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December 11, 1999
We didn't need a fire to dance by that night: the gharma, (moon) was full and shone down on the valley as if no other place in the world received her light. We had her full attention, and she shone on us so brightly that I could see as far down as the Great Temple at Philae. The beat of the drums made my heart race - maybe because I was so young - but it seemed that the thrill was contagious because everyone stayed awake all night.
The yelling seemed to be getting louder when I realized I was caught again. "Bakkar!" a loud, angry voice interrupted. "Stop that daydreaming of yours! There's a van approaching. Get to your post!" Startled and annoyed, I jumped up and into position. Yet another minibus was approaching, carrying tourists coming to visit the Aswan High Dam.
I could see it down at the first checkpoint. My job is at the second checkpoint, where I check and stamp the visitors' entry tickets. It bores me half to death. I don't know which is worse: the boredom or the anger that burns watching people come in and out all day. They get off their buses, gawking at the massive stone dam and posing for pictures in front of Lake Nasser, impressed with themselves that they've visited "the largest man-made lake in the world." When the water is low enough, some even make their way over to the Great Temple, and after they've admired the greatness of the region by sufficiently documenting their presence on film, it's back to their buses and off they go, as if they've seen it all.
I've wanted so many times to speak up, to tell them that if they think this is great, they'd be absolutely enchanted with the land that once thrived here. I've wanted to tell them of the people whose memories and history for thousands upon thousands of years are now buried beneath the waters of "the largest man-made lake in the world." But they don't come to hear my stories. Stories of floating down the Nile on feluccas at sunset, of playing with Kiji, my mule, in the mountains when I was eight, or of entire villages dancing under the full moon. So I don't bother. I know Nubia, and she will always be a part of me. Even today her spirit speaks to me, and together we reminisce. Nubia reminds me of her powerful kingdoms and Great Pharaohs, of her great triumph and of battles lost. I remind her that her greatness will live on forever, forever in the hearts of her Nubian people. Then I whisper to her, "Ay kadoli Nubia... Ay kadoli."
Today I found it particularly difficult to concentrate on work. The tour buses were slow, and whenever I'm posted at the second checkpoint I can't help but get lost in the waters of "Egypt's Great Lake." Not to mention that it's my birthday, and it was thirty years ago that my family had to pack up and move to Elephantine Island near Aswan, where we live today.
Everyone loaded their carts and mules that day with all their earthly belongings. Whatever we couldn't carry would return to the dust from which it came. The dam was due to open in a few years, and some 45 villages - and the masses of Nubians who occupied them - were forced off our land to relocate in Southern Aswan, some even as far down as Sudan. Many went quietly, but others resisted. My cousin Jaffa was among the resisters, and I would have been too, but I was just turning 10 and my mother would not let me stay behind. She said there was no use resisting, that our fate was inevitable; and that if there was bloodshed, the resisters would be buried under the dam waters and forgotten with the rest of Nubia.
My mother also told me that it's darkest before the dawn, and just when the last light was beginning to fade, another tour bus pulled up. "Great," I thought to myself, little knowing that two rays of sunlight were fast approaching.
The bus unloaded, and, unimpressed by high-tech cameras and neatly-dressed tourists, I stamped tickets without even looking up. After I'd finished and turned back to face the waters, two stragglers came up to the booth. "Excuse me, do you check the tickets here?" I didn't even bother to answer; I just stamped their tickets and turned away. Sometimes it's better when they think you only speak Arabic. If you speak their language they want to drill you about the dam: "When was it opened?" "How big is it?" "How much water does it hold?" and "How much material did it take to build it?"
There was a time when I would gladly answer every question. "Opened in 1971, the dam is 3,600 meters across and 111 meters high at its highest point. The water contained in the dam spans 500 kilometers, taking it well into Sudan. Building the dam took 18 times the amount of material used to build the Great Pyramid at Cheops."
Then I would begin to tell them that before this dam there was Nubia. "There were great Temples built by the grandfathers of my great-great grandfathers, like the Temple at Kalabahs, Beit Al-Wali, and Kertassi. There were homes and lives, trade on the Nile and descendants of Earth's first civilization living here." I would then have gone on to explain how the dam prevents the Nile silt from flowing freely and naturally fertilizing the valley. The silt not only backs up behind the dam, but destroys the delicate ecological balance of the earth as well.
