Egypt's Forgotten Indigenous Minority

Umm Ahmed says she vividly remembers the year 1964, when she and her family were displaced, her village's shoreline inundated when the Aswan High Dam created Lake Nasser. During the Mubarak era, the government contemplated plans to develop the valuable land around the lake, appealing to private developers and touristic ventures. Nubians allege corrupt deals were made and their own claims to the land neglected. A couple months ago, the Muslim Brotherhood's new minister of housing announced a "strategic vision" of development for Aswan, promising new housing units to Nubians. Many are skeptical they'll see much change. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Hag Gaffour, 82, tends to his livestock in Abu Simbel, not far from the sought out Abu Simbel temple, built in the 13th century B.C. by the Pharaoh Ramses II, and considered one of Egypt’s great archaeological sites. Gaffour says he's one of the lucky ones – his family having been displaced on viable land. While some Nubian activists have tried to politically mobilize, demanding new villages along the Nile and the return of the Nubian diaspora stretched across mostly arid settlements, Ghaffour says he's not sure it's a fight worth waging now. "The country is tired," he says. "We're tired." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Still, he hopes for a day when Egyptians learn about Nubians in their history textbooks, and not just through cinema, where Nubians say they're often portrayed as uncivilized buffoons. "Yes, we are a minority, but we're also indigenous people," says Gaffour. "Nubians have lived on this land for thousands of years. We've been discriminated against, but what's worse is being neglected and ignored, like we're not even here." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Nubians ruled Egypt in pharaonic times. They speak their own, non-Arabic language, which risks becoming extinct. Music and dance is central to the culture. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Lake Nasser, named after President Gamal Abdel Nasser. At the time, and still today, Nubians wanted the lake to be named Nubia. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Nubians have lived in Egypt along the Nile for thousands of years, working as farmers and fishermen. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Like many Nubians, Hagg Essam complains that Egypt's 2 million Nubians aren't politically represented. "During the elections, every political party will come down here to sip tea with us, then they'll leave, and we won't hear from them again," he said. "They don't care." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Due to their actual geographic distance from the centralized capital of Cairo, many Nubians say they feel far-removed from most political events, including the protracted uprising. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

The villages of Abu Simbel have taken a hit from Egypt's plummeting tourism industry. The few restaurants that exist are empty. The prospects of the tourism sector, once a beacon of suitable employment, remain dim. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Ahmed Hussain, 70, owns a school in Alexandria, but travels to Nubia frequently. He and colleagues hope to build schools in the area, and provide more opportunities for fellow Nubians. "How is the government going to help us if they can’t help themselves?" he said. "We want to start our society. We don’t want loans and special programs, we already have everything. Let's just work." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

As the Nubian language dies out, writer Hussein Kobbara is working on a decisive Nubian language dictionary. His late brother began the project, and he's vowed to finish it. "If a language dies, a culture dies," he said. "It may not be our time to fight, but we can't wait. . . we must work." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Mubarak Ahmed Aly has been the mayor of Abu Simbel for six months. While refusing to explicitly critique the government, he proclaims, "We have big, big ideas here that we hope won't be stopped." Specifically, he wants a highway built between Egypt and Sudan, making Abu Simbel a vibrant local economy. "We're more than just temples and tourism," he says. "There's so much unrealized potential." Over the past few decades, the government has strictly controlled movement in and out of Abu Simbel, mandating tourists ride in relatively costly government convoys that come and go only once a day. Nubians complain the structure is, like most bureaucracy in Egypt, a mere scheme for the government to make money. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Though relatively isolated, the lovely villages of Abu Simbel are quiet and serene. "We'd love to have more tourists here to explore this beautiful place," explains Aly. "But the system is set up so that it's difficult. It hurts us." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

While indeed far from feeling the revolutionary fervor that rocked Cairo two years ago, most Nubians say that despite their own political grievances, they experienced a revived sense of nationalism. "I'm not sure of many here who didn't feel very proud to be an Egyptian," says Aly. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

As throughout most of Egypt, the region is marred by scant activities for youth. Aly and other community leaders all vow to create more opportunities for the region's youth bulge, though much remains to be seen. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Nubian Nasser Gasho, with his daughter Fatmah, directs plays and musicals. "Music is our way of live," he says. "I revolt through music." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Gasho uses Facebook to publicize his shows and connect with other artists. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Like most regions in Egypt, Nubia suffers from a lack of infrastructural investment, poor healthcare and education systems. Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

While the question of land is fraught, and political will may appear elusive, Nubians like writer Kabbara are urging the community to stay hopeful. "There is so much, so much potential. We can see it, but we cannot reach for it." Image by Lauren E. Bohn. Egypt, 2013

Hugging the border of Sudan is Egypt’s famed Aswan High Dam. For many Egyptians, it’s a gushing symbol of teeming national pride. For Nubians, African descendants of one of the most ancient civilizations in the world, the landmark is instead a monochrome reminder of loss and displacement. In the 1960s, the Egyptian government submerged many Nubian villages to make way for the construction,of the dam displacing tens of thousands.

Nubian Egypt, which stretches about 200 miles from the Sudanese border north to the city of Aswan, still carries with it distinct customs and a language that is close to becoming extinct. Most Nubians cry that political leaders have failed them, never properly offering compensation for their lost land, let alone recognition of their existence in Egypt. Many complain of systemic discrimination at the hands of Arabs who’ve denied them jobs and government posts in the region, relegating them to a mere servant class – they move to the bustling capital of Cairo to work as butlers or doormen known as “bowabs.”

With the country barely slouching toward progress, some Nubians believe that now isn’t the time to press for their rights, while others dream of a more impassioned fight.

Hagg Essam, 76, falls somewhere in the middle. He sits in his village of Medinat Salam in Abu Simbel, still tending to his livestock. A wide expanse of never-ending green reflects off his coke-bottle glasses. “At the end of the day, we’re all Egyptians,” he says, his near-onyx wrinkled skin curling back to his eyes when he squints at the sun. “But equality in this country is something that’s always hard to reach, always a little impossible.”