Sunday, April 27, 2008

Houses of Nubia

Written by Louis WernerPhotographed by Michael Nelson
he region of Upper Nubia in Sudan, lying between the Nile’s Second Cataract near the Egyptian border and the river’s distinctive S-bend some 350 kilometers (200 mi) to the south, is a land where the clock ticks to non-Arab time. Within Upper Nubia, north of the Third Cataract near Kerma, where the Mahas district begins and the asphalt and electricity end, Nubian villagers maintain their linguistic and cultural differences with great pride. To be Mahasi means to be a true Nubian, to speak a pure Nubian language and to live in the Nubian heartland.
But Mahas was recently spared a project whose benefits would surely have despoiled it, a project aimed dead center at the village of Kajbar at the Third Cataract and the Nubian fields and homesteads upstream. The government had planned a hydroelectric dam at Kajbar that would have flooded out tens of thousands of families and covered countless archeological sites in and around Kerma, the ancient Kushite capital. This, all agree, would have been a tragic reprise of the losses in Lower Nubia, on the Egyptian side of the border, with the building of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960’s.
Luckily, the Kajbar dam never got past the blueprint stage. An international campaign publicized the threat and successfully petitioned the Sudanese government to reconsider. A dam now under construction at an alternative site, at the Fourth Cataract of the Nile near Karima, will displace fewer non-Nubian farmers and will not disturb the archeological sites at Napata and Jebel Barkal.
If the Kajbar dam had been built, perhaps its saddest casualty would have been not a site but a type: the Nubian house, a mud-walled, stand-alone family compound centered on a courtyard and surrounded by an extensive layout of men’s and women’s quarters. The Sudanese novelist Tayyib Salih has compared such a house, often built on heights above the flood plain, to “a ship that has cast anchor in mid-ocean."

Even more distinctive than the floor plan of a Nubian house is the decoration of its exterior doorway, or bawaba, which mixes vivid color, adobe brick filigree, figurative and geometric images in mud and white lime-plaster relief, and wall-mounted objects like ceramic plates, automobile headlights, mirrors, cow horns and dried crocodiles. While the full range of these decorative materials has shrunk in recent years, the impulse to draw attention to one’s home, and to its doorway as a symbol of the family, remains strong.

Farther north, this homegrown architecture did not survive the displacement of the Egyptian Nubians. Relocated into concrete, common-walled shells in a new-lands development at Kom Ombo, north of Aswan, this change in architectural space, more than anything else that happened to them in their move, has been a main reason for their gradual “arabization” over the last 40 years. Something similar has happened to a smaller number of Sudanese Nubians relocated from Wadi Halfa, at the southern reaches of Lake Nasser, to Khashem al-Girba east of Khartoum on the Atbara River.
Because of the clear demarcation of cultivable and uncultivable land along the Nubian Nile, houses there can be built right at the edge of the green fields, taking advantage of the view and the cooling humidity. Unlike, say, in the Nile Delta or in a new agriculture development off-river, a Nubian house could be amply proportioned and comfortably situated because it did not occupy otherwise productive land.
Abdallah Salih Suleiman, age 75, lives in such a house near Kerma. He was born on Badeen Island in mid-channel and remembers his old home’s outer wall adorned with a white lime-plaster image of a lion holding a sword, surrounded by sunbursts. “Whenever a child in the family lost a tooth, he would throw it at the wall, and where it struck, in that place we would then paint a sunburst as a wish for a new tooth. Our doorway also had a plaster cattle egret, which we call here sadeeq al-mazreeq, or friend of the fields, because it is always a welcome guest.” Egrets eat insect pests and make the farmer’s job that much easier.