But they never wanted to hear that, so I just discontinued any and all interaction. One might even say I've become angry, but mostly I'm annoyed. I have other things to think about, like the new Toshka Canal Project the government is working on now that Egypt's population is outgrowing the dam. This massive canal - which is supposed to reach from Lake Nasser into the desert to irrigate the dry earth so that more agriculture can support more people - will be just as destructive both socially and ecologically as the High Dam project was. Our land was wiped out less that 30 years ago, and it's only a matter of time before the delicate balance of life sustained for thousands of years by the Nile is completely devastated by man.
Again my tangent was interrupted, but not by my boss this time. The same two stragglers who had just gotten their tickets stamped were passing the booth again, but now they were headed toward the exit. Where were they going so quickly? I followed. "Excuse me, where are you going?" I asked. "You are not allowed on the bridge here; you must wait for the minibus to load again and it will take you back to the train." They turned to me with a frustrated glare. "We just want to walk back; we've done what we came to do and are finished," said the Indian woman. "There's nothing more to see," said the other.
They both looked like Nubian women, beautiful and dark-skinned, but I could tell they were American. "I'm sorry, you are not allowed to walk on the bridge here. You must wait for the bus," I replied. "You must return to the other side of the checkpoint booth and wait there." They turned and followed me back, and I wondered why they were trying to leave so quickly. "You have an appointment I suppose?" "No," they replied in unison, obviously frustrated with me. "It is not my policy," I replied. "I'm only following orders. You can sit here in the shade near my booth if you like; the bus will be ready soon." They did, and as usual I turned to face the water and the fast approaching sunset. It's my favorite time of day, and the most beautiful here.
"Look at this place. I can't believe tourists pay money to come see a huge mass of concrete and steel," I overheard one say to the other. "Yeah, I'll bet it's what's buried beneath the waters that was amazing. This is so sad, Kavi." I couldn't believe what I was hearing! Were they talking about Nubia? Did they know? What's more-did they care?
"Not many tourists speak like you," I said as I turned to introduce myself. "My name is Bakkar, and I used to live here. I understand what you mean." "My name is Jasmine, and this is Kavitha," they replied. "We're from California." They seemed nicer now, or maybe I was relieved to find that we shared the same frustrations. I wanted to find out all about them but didn't know where to start. "How do you enjoy Egypt? How long have you been here? Are you on a holiday?" I blurted.
We all laughed at the unexpected change in our moods after such a solemn introduction. "No, no holiday," Jasmine began. "We're traveling with a group called The Odyssey. It's a nonprofit educational project and we are volunteer writers for the Odyssey Web site." Web site? Nonprofit? They smiled at the confused look on my face, and Kavitha went on to tell me how they travel to different countries to teach students about culture, history and social and environmental issues.
"I'm writing about the effects of the High Dam on the Nile, and Jasmine is writing about the Nubian people and how Nubia was displaced and sunk under the waters here," Kavitha said. I couldn't believe my ears. "That's great!" I exclaimed. "Then students will learn all about Nubia on your…Internet…Web site…is that right?" We all giggled. "I'm not familiar with the Internet," I told them, "but my cousin works in a computer place in Aswan near Elephantine. I guess I'll have to visit. He's always telling me to get an e-mail address, so now I'll have to, to keep in touch with you both. Have you visited Aswan yet?" "Yep," Jasmine said. "We're staying there for a few more days, but we had to come here to visit the High Dam today. And boy is it great to meet you." She smiled.
We all talked for what seemed like hours; then the sun began to set. "When I was younger I used to sit there on that mountain and watch the sunset," I pointed. I was nine or so, and after helping my father in the fields, my mule Kiji and I would take the leftovers from harvest to be burned in the fire. But we would walk slowly through the fields, and pass my favorite palm trees near the Nile. And if I arrived early enough. I would climb to the cliff there just on the other side and watch until the sun disappeared behind the Nile.
It was so nice to share my story with them, and to know that in turn they would share it with others. "It must be hard for you to work here," Jasmine said. "You must have loved Nubia." "You're right," I smiled. "Not a day goes by that I don't think of her fertile valleys, and the feeling of crossing the same sands that my great ancestors once crossed. But no one can ever take away our history, our legacy or our knowledge. I will continue to tell my children of Nubia, and they will tell their children. We still live as we once did, and we still speak our Nubian language, Kenzi. It's just in me, and we will all have Nubia in our hearts - Ay kadoli Nubia." They looked at me with puzzled smiles, waiting for me to translate. "I love Nubia," is what that means, and I always will.
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