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An introduction to Nile Pop

Emanuele Fantini

Photo: Martje de Vries

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 researchers 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 findings 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 US 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; they are also dealing 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 cultural hydro-hegemony is fluid and contested, and how popular culture contributes to legitimize or contest 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 not 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, to inform researchers’ contribution to water diplomacy.).

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.

The hydro-hegemony framework 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 often cooperation takes place in asymmetric contexts, among actors that are not equal. 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 was 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 debate, 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, and 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 the common sense that become constitutive of 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 as founding member and leader of the Italian Communist Party, and before being imprisoned for his political activities and ideas under the Fascist regime, Gramsci studied historical linguistic at the University of 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 how culture (education, arts, religion, science…) is mobilised in the struggle to legitimise or challenge at different scales – local, national, and international – 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 discourses about the national interest are crafted and legitimised. Culture, politics, economy, and ecology deeply interweave in such contested processes, which happen 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 to the study of discourses and narratives in hydropolitics, 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 understanding of 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. 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 in terms of freedom of expression.

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 and reflecting on their presentations in Leiden.

A first point that emerges from Nile Pop 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’s 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 and abroad 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 reproduction, circulation, and legitimation.

A different type of intellectual is the one portrayed by Amal Guermazi in the troubled story of Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chaine’s movie on the construction of the Aswan High Dam. The film was commissioned to Chaine in 1964 by the Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. However, 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. For Chaine, this event represented a turning point, 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 in the eyes – and ears – of some groups represents social mobility and technical mastery, for other becomes a grim story of displacement, of loss of relation with water and loss of knowledge about it. Here music is used 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, whose Nubian past, as mentioned by Daniel Soliman in his contribution, is often obliterated.
Finally, both stories about the Aswan High Dam recall not only that cultural hydro-hegemony is often contested, but also that cultural persuasion and physical coercion are not alternatives means to exercise power, coexisting instead 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. For instance, such fluidity materialised in 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 Nubians converted to Islam, the Church was abandoned and the temple remained as a landmark for travellers and a site for mundane activities by the local population. 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 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 Soliman’s words. The transformation undergone by the Temple of Taffeh recalls that buildings, artefacts, and infrastructure often carry an important symbolic meaning, but also that such meaning is never set in stone – even that of a temple! – and is constantly reinterpreted.

Azeb Amha’s contribution about old Amharic popular songs on the Nile river, adds an important element to our understanding of cultural hydro-hegemony as a fluid project: the need for interpretation. Azeb Amha illustrates how the Nile has inspired numerous songs and poems 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 guided their composition, as well as of the social contexts in which they were produced and circulated. Azeb Amha’s contribution, like the other ones, clearly points at the need to further engage in interdisciplinary research across the humanities, social science, hydrology, and engineering, to better understand how ecology, culture, society, and technology interweave in forming – or in 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. Gramsci’s 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 and leaders 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, in my opinion, an honest critique of cultural hydro-hegemony calls on researchers and analysts to critically reflect on their role inside these processes, instead of easily assuming the posture of the external observer. Such posture seems problematic particular in the analysis of cultural and discursive practices, to which academic knowledge and research often actively contribute. This is a political proposition as it invites scholars to clarify their position in controversies over transboundary waters, acknowledging the values, emotions, and interests that contribute to situate their knowledge and analysis. Once we assume that cultural hydro-hegemony 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 legitimately asks if this Italian thinker who lived one hundred years ago is still the most important reference to rethink the place and power of 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 from the present one, in political, ecological, technological, and cultural terms. How could such theory still be relevant today?

