Displaced by Aswan Dam 23 Years Ago : Egypt’s Nubians Dream of Home

Associated Press

After 23 years in this alien desert world, the Nubians of Ballana still talk of going “home.” But home is on the bottom of the Aswan High Dam’s Lake Nasser.

Lake Nasser covers 2,000 square miles, almost two-thirds of the Nubian Valley, and is one of the world’s largest man-made lakes.

In late 1964, then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s desire to harness the mighty Nile River with a project as grand as the Pyramids forced about 60,000 Nubians to arid lands north of Aswan.


The world paid little notice to the displacement of the Nubians, a proud Negroid people whose ancestors conquered and ruled Egypt 2,800 years ago.

Temples Endangered

There was a much greater uproar over the Abu Simbel temples and other glories of Pharaonic Egypt endangered by the dam’s encroaching reservoir than over the 600 or so Nubian villages being obliterated. The temples were moved piece by piece to higher ground.

On their journey north, many of the refugees brought sacks of Nubian earth, remnants of home.

One recent warm afternoon, Mohammed Ahmed Rashwan stood in a sycamore’s shade with a group of friends and talked of the hurt that comes from the knowledge that, to his children, home is Ballana.

“The children don’t remember how it was,” said Rashwan, a businessman and father of five who was 12 years old when his Nubian family was forced from its home 225 miles to the south. “They found themselves in a new life here. They know nothing about the old life.”

Life Is Not Bad

By the standards of Egyptian villages, life is not bad in Ballana and the other Nubian resettlement villages near Kom Ombo, 585 miles south of Cairo.


The Nubians’ houses are painted, their streets clean. Boys play soccer on a fenced-in dirt field next to the mosque and the school. The field is maintained by a youth club that Rashwan runs.

In pre-dam Nubia, most of the people were farmers, and the Nubians of Ballana--three adjacent villages bear the same name--have made their government-supplied desert acres bloom.

The Nile, its banks now green, snakes just west of the barren ridge around which the town’s market and brick houses were built.

‘New Life From Nothing’

“We had to start a new life from nothing,” said Mohammed Maher, an engineer who was an adult during the Nubian exodus.

He said many of the very old and the very young died because they were unable to adjust.

Nasser’s socialist government decided that no matter how much land a farmer had in the Nubian Valley, nobody would receive in the new villages more than five feddans , an Egyptian measurement roughly equivalent to an acre.

“My grandfather had lots of land and lots of people working for him,” Rashwan said. “When he came here, everybody was equal.”

Some houses were provided, but not enough, and they were not of the typical Nubian style that features several rooms around an open courtyard or community room.


Built Homes by Hand

Many of the resettled Nubians have built traditional homes with their own hands.

“It’s too difficult for our people to change their nature,” Rashwan said. “We were put between two lives.”

“Nobody wanted to come here,” said Mohamoud Salem Aly, a boy of 6 in 1964. “Life was very nice at home. The land was rich. Here all the land is sand, desert. There, you did not need anything from outside. Here the land’s fertility is very low.”

He has a degree in history but makes a living as a social worker.

“The government doesn’t want us to go back, but I’m thinking of doing it,” said Aly, who dreams of a house on the shore of Lake Nasser. “It won’t be the same, because the high dam has stopped the river. We have sacrificed for our country.”