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An introduction to Nile Pop

Emanuele Fantini

Three propositions on cultural hydro-hegemony

The 22nd of February 2022, an international audience of more than one hundred Nile aficionados and folks interested in water, history, and culture, gathered in the Tempelzaal (main hall) of Leiden’s Rijksmuseum van Oudheden (Museum of Antiquities) to attend “Nile Pop: music, poetry, and stories on a shared river”. Researchers and musicians turned the ancient Egyptian Taffeh Temple into a stage, to illustrate through presentations and performances how the Nile and its infrastructures have inspired popular culture in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, and to reflect on how popular culture influences the way we think about the river and manage its waters.

The event was organised within a broader project called “Open Water Diplomacy: media, science, and transboundary cooperation in the Nile basin”, funded by the Water and Development Partnership Program (Phase 2) which is financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The project involved water scientists and journalists in an action research to study the role of media in water conflicts and cooperation along the Nile, as well as to train and support them in experimenting alternative forms of communication, towards a culture of mutual understanding and dialogue in the basin. One of the finding of that research was that mainstream media narratives about the Nile are influenced by broader representations of the river in music, cinema, religion, education, and arts, or in other words by “popular culture”. Such awareness, and the encounter with the Zenobia foundation (a Dutch association of historians and archaeologists interested in culture and cultural encounters across the Mediterranean), prompted the organisation of Nile Pop at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden.

The event took place while the governments of Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia were negotiating in Washington – with the United States’ government and the World Bank as observers – an agreement on the filling and operation of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), that Ethiopia begun to construct in 2011 on the Blue Nile river. Since then, negotiations among the three riparian governments have been ongoing, reaching important milestones, like the signature of the tripartite Declaration of Principles on the GERD (2015), but also stagnating in mistrusts and ending up in deadlocks. Just a few days after Nile Pop, the Ethiopian delegation abandoned the negotiating table in Washington, refusing to sign the draft agreement sponsored by the US and the World Bank, claiming that they overstepped their role to favour Egypt.

Why is it so difficult to reach an agreement? The answer suggested by Nile Pop is that when negotiating over the GERD, the three countries are not merely discussing water flows or the operation of a dam; rather they engage with political identities, nation building projects, popular imaginaries, and collective emotions associated with the river.

To illustrate this point, I would like to make three propositions around the notion of cultural-hydro hegemony, based on what I have learnt in preparing, attending, and reflecting on Nile Pop. The first is a theoretical proposition: I will argue for the need to bring back Gramsci’s notion of cultural hegemony in the hydro-hegemony debate that in the last two decades has deeply influenced research on transboundary water conflicts and cooperation. The second proposition is empirical and methodological: the stories presented in Nile Pop illustrate how popular culture contributes to legitimize or criticize what is usually framed as the “national interest” over a river; these stories also point at the need for interdisciplinary collaborations with the humanities and cultural studies to better understand the symbolic meaning of water and its role in shaping political identities and legitimizing material interests. The third proposition is political: when it comes to popular culture and narratives, we, scholars and researchers, are note mere external observers; rather, we are also consumers and sometimes (co)producers of such narratives. This position, together with the emotions that it brings, should be explicitly acknowledged and critically reflected upon, in a sort of “reflective engagement” (Back 2007).

Gramsci on the Nile: brining culture back in the hydro-hegemony debate

In the past fifteen years, the concept of hydro-hegemony has prompted a rich and articulated debate on international hydropolitics, water conflicts and cooperation (Warner et al. 2017). This analytical framework has been developed and further refined within the London Water Research Group, composed by students and colleagues of Professor Tony Allan, like Mark Zeitoun, Jeroen Warner, Ana Cascao, Naho Mirumachi among others (Zeitoun and Warner 2006; Cascao and Zeitoun 2013). Their main contribution has been emphasising the role of politics and power relations in the study of interactions along international rivers.

This allowed to move beyond the traditional but inaccurate dichotomy between, on the one side, geopolitical readings about the next “water wars”, and, on the other side, the rather normative and institutional analyses of “water cooperation”, conceiving cooperation always in alternative to conflict and inherently positive. Drawing on neo-Gramscian approaches applying the concept of hegemony in international relations (Cox 1981), the notion of hydro-hegemony points at the coexistence of conflict and cooperation in interactions along international rivers. Hydro-hegemony also looks at the influence played by power relations in such interactions, suggesting that cooperation most of the time is not among equal and takes place in asymmetric contexts. Furthermore, those relations are conceived as not being merely based on force and military power. On the contrary, hydro-hegemony results from the combination of three forms of powers: material power (including the geophysical position of the riparian state), bargaining power (i.e. setting the international agenda) and ideational or discursive power (production and use of technical knowledge and expertise on water, including international law).