Unfortunately, the relevance of bringing back Gramsci on the Nile clearly emerged in the fall of 2022, while we were preparing and editing this special issue. During the COP27, the annual UN Climate Conference that year hosted by the Egyptian government in Sharm el Sheik, one of the main headlines in global media was the hunger strike by the jailed Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah. After more than two hundred days of partial hunger strike – consuming only one hundred calories a day – Alaa announced that he was going to stop drinking water on Sunday November 6, the very day of the COP27 opening. Alaa had spent the last nine years in prison – except for a few months in 2019 – simply for voicing his opinion. He was also jailed under the regime of Hosni Mubarak, and later under Mohamed Morsi. He is a political prisoner, one amongst too many languishing in Egyptian jails (Human Rights Watch 2023). Alaa was one of the leading figures of the Egyptian revolution in 2011. In spite of being prisoned, he could not be completely silenced. From the prison, he managed to produce some of the most lucid analysis on politics and society in Egypt and beyond, now collected into his own prison notebook, titled “You have not yet been defeated” (Abd El-Fattah 2022). In June 2019, in the columns of the Egyptian independent magazine Mada Masr, commenting on the spread of biblical and apocalyptic imaginations about the approaching climate catastrophe, Alaa wrote: “And so it seems that the Bible story more aptly prefiguring the coming apocalypse is not the story of Noah’s 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 has confounded our tongues – we cannot communicate with each other, and so our fragmentation cannot be undone” (Abd El-Fattah 2022: 349).
The metaphor of the Tower of Babel made me reflecting on the fact that most of the cultural hydro-hegemony projects are quintessentially national. They are hardly communicable, intelligible, and culturally relevant to people living in other countries or belonging to different cultural traditions. For instance, the main discourse on the GERD in Ethiopian public spaces, echoed in the songs analysed by Abebe Yirga Ayenalem, illustrates how cultural hydro-hegemonic projects can be highly effective in cementing consensus within national constituency, but also contribute to polarise the debate at the international level between countries and negotiators.

Understanding the development and functioning of such cultural hydro-hegemonic projects seems a key element of water diplomacy, when we consider the latter as the “deliberative political processes and practices of preventing, mitigating, and resolving disputes over transboundary water resources and developing joint water governance arrangements by applying foreign policy means, embedded in bi- and/or multilateral relations beyond the water sector and taking place at different tracks and levels” (Sehring et al, 2022: 212). As researchers interested in cultural hydro-hegemony, we can contribute to the processes and practices of water diplomacy in multiple ways.
First, the study of cultural hydro-hegemony can contribute to a better understanding of how ideas about the national interest over transboundary rivers crystalized and gets legitimated within domestic constituencies, and how these ideas might fuel conflicts at the international level. Promoting a better understanding also implies translating and contextualising the cultural hydro-hegemonic projects for other cultures and audiences. Describing and comparing the emotions elicited by water and rivers in different cultures and societies are key steps to clarify positions and perspectives. This seems a precondition for engaging in active listening and constructive dialogue for preventing, mitigating, and resolving water conflicts.

Second, the study of cultural hydro-hegemony can foreground positions and perspectives that are not well represented in public spaces, that are side-lined or repressed. In order to transform water conflicts, researchers interested in water diplomacy should also consider collaborating with groups like journalists, artists, and activists, that are trying to promote alternative narratives and understandings of water and rivers. This effort can contribute to better represent the plurality of voices that is often obliterated by the mainstream discourse on the “national interest”.

Third, beside translating and contextualising cultural hydro-hegemonic projects, and giving voice and representing alternative or counter-hegemonic positions, we should also attempt, whenever it is possible, to create spaces for dialogue to share and contrast emotions, worldviews, and perspectives on water and rivers. The main purpose of such spaces would be not to convince other parties about the primacy of one’s own position or understanding of a shared river, but rather to become more aware of your own perspective, while at the same time learning about and acknowledging others. In other words, such spaces should create the conditions for a dialogic conversation instead of a dialectic one, which usually ends with a synthesis on a common ground. This can be considered a space for water diplomacy, following Isabelle Stengers’ understanding of diplomacy as “the production of a new proposition, articulating what was a contradiction leading to war. (…) a contradiction (either/or) has been turned into a contrast (and, and)” (Stengers 2005: 183). As researchers interested in cultural hydro-hegemony and water diplomacy, we should facilitate and contribute to such dialogic spaces and conversations, to craft propositions that acknowledge and work with the plurality of cultural understandings over shared rivers like the Nile, instead of chasing an impossible to reach “transboundary identity”.

