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Do you speak Nubian? The struggle to protect a language in danger

Hassan Berkia
The odds are stacked against the Nubian language, spoken in a region stretching from Aswan in Egypt to Dongola in Sudan.
30.10.2013  |  Khartoum
مزارع في دنقلا، ولاية الشمالية، السودان.
مزارع في دنقلا، ولاية الشمالية، السودان. (photo: النيلان | حسن بركية)

Nubian language is only written by a small academic circle of Nubians and it is not taught to children, in fact many schools in northern Sudan punish children if they hear them speaking the traditional tongue.

A generation change is underway, some say, with younger people loosing interest in the language. Ahmad Abbas, a 78-year-old farmer, said he only feels the warmth of the land and people’s emotions when Nubian is spoken. New generations do not seem keen on Nubian, it is threatened by Arabic,” he said, speaking in Nubian.

The Nubian region in Sudan covers four areas in northern Sudan, Dongola, Mahas, Sakout and Halfa.

Fikri Abul Qasim
© The Niles | Hassan Berkia
Fikri Abul Qasim, journalist and researcher in Nubian heritage, said the language faces several threats. There’s no doubt that Nubian language is threatened by globalisation as increasingly languages are becoming extinct. At the end, the dominating language would be the language which is widely spoken,” said Abul Qasim who has written over 14 books about Nubia.

In addition, he blamed the large numbers of displaced Nubians who fall out of touch with their roots: Displacement was a harsh blow to the Nubian society, it cost them links to their culture.”

Despite all these difficulties, some organisations battle to maintain the Nubian language and support the community. Many from the Nubia-speaking region, which the UNESCO has described as a culturally extremely rich area”, are trying to protect their linguistic legacy.

We will not stop at writing the language -- it must be taught to our children and to serious researchers,” said Abdul Ilah Zamrawi, a Nubian poet residing in Qatar.

Abdul Ilah Zamrawi
© The Niles | Hassan Berkia
Among efforts to protect the language, several Nubian associations are trying to revive Nubian language among the younger generations, creating a method to write and disseminate its literature, defining its grammar and spelling, and creating a Nubia dictionary. They aim to teach the language at specialised academies.

These efforts have paved the way for some positive developments, including teaching Nubian language at the universities of Dongola and Khartoum, a plan supported by the Ministry of Higher Education and Research in Sudan.

Farid Muhammad Ahmad, a Nubian researcher and the Secretary General of the Union of Sudanese Writers, bemoaned the lack of a language academy to develop and protect the language from extinction. Central governments in both Egypt and Sudan have conspired against Nubian language for so long,” he said. Targeting Nubian language and culture reached even school curricula. It’s unbelievable that an over seven-thousand-year-old civilisation could be reduced to a line and a half in school text books.”