The songs of the workers who built the dam, and those of the Nubian people displaced by it.
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My central question in this article and in all my academic work on the Aswan High Dam is: what if the dam was more than just a dam? What if it was more than a hydro or hydro-electric or high modernist project? And in that sense: what does it represent?
During my research, I asked people what the Dam meant to them. Many different stories came out, especially from people who had built the Aswan High Dam and from the various Nubian communities that were displaced by its construction. Sometimes the Dam signified social mobility. For a worker who started out as a day labourer and later on became a technician, for instance. For a technician who was able to travel to the Soviet Union for a training course at a time when even his feudal landlord’s son would not have had the same opportunities. Sometimes it was a story of marriage, being able to travel to Aswan to work on the project of the century, and meeting the person you will spend the rest of your life with. Sometimes it was a story of a relationship with water that was severed. Whether for these Egyptian peasants who became workers – no longer circumventing floods – the pace of their lives determined by eight hour work shifts, rather than flood seasons; or for the Nubian communities who were displaced to the deserts of Komombo, a life and culture dictated by water of the river for centuries, suddenly ran dry.
The songs that were sung during the 1960’s played a prominent role in promoting the Aswan High Dam. These were songs about technical aspects, about how many cubic meters of water would be preserved, the amount of electricity that would be produced and the acres of desert that would be greened. But there were also songs about ideology. The Dam was a manifestation of socialism, an Arab Nationalist Socialist project. It was also an anti-colonial project, especially given the story of how the building of the Dam was funded. The song “Hikayit Shaa’b”11 (The story of a people) for instance sings of how Egypt strove for funding to build the High Dam and how the English responded to the nationalisation of the Suez Canal which resulted in the Suez War in 1956.
An anti-colonial war was waged for the Aswan High Dam – the Dam can thus be seen as a continuation of the Suez war and a manifestation of Egypt’s triumph. When I asked people what they thought about the Aswan High Dam, they sometimes quoted the lyrics from this song without a mention of the song itself. An example of this occurred when I asked people if there could have been an alternative to the way the Dam was built – with less dangerous working conditions and less disastrous consequences for the forcefully displaced Nubian communities. People often said “El Mayya fil bahr day’a wal sahari mustha’ ileyh” (“the Dam had to be built because the (Nile) water was lost to the sea while the deserts were thirsty for it”).
The song did somehow became a story of the people, and a story people continued to tell. It is said that Hikayit Shaa’b was first sung in one of the cultural evenings held on the building site of the Dam itself, to an audience of Dam builders, inhabitants of Aswan as well as visitors.
What if a song is more than just a song?
A few things come to the fore in the following song.
You hear the sound of construction work, the voices of workers, the voices of women; people had to hear themselves in the songs. You hear different genres of music in this one song. There is music that was played in upper Egypt, music played by peasants who came from the delta in the north, there is Nubian music, and then there are the voices of the workers. There is always this dialogue. Abdelhalim Hafiz, arguably the most famous singer in the Arab world at the time, plays the role of the narrator in the song. He starts by asking: should we sit and rest? The workers respond singing: “no we will continue, we will continue, this is the Aswan High Dam, a very big3 project3.” In most songs of this period featuring the Dam, there is a dialogue, a conversation between the singer and the workers, the singer and the peasants, women or the students, all these elements of a socialist society.
Optimism and euphoria are also necessary ingredients of these songs. Even when we listen to the songs today, they bring back these sentiments. No matter how cynical you are about the project, when you listen to these songs there is always jubilation; clear imagery of a cultured, developed, industrialized country, a region liberated from colonialism, a liberated Palestine, and a future of endless possibilities. They are optimistic, uplifting and laced with ululations. Songs like these were also reproduced in comic books that were produced for children at that time. They all expressed a picture of the glorious scientific-socialist future with the Aswan High Dam central stage.
The songs would sometimes delve quite technically into to what socialism presents. In this song for example there is a lot of talk about how the workers were in charge of the Dam. They are the ones responsible for its construction. In the workers’ stories, in their work with Soviet specialists, they always imagine that there was no hierarchy between them, that they worked as colleagues on an equal footing. This was an essential element for the Dam administration, because before the 1952 coup d’état, it were the British who managed the Nile. Independent Egypt wanted to reverse this history of colonial water management and make all work relations into something of a camaraderie.
