Nubian displacement is a known consequence of the construction of the Aswan High Dam (1960-71). Centering this displacement in histories of Afro-Arab solidarity, however, sheds new light on the hydropolitics that shaped the dam’s construction as well as on the contradictions of Bandung-era politics. The displacement happened while Egypt was flourishing as a central site of pan-African politics, the Non-Aligned Movement, and the Third World solidarity project. Throughout this period, a number of Black intellectuals, radicals, musicians, and writers related to Egypt—real and imagined—through the shared history of struggle in the histories of Atlantic slavery and colonialism. The expulsion and resettlement of Nubians, however, is not typically contextualized in this moment of radical internationalism. This is peculiar considering that these histories of forced displacement are ultimately a history of the “afterlives” of slavery in Egypt, and a manifestation of the anti-Black logics that situate Nubians as one of the nation’s peripheral “others."
In addition to the displacement of Nubians, regional legacies of slavery in the Afro-Arab world include the ongoing slave trade across Niger, Ghana, Gambia, and Nigeria through Libya and the Mediterranean, “modern” slavery in Sudan, Egypt, and Mauritania, and the kafala system. Anti-Blackness and its enmeshment in north, west, and east African trade routes defined by slave labor and the slave trade are foundational to the histories of Africa and the so-called Middle East. To not acknowledge these histories in recounting Afro-Arab solidarities is to ignore the particular conditions of local racial discourses for the sake of narrating a universal subaltern experience. Where do Black communities indigenous to the Arabic-speaking world fit into what Alex Lubin refers to as the “geographies of liberation” that emerged through the making of an Afro-Arab political imaginary from the 1850s to the present day?
Nubia and the Formation of Modern Egypt
The displacement of Nubians was fundamental to the formation of the modern Egyptian state. Nubia historically existed and still exists in the land stretching from Aswan in modern-day upper Egypt to Dongola in modern-day northern Sudan. Mohammed Ali Pasha, the Ottoman governor and de facto ruler of Egypt between 1805-48, dispatched his forces to conquer the Funj Sultanate (which included Nubian lands) and northern Sudanese riverine regions in 1820. He sought to eliminate a potential Mamluk threat in Dongola, find oft-rumored gold, and acquire enslaved people to build his modern army.
Although slavery and the slave trade between modern-day Egypt and Sudan existed in earlier periods, closer attention should be paid to this historical moment. Ali Pasha’s campaign took place during the advance of French, Ottoman-Egyptian, and British imperial ambitions in Africa, the centralization of the Egyptian state, and the formation of popular discourses on belonging and non-belonging in Ottoman Egypt. Black enslaved people were transported to Egypt in caravans on routes from Darfur to Asyut; Sennar to Isna; the White Nile region; Bornu and Wadai through Libya and the Western desert; and the East African coast (via the ports of Massawa and Zayla) through the Red Sea.
Regional enablers of the slave trade, which included but were not limited to jallaba merchants, jurists, religious scholars, and the ruling elite, justified the enslavement of Black people through the racialization of Blackness as a paucity of civility, history, and worth. This was part of a long and established legal and intellectual tradition of anti-Blackness spanning northern and western Africa and their slave trading routes. Aristotelian theories about the climate’s effects on the body, deterministic Khaldunian theories of history, and economic and political factors steering African slave trading routes towards the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Gulf Peninsula, and the Indian Ocean supported what John Hunwick has referred to as a “religious ethnography,” a logic that equated the darkness of an individual’s skin with unbelief throughout the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. Over the course of the nineteenth century, in particular, these beliefs were augmented by the rise of Darwinism and the evolutionary sciences. Although there was an array of counter-discourses to this racializing logic, anti-Blackness was far too enmeshed in the political economies and social hierarchies of north, west, and east African slave trading routes to be seriously threatened or delegitimized by them.