While the initial focus of the framework has been on these different forms of powers, visualised as three pillars, Filippo Menga has reconceptualised them into a circle, to highlight their connection and interaction to uphold hydro-hegemony, now placed at the core of the circle. Furthermore, he also suggested that “among the three forms of power, ideational power seems to be the most significant to both maintain and contest hegemony” (Menga 2016a). Such consideration resonates with the recent ‘discursive turn” in the analysis of international hydropolitics, focusing on the study of narratives (Brethaut et al 2021), identity and nationalism (Menga 2016b; Allouche 2021) associated to water, rivers, and infrastructures.

The notion of cultural hydro-hegemony aims at contributing to this conversation, by bringing back Gramsci’s original spirit and approach. Actually, Gramsci did not merely talk about hegemony: rather he coined and used the term cultural hegemony (Gramsci 1975). The term emphasises the fact that power is not exercised through mere coercion, but also through persuasion by dint of cultural institutions like education, religions, the arts, the media. In Gramsci, cultural hegemony refers to the use of these institutions and media by the dominant class to impose its worldview, to legitimise its ideology, and to transform those into common sense or into a national identity. This idea stems from Gramsci’s education background and initial academic interest. Before focusing entirely on his political activity and revolutionary endeavours, and before being imprisoned, Gramsci studied historical linguistic at the University Turin (1911-15). The interest of language deeply influenced the development of his general theory of politics, for instance in the role that he assigns to narratives and discursive practices in reinforcing power and hegemony (Schirru 2011).

Following this approach, cultural hydro-hegemony can be defined as the production or the use of cultural institutions, media, and knowledge to impose a specific view on water, rivers and related technology and infrastructures like dams. In the context of international hydropolitics, the common sense cemented by this operation becomes what is often referred to as the “national interest” of a riparian country on the management and use of transboundary waters. Thus, cultural hydro-hegemony focuses on the how culture (education, arts, religion, science…) is mobilised in the struggle to legitimise or challenge what is considered the “national interest”, and how such interest is linked to worldviews and material interests of specific groups.

In assessing ten years of research and debates, several members of the London Water Research Group have identified some of the conceptual challenges that further articulations or applications of the hydro-hegemony framework should engage with (Warner et al. 2017). I believe that the concept of cultural hydro-hegemony can contribute to address at least two of those challenges: first, the state-centric approach and the risk of falling in the territorial trap of the river basin as the scalar unit; second, the tendency to consider hydro-hegemony as immutable and inherently negative.

The first challenge is related to the fact that the interactions taken into consideration by the hydro-hegemony framework take place among states or national governments, at the international or transboundary basin level. Cultural hydro-hegemony aims at opening the black box of the state, by unravelling the processes through which ideas of national interests are crafted and legitimised. Culture, politics, economy, and ecology deeply interweave in such contested processes. These processes take place at least at two different scales. First, at the national or domestic scale, with interactions and competition among different groups and material interests, to define what the common sense and the national interest over water should be. Second, at the international level, with the attempt to impose that common sense as the hegemonic discourse on water, rivers and dams at the transboundary basin scale.

Cultural hydro-hegemony also suggests a dynamic approach that can address the second challenge, namely the immutable and inherently negative nature of hydro-hegemony. In fact, cultural hydro-hegemony should be considered not only as a contested, but also as a fluid project (Bisht and Ahmed, 2021). Being produced by a plurality of actors, cultural hydro-hegemony is never a fully coherent project. Its translation from the domestic to the international arena can be problematic, since its main target and outputs are national communities mobilised around a shared interest on water. Contestation is thus amplified by the difference of scales. On the other side, the discursive practices through which cultural hegemony is constructed and exercised, are based on communication. And communication is a dialectic process that implies taking the audience into consideration, to persuade or educate them. This dynamic and dialectic process is by nature a fluid one, which remains open to interpretation, appropriation, translation, co-production, or critique – the latter more or less explicit depending on what the political regime allows for.

