities, like after… You were talking a little bit how it was in Nubia, and then how it also spread to the new cities.

Mazen: Okay, the Nubian community theatre in Cairo was just formed by… like it was actors. Back in this time, we had some Nubian actors acting in some roles that stereotyping, you know, Nabra, as a janitor or a doorman. And if you watch it, old Egyptian movies, you always have some Nubian man that people are making fun of him because he’s Black and he speak in some different language. So, the people who were doing these schools in the Egyptian cinema, they formed some kind of theatre band, and I think they called it the Modern Nubian Sudanese Band. And the opposite of the kind of role that they are acting in the cinemas, they were acting like they have some kind of international plays, like plays that was written by Oscar Wilde or Nikolai Gogol or other respected playwrights in this time.

So, I think they were trying to put in a statement that we are more than this Black man who are, you making fun of in the movies. And I think the most famous one of this group was called Naama Hussein, I need to check the name one more time—yeah, sorry, Hussna [correction: Hussna Soliman]. And she was known as “Ishta” in most of the movies in this time. And she even wrote a letter to the actor syndicate in Egypt, claiming that you need to give people of color or Nubians more roles than the stereotyped roles that you are giving us. So, that is a theatre that was formed by the Nubian actors in Cairo and Alexandria. Unfortunately, we don’t have such solid information for how long this community theatre was playing.

Nabra: Around when was this? Is this like the 1950s or sixties?

Mazen: Yeah, I think it is around forties, forties to fifties, yeah. Yes, forties. I think it lasted for maybe five few years, because most of these actors didn’t have very long career in acting. So, I think, yeah, it lasted for four years, maybe five maximum. I’m not sure, but I’m estimating.


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