Thus, by virtue of their Blackness, Nubians, despite not having been subjected to enslavement themselves, joined (primarily) western and southern Sudanese communities in serving as an immediate “other” to the postcolonial Egyptian racial identity. The trade of enslaved Africans was de jure abolished in Egypt in 1877 and again in 1895. It was in this supposed post-abolition Egypt, however, that “the employment of dark-skinned non-slave domestic laborers was associated with the prestige of slave ownership."
Late nineteenth-century Egyptian nationalist discourses and debates were a means by which stereotypical, racist caricatures of “Blackness” could be performed, invented, and reified. Early nationalists accordingly sought to distance Egypt and Egyptians from these ideas of “Blackness” to help substantiate the claim that Egypt was worthy of independence from colonial rule. Eve Troutt Powell understands this as part of the “colonized colonizer” dynamic that existed between Great Britain, Egypt, and Sudan, with Egypt occupying an intermediary position in Great Britain’s colonial scheme. Colonized yet itself a polity able to colonize, the Egyptian state mobilized these ideations of Blackness to lay claim to Sudan and assert itself as a modernizing force that measured up to other “civilized” nations. Mainstream nationalist and anti-colonial discourses largely relied on colonial frameworks to demand decolonization, and the sovereign state internalized the racisms inherent to these grammars while also perpetuating those indigenous to Egypt. The enslavement of African peoples, the racialization of Nubians, and the colonization of Sudan shared a particular logic of anti-Blackness. Left unprocessed, the afterlives of slavery, colonialism (experienced and performed), and systemic racism seeped into the foundations of the modern Egyptian state.
Demarcating the Border, Displacing Nubians
The 1899 Anglo-Egyptian Condominium Agreement formalized the border between modern-day Sudan and Egypt. Territories south of the twenty-second parallel were designated as being part of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan. This border was drawn in the middle of several Nubian villages, and Nubian communities were consequently divided between the nascent nation-states. At the same time, Great Britain’s heightened control over the Nile Valley sparked its desire to regularize and control the flow of the Nile to increase the amount of water available for cotton cultivation. Basin irrigation could not sustain Britain’s extractive economic policies nor Egypt’s population, which almost doubled between 1850 and 1897.
The British fulfilled their desires by building the Aswan Low Dam between 1898-1902, at the first cataract near Aswan. The dam’s retention of water submerged cultivable Nubian land, forcing the affected Nubian communities to leave their ancestral homes and move upstream. The dam was raised in 1912 and again in 1933, propelling the dam’s flooding farther into historic Nubia. Within this thirty-five-year period, fifteen Nubian villages were forced to abandon their livelihoods and relocate upstream, farther away from Old Nubia. Between 1963-1964, the final and most monumental displacement took place with the construction of Aswan High Dam and its adjacent Lake Nasser (the dam’s reservoir). The Egyptian government forcibly displaced Nubia’s remaining forty-four villages shortly after the dam’s first construction stage was completed in 1964. According to the 1960 Egyptian census, this displaced around fifty thousand Nubians—the entirety of soon-to-be submerged Nubia’s population. Nubia was wholly and completely uprooted in the making of the Aswan Dams.
Nasser formally announced the Aswan High Dam project during the nationalization of the Suez Canal on July 26, 1956. Together, these projects functioned as the exercise of postcolonial hydropolitics, or “water nationalism,” a term Jeremy Allouche uses to describe how “water bodies, landscapes, and infrastructures became naturalized as part of the nation-state imaginary, ignoring the marginalization of certain spaces and populations." The construction of the Aswan High Dam embodied the promise of the future of the nation (already emboldened by the nationalization of the Suez Canal); Nasser referred to the High Dam as the “dam of glory, freedom, and dignity” that would “eradicate the dams of humiliation and indignity.” The dam would thus continue along the trail blazed by the Suez Canal and symbolize the free, self-governing, and self-reliant nation-state of Egypt. On the day its construction was announced, Nasser emphasized that “the [Suez] canal was dug with our souls, our skulls, our bones, and our blood…but instead of the canal being dug for Egypt, Egypt became the property of the canal.” He remarked that Egyptians would “never repeat the past.”