Furthermore, when effectively constructed, cultural hydro-hegemony not only persuades, but also entertains and delights the targeted audience – at least its majority. Thus, instead of being perceived as negative, the cultural hydro-hegemony construction becomes a source of identity, pride, and hope for its subjects – both in the sense of authors and recipients – particularly at domestic level. Its hegemonic nature almost disappears, confirming that ideology reaches the utmost of effectiveness when it is hidden.

Nile Pop: empirical and methodological contributions

Nile Pop offers a translation of the conceptual contributions highlighted above, into stories and empirical analysis. I wish to clarify that this is my interpretation and reading ex post of the contributions by the different authors, as the concept of cultural hydro-hegemony has been formally elaborated after listening and enjoying their presentations in Leiden.

A first point that emerges is that cultural hydro-hegemony is a contested field. Culture can be use both to legitimise or to counter hegemonic water narratives. For instance, Abebe Yirga Ayenalem shows how popular songs in Amharic have been instrumental in promoting and boosting the Ethiopian government official discourse on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. These songs also contributed to transform the Ethiopian public imaginary and common sense around the Nile river: from a traitor and lost river flowing away without contributing to national development, to a river finally coming back home to be harnessed to change the history of the country. What is remarkable is that this is not a mere top down project emanating from the Ethiopian government: many singers played the role of what Gramsci would have called “organic intellectuals”, subscribing to the official government discourse on the dam and actively contributing to its circulation and legitimation.

A different type of intellectual is the one portrayed by Amal Guermazi, in the troubled story of Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chaine’ movie on the construction of the Aswan High Dam, commissioned in 1964 by the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The original film made by Chaine was considered too intimate and not enough celebratory and therefore censored by the Egyptian government and its Russian political and technical partner. Chaine was forced to remake a new version of the movie, with different scripts and actors, that later he disowned as part of his legacy. This event represents a turning point for Chaine, transforming him into a critic of the Nasser regime that he used to celebrate in his previous movies, as a confirmation of the fluidity of culture and cultural hydro-hegemony.

The construction and contestation of cultural hegemony on the Aswan high Dam is also at the centre of Alia Mossallam’ contribution. She tells how songs and lyrics have been effectively used to celebrate the dam as a modern, socialists, and anti-colonial project. Workers and builders of the dam – which are both the protagonists and the audience of those songs – could see their experience of social mobility and technical prowess reflected in the broader story about modernity, socialism and anti-colonialism chanted in the songs. As a counter melody, Alia introduces a complete different set of songs and music: the ones by the Nubian communities displaced by the dam. What for some represents social mobility and technical mastery, for other becomes a grim story of displacement, of loss of relation with water and knowledge about it. Music is used here to recall something that can hardly be expressed with words, like the sorrow and the disorientation of being displaced.

The socialist and anti-colonialist project of the Aswan High Dam had its own colonised and subjected, the Nubians. Telling their stories and playing their songs in front of the Taffeh temple, as done by Alia Mosallam, was also a way of reclaiming the temple, because, as mentioned by Daniel Soliman in his contribution, the Nubian past of the temple is often obliterated.

Finally, both stories about the Aswan High Dam recall not only that cultural hydro-hegemony is often contested, but also that persuasion and coercion are not alternatives means to exercise power, and instead coexist in the concept and practice of hegemony.

A second point illustrated by Nile pop contributions is that cultural hydro-hegemony is fluid, dialectic, and in constant evolution. Such fluidity is well illustrated by the transformations that the very stage of Nile Pop, the temple of Taffeh, underwent. Daniel Soliman retraces the story of the temple: built as a symbol of Augustus’ conquest of Egypt, centuries later, under the Nubian rule, it was turned into a Christian church; when the Nubian converted to Islam, the Church was abandoned and the temple remained as a landmark for travellers or a familiar site for the local population using it for several mundane purposes. When the construction of the Aswan High Dam threatened to flood several archaeological sites, the temple finally become currency for cultural diplomacy: it was donated by the Egyptian government to the Netherlands, as a sign of gratitude for the Dutch technical contribution to the UNESCO led campaign that saved from inundation the Abu Simbel and other archaeological sites. This is how the Taffeh temple “moved from the banks of the Nile to a canal in Leiden” to use Daniel’s words. The transformation undergone by the temple of Taffeh recalls while buildings, artefacts and infrastructure often carry an important symbolic meaning, such meaning is never set in stone – even that of a temple! – and get constantly rewritten.