Following sociologist Les Back, I consider such posture a practice of reflective engagement, namely “a political intervention that realizes the limits of writing and the complexities of dialogue and listening” (Back 2007: 162), with “writing” broadly referring to the production of academic knowledge. One of the consequences of those limits is the “tension between the political necessity for intervention and the sociological value in taking time to think carefully and critically” (Back 2007:162), that I have also experienced in the past years, working with journalists and researchers from different Nile basin countries. To navigate this tension, our reflective engagement materialized in the creative use of different media and forms of expressions, like for instance a podcast or photo-stories, conceived as spaces where researchers, journalists, and photographers could engage in dialogic conversations (Fantini and Buist 2021). Being reflective implies also being modest, and, in our case, acknowledging that these conversations mostly took place at the margins of the main public debate on the Nile and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, in the sheltered spaces were researchers, journalists, and photographers felt free to express themselves. However, modesty does not come without determination, and the thought and example of both Gramsci and Alaa recall us the vulnerability but also the power of ideas, and inspire us to constantly strive to sharpen ours.

By referring to Gramsci’s original approach to cultural hegemony, the notion of cultural -hydro-hegemony aims at making three contributions to the discursive and cultural turns that are gaining momentum in the study of hydropolitics and hydro-hegemony.

First, cultural hydro-hegemony emphasises the role of popular culture and cultural institutions like the media, school, arts, or religion, in forming and legitimising what is often referred to as “the national interest” of a country over a transboundary river. This process usually begins at the national scale, with the formulation and competition of different worldviews and interests about water. Once consolidated within a domestic constituency, the national cultural hydro-hegemonic project enters the international arena and clashes with those of other riparian states. Paying attention to these processes, both within each country and at the interplay of different scales, can contribute to overcome state-centred and static approaches to power in the study of hydropolitics and hydro-hegemony.

Second, the stories presented in Nile Pop suggest that cultural hydro-hegemony is fluid and contested. This is particularly evident at the international scale, where the “national interests” of the riparian states often collides. Nile Pop’ stories highlight how contestation happens also at the domestic level. Being based on communication and persuasion, the construction of cultural hydro-hegemony remains open to interpretation, appropriation, or critique. In a context where water issues are highly securitized, like in the Nile basin, these actions are often constrained by severe limitations of freedom of expression. Alternative views on water and counter hydro-hegemonic projects are difficult to articulate and get often silenced or repressed. On the other side, some of the Nile Pop stories also indicate how cultural hydro-hegemony at its utmost delights its subjects, nurturing them with feelings of belonging and pride. Thus, persuasion and coercion coexist in the practice of cultural hydro-hegemony.

Third, focusing on the production of discourses and knowledge about water, cultural hydro-hegemony calls for a reflective engagement by the researchers, which are often involved as a consumer or co-producer of the cultural processes that they aim at studying. Cultural hydro-hegemony invites therefore the researchers to acknowledge their positions and reflect on which role they can and should play in water diplomacy. Researchers can collaborate at interdisciplinary studies to analyse, translate, and contextualise different cultural or national understandings of water and rivers, particularly for audiences that are not familiar with those, as a prerequisite for mutual recognition and dialogue. Researchers can also engage in trans-disciplinary collaborations with journalists, artists, or activists to foreground the worldviews, interests, and understandings about water that are silenced or repressed by hegemonic discourses in political and scientific debates. Finally, researchers can contribute to the promotion and facilitation of spaces where different cultural understandings of water and competing interests over rivers can enter into a dialogic conversation, with the diplomatic goal of finding an agreement that acknowledge and respects the plurality of the positions.

Nile Pop has tried to create and nurture such space for dialogic conversation. The many people involved – researchers, musicians, museum curators, Kristel Henquet and Martje de Vries from the Zenobia foundation, and the audience of course – have attempted to play some of the roles highlighted above. I would like to thank them for their competence and enthusiasm. Equally, we are grateful to the editorial team of Bridging Humanities – Mirjam De Bruijn and Laurens Nijzink – for offering a digital platform to document, reflect on, and pay tribute in a captivating way to such an inspiring event. That evening at the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden ended – one hour later than originally planned! – with an audience very diverse in terms of national, professional, and disciplinary background, dancing together in front of the Taffeh Temple to the music of the Nile Band: a perfect illustration of the power of water stories to enchant, move, and set people in motion.

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