The High Dam submerged Nubian homelands in both southern Egyptian and northern Sudan. In 1963, displaced Egyptian Nubians were relocated to Kom Ombo, a city around fifty kilometers north of Aswan. The Sudanese government forcefully resettled forty-thousand Sudanese Nubians from their ancestral homes in Wadi Halfa, located on the border between Egypt and Sudan, to Khasm al Girba, located along the south-eastern border between Sudan and Eritrea.
The dam’s consequences also rippled throughout the diaspora. As “the ability of the Nubian land to support the population diminished, the reliance on remittances from the urban offshoots increased." The dam’s violence, however, did not just manifest through forced, physical displacement and its economic consequences. To be made to exist in a country that is built on violence against your community is, in and of itself, a form of violence. To experience the destruction of your ancestral homeland as the nation’s raison d'être is a form of violence. This is a visceral force that operates beyond the nation-state framework. The construction of the dam separated and divided Nubian communities, their kinship networks, and the cultures that had lived between modern-day Egypt and Sudan for centuries. Furthermore, Nubians were not adequately compensated for their livelihoods lost in the building of the dam, and the cities they were forcibly relocated to lacked the necessary infrastructure needed to support fifty-thousand displaced persons. Nubians were displaced and neglected by the Egyptian state in the name of the Aswan High Dam and the manifestation of mainstream Egyptian nationalism.
This promise of decolonization had global resonance. It inspired Langston Hughes to write his character Simple as being so affected by the victory over the canal in a column in the Chicago Defender titled “Simple’s World of Black and White,” that he declared that “the Suez is the same as mine, since it belonged to my boy Nasser who is the Adam Powell of Egypt." Egypt was at once a global symbol of liberation and local participant in violent anti-Black infrastructures. Egypt positioned against the colonial order, equivalent in stature to the African American struggle for liberation, was far more flattering (and visible on a global scale) than Egypt as a state still reckoning with its own traumas, contradictions, and inherited and locally invented technologies of violence. This imagining of Egypt as a site of a singular historical experience, however, is reliant on the idea that the world is dichotomously divided into subjugated and subjugators, oppressed and oppressors. This bidirectional understanding of power continues to shield the violence done to Nubian communities through the construction of the Aswan High Dam from global scrutiny.
The ethnographic and archeological projects initiated before and after the construction of the Aswan High Dam focused more on the loss of Nubian antiquities and relics than they did on the forced displacement of Nubians from their ancestral lands and heritage. In doing so, these works helped to frame the dam’s construction as a necessary enterprise for state development rather than a violent force against Nubian communities that was part of Egypt’s histories of state-sanctioned anti-Blackness.
This was the case with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) “International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia (1960-1980).” UNESCO’s initial 1960 request to the global community to support the campaign garnered a fair amount of aid and support, but not enough to fulfill the scope of the project. The appeal itself was an ode to a romanticized, ancient Nubia on the verge of ruin, and UNESCO made it clear that this ideation of Nubia, as the site of a long-gone civilization rather than the present lands of an indigenous population, was the only Nubia that would be “saved” by the campaign. UNESCO later revised the appeal to include the following: “In return for the international assistance given, the Government of the United Arab Republic is offering not less than fifty per cent of the finds excavated in Nubia, authorization to carry out further excavation in other parts of Egypt, and the cession of precious objects and monuments, including certain Nubian temples, for transfer abroad. The Government of the Sudan, for its part, is offering fifty per cent of the finds from excavations to be made in its territory.”