The contribution of Azeb Amha about old Amharic popular songs on the Nile river, adds an important point to our understanding of cultural hydro-hegemony as a fluid project: the need for interpretation. Azeb illustrates how the Nile has inspired numerous songs and poem in the Amharic tradition, expressing different and mixed feelings: from celebration of joy and success, to lamentation of sorrow and separation. She also interprets those lyrics in light of the rhetoric and aesthetic canons that guides their composition, as well as of the social contexts in which they were produced and circulated. Azeb contribution, like the other ones, clearly points at the need to further engage in interdisciplinary conversations and research among the humanities, social science, hydrology and engineering, to better understand hoe ecology, culture, society and technology interweave in forming, or challenging, our understanding of water, rivers and infrastructure.

Engaging with the politics of cultural hydro-hegemony

My third and concluding proposition is about the relevance of the concept of cultural hydro-hegemony for the practice of water diplomacy. Again Gramsci’ approach can be of inspiration for such endeavour. Gramsci was not only a theorist. He was a journalist, and first of all a political activist, one of the founders of the Italian Communist party. His approach combines theory with practice. He crafted the notion of cultural hegemony not only to analyse social and political processes, but also to act in and transform those processes. Following this sensibility, an honest critique of cultural hydro-hegemony, in my opinion calls on researchers and analysts to critically reflect on their role inside these processes, rather then assuming the posture of the external observer. Such posture seems problematic particular in the analysis of cultural and discursive practices, to which the knowledge produced by academia and research actively contribute. Once we assume that cultural hydro-diplomacy is fluid and contested, where do we place ourselves in such evolving space?

In searching for an answer to this question, I firstly asked myself: why Gramsci? While his influence as one of the classics in political theory is undeniable, one might wonder and legitimely asks if this Italian thinker who lived one hundred years ago is still the most important reference to rethink culture in international hydropolitics. Gramsci wrote most of his texts while imprisoned by the Italian Fascists regime because of his political ideas and activity. These texts were later collected in the Prison’s notebooks, the most articulated presentation of Gramsci’s general theory of politics. However, this theory was developed a hundred years ago, in a world which was deeply different, in political, ecological and cultural terms compared to the present one. How can this be relevant?

Unfortunately, in the fall of 2022, while we were preparing and editing this special issue, the news about the climate crisis showed the relevance of bringing back Gramsci on the Nile. During the COP27 the annual UN Climate Conference in that occasion hosted by the Egyptian government in Sharm el Sheik, one of the main media headlines worldwide was the hunger strike by the jailed Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah has begun a full hunger strike. After more than 200 days of partial hunger strike – consuming only 100 calories a day –He will stop drinking water on Sunday November 6, the day of the opening in Sharm el Sheik (Egypt) of the COP27, Alaa has spent the last 9 years in prison – except for a few months in 2019 – simply for voicing his opinion. He was also jailed under Mubarak, and later under Morsi. He is a political prisoner, one amongst too many languishing in Egyptian jails.

Alaa was one of the leading figures of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. From the prison were he has spent most of the last ten years he manage to produce some of the most lucid analysis on politics and society, now collected into his own prison notebook, “We have not yen been defeated” (Abd El-Fattah 2022). In June 2019, reflecting in the columns of the Egyptian independent magazine Mada Masr, on the spread of biblical and apocalyptic imaginations on the approaching climate catastrophe, Alaa commented: “So it seems that the Bible story more aptly prefiguring the coming apocalypse is not the story of Noha’ flood but the story of the Tower of Babel: as a punishment for our pride in our technological prowess and our appetite to construct, consume and expand without limit, the Lord as confounded our tongues we cannot communicate with each other, and so our fragmentation cannot be done” (Abd El-Fattah 2022:349).

The metaphor of the Tower of babel made me reflecting on how most of the cultural hydro-hegemony projects are quintessentially national. They are hardly communicable, intelligible and culturally relevant to people and groups living in other countries or belonging to different cultural traditions. They need translation and dialogue. Share, confront and compare the emotions elicited by water and river. Knowing that emotions do not tell much about what we are observing – water, a river – but rather how we are looking at a certain phenomenon. To find connection across culture and traditions.

This is indeed the space that Nile Pop aims to cultivate and further promote. The beginning of a space and conversation to nurture such dialogue. People and institutions interested in water diplomacy, will to mediate, manage or transform water conflict should also engage at the domestic level, forging alliances with groups and actors like journalists, artists, activists that are eager to promote alternative narratives, that challenge the mainstream “national interest” perspective or the water war narratives, and that on the contrary create connections between different scales, temporalities, interests, practices and understanding of water.



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