You hear all this through the songs, as the songs became a medium of education. The songs also represented what the Marxist scholar Gramsci would call “common sense”. The message was that of course we had to build the dam, what else would we do with the water of the Nile otherwise being lost to the sea? Of course we are socialists, even before socialism was being created or promoted by Gamal Abdelnasser. Of course we are workers, of course we are industrialised. Of course it is better to be an industrialised worker with skills than a peasant who is subject to a feudal system. It created this Gramscian “common sense”, encapsulated always in songs and folklore and language, that promoted a world-view in which it seemed life could not be any other way.
About 40 to 50 Nubian villages were displaced by the building of the Dam, villages that stretched from Egypt to Sudan. This implied about 120.000 Nubian people who had to be migrated during the building of the Aswan High Dam between 1960 and 1964.
In 1964 was the last flood, this marked the end of the first phase of the building of the Dam.
Around 70.000 Nubians were displaced towards Egypt, into the desert of Komombo. They were not longer near the Nile after centuries of having lived on its banks.
A lot of investment was put into moving the ancient temples, to many different countries that contributed to the salvaging of Abu Simbel. Very little money and thought was put to where these Nubian communities, who lived around these temples for ages, would be migrated to.
Some Nubian songs that sing about the Dam, before the displacement, sound a lot like Hikayit Shaab and Bustan al-Ishtirakiyya.
They are very optimistic and they talk about a better future with the Dam. Ahmed Sidqi a singer who came from the village of Gharb Suhail, that was not displaced during the building of the Dam, sings a song called Dayman Nasrebu ya Nil (you have always triumphed us, oh Nile) and the lyrics are “you have always triumphed us, continue to triumph us, oh Nile.” The song sings of electricity that will light every house, and a future where Nubians are integrated into a larger Egyptian society, benefiting from features of modernity and flourishing in the best schools.
But in reality, what the Aswan High Dam presented Nubians with, was an arid desert. In most of the stories when people talk about the migration, they remembered most the sun. The burning sun was all-encompassing. Where there was once the cooling river, now there were only sandy deserts, with no escape from it, especially since many houses remained unfinished and unroofed. From 1960 to 1964 Nubian songs were sometimes translations of the propaganda songs mentioned above, picturing a Dam whose prosperity everyone would reap. After 1964 when many Nubian communities were displaced, came the sad songs. The songs are loaded with guilt: “why did we agree so easily?” and then there were the angry songs that came in the 1970s onwards.
Beside the songs that talk about the Dam there is an older and more consistent genre of songs that sing about water. And they don’t really talk about water but they preserve the sound of water such as irrigation songs. In one famous piece “Eskalay” by the renowned Nubian musician, Hamza Alaa Eldin, you hear the sound of water gathering drop by drop into a water wheel, moving through it, and flowing into irrigation canals, flooding the agricultural land. Other such songs simulate the sound of the river itself, the sound of women’s ankle bracelets as they collect the water, or irrigation work songs that keep the pace and measure of flowing water.
These songs seem important because they document a form of nature, the flowing of water that no longer exists, that stopped with the completion of the Dam. And these songs take us back to the period before the building of the the Dam. This is what the song does: it takes you back to whatever emotional reservoir it contains. These songs bring us the sound of nature that is no longer there.
The Nubian villages, the ones that have been displaced, kept their names at the new location, with the added suffix– tahjir. Thus Abu Simbel becomes Abu Simbel Tahjir and Kalabsha becomes Kalabsha Tahjir. Tahjir is an Arabic word for migration: in its present continuous form – persistently ‘being’ migrating.
In several interviews, I asked people why the suffix is there, and they answer that it is not the original village, “The original village we might, one day, go back to, but this one is the migrated village.”
In Arabic, this sounds funny, as if one says “Ambu Simbel migrating“, as if the process is continually ongoing. When I asked why the Arabic word for forced migration was used, and why in that tense, I was told that the name was given to the displacement procedure at the time. Furthermore, there is no word for displacement in the Nubian language. The name was kept in Arabic, as an icon, as a reminder from that moment – carrying within it the entire process, the moment of loss, every time the name of the village is mentioned. The consequences of forced displacement do not end, and the moment may not be forgotten.
Music does that: it presents what cannot be said or put to words. I end this article with Hamza Alaa el Din’s piece Himalaya (a children’s ditty), which he starts by describing how every drum plays the sound of the four elements, and when we let the drum play us, we can feel each of those elements.