According to UNESCO’s 1958-1961 Director-General Vittorino Veronese, Nubian heritage no longer belonged to Nubians, but was a “treasure of the universe [that was] entitled to universal protection." Following the publication of this iteration of the appeal, forty-seven UNESCO member states contributed over forty million dollars to the campaign’s twenty-year run. The bulk of the funds came from the United States, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, and Italy. Unsurprisingly, the campaign’s most lucrative “saves”—the temples of Debod, Taffa, Dendur, Ellesvia, and Kalabsha Portico—were given to museums in Spain, the Netherlands, the United States, Italy, and Germany, respectively. UNESCO sanctioned and created a platform for what Ariella Aïsha Azoulay refers to as the “kernel of imperialism’s archival modus operandi” to legitimize the theft of Nubian relics from Nubian communities. The UNESCO appeal, as well as the nation-states enabling the organization’s approach, violated “existing forms of being-together and of inhabiting the world through the separation of objects from people and their transformation into embodiments of foreign classificatory categories that determine the fate of their displacement, extermination, exploitation, appropriation, or preservation."
Although UNESCO identified the relics as elements of Nubian heritage, they described them as if they were not the belongings and livelihoods of living Nubian communities. This was largely due to the fact that researchers associated with the campaign “relied on the notion of ‘salvage anthropology,’ which saw the Nubians as a traditional, tribal group on the brink of change and whose identity needed documentation lest it be lost forever." Key to the erasure of indigenous groups and their rights is their forced displacement from the objects that symbolize their relationship to their lands. This allows for a distinction between the “past”—defined by archeologists, engineers, museum curators, and ethnographers—and the “present.” The relics came to belong to the “world” and became part of an imagined universal heritage the moment Egypt became a nation-state.
It was at this moment that Egypt’s formally outlined borders became the most significant determinant of an individual’s relationship to the lands within them. Nubians could not be “of Nubia” in a way that was recognizable to the international landscape of the 1960s. Nubia was not a recognized sovereign entity and therefore did not exist. By all means and figures, Nubians were either Egyptian or Sudanese. This rendered Nubian artifacts—whose owners were alive and present—part of an ambiguous ancient past so removed from the “modern” idiom of world order that they became part of universal history. The concept of the “universal” operates to flatten the contours of history to fit into modernity’s logics in such a way that communities that exist outside its temporality are violently denied their entitlements to their legacies and their right to reject the nation-state’s monopoly on subjectivity. Thus, when Nubia and its artifacts are relegated to the ancient world, the reparations and rights owed to Nubians are more easily dismissed. UNESCO and the Egyptian government’s respective approaches to the displacement of Nubian communities were mutually-reinforcing. UNESCO was able to facilitate the global looting of valuable Nubian monuments and the Egyptian government was bolstered in its efforts to dictate and police the ways “Egyptians” could identify themselves with “Egypt.”
Black Nationalists, Malcolm X, and Nubia
Given the layers of dispossession and anti-Blackness at play in the displacement of Nubians between 1960-1971, it is ironic that the zenith of Malcolm X’s political ideology is often imagined as having been reached during his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca and trips across Africa and the so-called Middle East, and in particular Cairo. It was in Mecca that the Malcolm X depicted by Alex Haley first reckoned with the transformative and unifying power of Islam. It was there that he prayed side by side with Muslims “whose skin was the whitest of white, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, and whose hair was the blondest of blond." To Malcolm, this practice symbolized the oneness of humanity, and in turn, the oneness of God. He saw what he referred to as an “eastern” Islam that protected the societies that were its oases from the evils of racism. He believed that this Islam had the potential to function as a fundamentally anti-racist ideology that could engender true brotherhood, understanding, and recognition between white and non-white communities in the United States. Islam was the praxis of anti-racism.
The power of this “eastern” Islam was so totalizing that in Cairo, Malcolm wrote that “there were people of ‘all complexions, but…no ‘color’ problem—one family, yet all shades…I met thousands of people of different races and colors who treated me as a human being.” He declared the city an “‘example for [the world].’" In Malcolm’s eyes, Islam was the world’s most powerful antidote to the problem of the color line. He attributed anti-Black racism in the lands of “eastern” Islam only to “where, and to what extent that … area of the Muslim world has been influenced by the West." This idea was originally expressed to him by Abdul Rahman Hassan Azzam, an Egyptian diplomat and the first secretary-general of the Arab League.
As Hisham Aidi has noted, Cold War neoconservative politics were profoundly influenced by Black nationalists’ embrace of the struggle for decolonization in the Arab world. Bernard Lewis, prominent orientalist and scholar of Islam, wrote that the Islamic beliefs “which [Malcolm] had acquired prevented him from seeing the ‘Alabama-like quality’ and ‘Southern impression’ of Arab life." Published in Race and Color in Islam in 1971, this view was a product of Lewis’ staunch support for the state of Israel following the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and argument that Islamic civilizations were inherently anti-Black and racially discriminatory. Accordingly, he failed to realize that it was not Malcolm X’s zeal for Islam that was clouding his judgment, but his inability (or reluctance) to expand his analysis of race and power to encompass the historical trajectory of Afro-Arab racialisms.
This analytical framework persists in the present commemorations of Malcolm X’s trips to the Arabic-speaking world. In 1992, David Graham DuBois contextualized Malcom’s trips to Egypt as being shaped by “the mass accumulation of human beings of color [in Egypt], in which white folks are a minority—a precise and distinct minority.” “[This] brotherhood, the oneness of experience” was of the most “important things” to an African-American at the time.
Nubia and the Afro-Arab World
DuBois’ emphasis on the “oneness of experience” invites us to consider the limitations inherent in current historiographical framings of Afro-Arab political solidarities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These histories are important and critical in their own right. But in rigidly focusing on the legacies of colonial subjugation shared by modern-day African and Arab nation-states, the intertwined histories and intellectual genealogies of African American and Palestinian struggles for liberation, and dominant ideologies and grammars of Third-Worldism, they obscure the historical reality and lived experience of Afro-Arab peoples and communities. In these analyses, it is not an “eastern” Islam that forms the bridge of solidarity uniting the two distinct regions, but the external oppression wrought by white supremacy and Western imperialism. Inherent to this logic is the separation of two discrete, fixed and unchanging worlds: a majority Black and “African” one; and an “Arab” one. But there are communities that transcend the racial, geographic, and sociopolitical boundaries of these imagined African and Arab worlds.
Further, the narrow focus on Euro-American forces and technologies of power diminishes the legacies and logics of the anti-Black racisms that are indigenous and fundamental to the formation of the Afro-Arab world. By “Afro-Arab” world I do not mean the countries existing between the disciplinary borders of the fields of “Middle Eastern” and “African” studies—often limited to Sudan, Tanzania, Djibouti, and Somalia and sometimes including Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco—nor am I referring to the Afro-Arab “political project” generated by Third World intelligentsia.Rather, I am invoking the layered histories of both regions. What is conventionally thought of as the Arab world could not exist without its ties to the African continent, and vice versa. To separate these worlds would be to both ignore the fundamental role that natural geography and the environment have played in shaping the region and neglect the histories of the slave trade, migration, and enslavement alongside the intellectual traditions and cosmologies shared throughout Africa and West Asia.
Historicizing betwixt and between the fields of Middle Eastern and African studies is of the utmost urgency and is necessary to excavate the histories that are lost in the artificial bordering of the Afro-Arab world. Aimé Césaire’s 1956 letter to Maurice Thorez declaring his resignation from the French Communist Party is useful for articulating the stakes of this project. He wrote: “I am not burying myself in a narrow particularism. But neither do I want to lose myself in an emaciated universalism. There are two ways to lose oneself: walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the ‘universal.’” This dilution is a key to the historicization of Afro-Arab solidarities. The nuances of local histories have been sacrificed in attempts to articulate the ties that bind subjugated peoples and spaces to one another. This helps to narrate the history of a “universal” subaltern experience largely shared by non-Western and/or non-white nations and peoples as the most formative and disastrous event of violence. Local histories are diluted and written off as inherently secondary to and less important than the event of Western imperialism. This approach enables a global parochialism that cannot accommodate the multiplicities of Blackness and the global Black experience. Here, understanding Nubian displacement in and through a local Egyptian hydropolitical project sheds light on how racism operates as a technology on multiple levels, and offers an analysis that crosses those levels.
If we are able to hold on to the fact that multiple, competing, and sometimes contradictory axes of power can exist in a single space and understand that the identities of oppressed and oppressor are never fixed and always historically contingent, we can see more fully how the displacement of Nubian communities was able to take place amid the articulation of Afro-Arab solidarities and present more clearly the multi-layered nature of violence in a space as dynamic as the Afro-Arab world. In propagating the notion of an emaciated subaltern universalism, we silence the complexities present in the lived experience of Afro-Arabness and Africanity in the Arabic-speaking world. Instead, we must reconfigure and interrogate our current geographies of liberation.
 Alex Lubin, Geographies of Liberation: The Making of An Afro-Arab Political Imaginary (Raleigh: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 9.
 Emanuel Beška, “Muhammed Ali’s conquest of Sudan (1820-1824),” Asian and African Studies 28, no. 3 (2018): 32.
 Gabriel Baer, “Slavery in Nineteenth Century Egypt,” The Journal of African History 8, no. 3 (1967): 441.
 John Hunwick, “Islamic Law and Polemics over Race and Slavery in North and West Africa (16th–19th Centuries),” in Shaun E. Marmon, ed., Slavery in the Islamic Middle East (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), 46.
 Elizabeth A. Smith, “Tributaries in the Stream of Civilization: Race, Ethnicity, and National Belonging among Nubians in Egypt,” Ph.D. diss., (New York University, 2006), 61.
 Claire Cookson-Hills, “The Aswan Dam and Egyptian Water Control Policy, 1882-1902,” Radical History Review 116 (2013): 62-63.
 Nicholas S. Hopkins and Sohair R. Mehanna, The Nubian Ethnological Survey: History and Methods (Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2011), 5-9.
 Hussein Fahim, “Basic Information on the Newly Settled Nubian Community in Kom Ombo, Upper Egypt: Report Prepared for the Egyptian General Organization for Land Reclamation (EGOLR),” (Cairo: Social Research Center at the American University in Cairo, 1974), 22.
 Jeremy Allouche, “State building, nation making and post-colonial hydropolitics in India and Israel: Visible and hidden forms of violence at multiple scales,” Political Geography 75 (2019): 6.
 Hopkins and Mehanna, The Nubian Ethnological Survey,10.
 As cited in Vaughn Rasberry, Race in the Totalitarian Century: Geopolitics in the Literary Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), 211.
 Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban and kharyssa rhodes, “The Study of Race and Racism in the Nile Valley,” in Race and Identity in the Nile Valley: Ancient and Modern Perspectives eds. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban and kharyssa rhodes (Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press, 2004), xiii-xx.
 As quoted in Roger-Pol Droit, Humanity in the Making: Overview of the Intellectual History of UNESCO, 1945-2000 (UNESCO, 2005), 132-133.
 Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (New York: Verso Books, 2019), 174.
 Samantha Allen, “Nubians and development, 1960-2015,” MA thesis, (The American University in Cairo, 2014), 21.
 Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, “Letter from Mecca,” The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley (New York: Random House, 1964), 391.
 Stephen Tuck, The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union: A Transatlantic Story of Antiracist Protest (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014), 11.
 El-Shabazz and Haley, Autobiography of Malcolm X,385.
 Hisham Aidi, “DuBois, Ghana, and Cairo Jazz: the Geo-politics of Malcolm X,” in Routledge Handbook of Postcolonial Politics eds. Olivia U. Rutazibwa and Robbie Shilliam, (London: Routledge, 2018), 428.
 Ibid. See also Bernard Lewis, Race and Color in Islam (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 3.
 For example, see Akinsanya Adeyoe, “The Afro-Arab Alliance: Dream or Reality?” African Affairs 31, no. 301 (1976): 511-529; Keith P. Feldman “Towards an Afro-Arab Diasporic Culture: The Translational Practices of David Graham Du Bois,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 31 (2011): 152-172; Lubin, Geographies of Liberation; Michael R. Fischbach, Black Power and Palestine: Transnational Countries of Color (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019).