Illustration by Emily Zhang

This piece received an honorable mention in the nonfiction category of the 2o24 Wallace Prize.

Every inch of a typical Nubian home along the Nile River in Aswan, Egypt is covered in  bright colors. In a village, one house might be blue with bright red on the side and yellow on the  top. The house built into the hill above it may be very similar, except it is mostly yellow or  orange instead of blue. None of the doors are locked. Paintings and sculptures of crocodiles and  palm trees fill the exterior walls of the house, highlighting the Nubian people’s gratitude for the  land they live on. Nubians create beautiful artwork using the palm fronds of date trees and play  songs on the oud, an eleven-string Middle Eastern instrument that is very similar to the lute, near the river. Nubians live among centuries-old artifacts and land filled with unmined gold in places like Wadi Allaqi.

With deep connections to their land, my grandparents and the Nubian people never anticipated the day when their most valuable asset would be stripped away from them. The Egyptian government, led by President Gamel Abdel-Nasser, wanted to build the Nile River Dam in 1964. This project was advertised as a source of prosperity and as a way to make the country more technologically advanced, but that came at the expense of the indigenous people. The only alternative to leaving their homeland was drowning to death, so my grandparents and about fifty thousand people rushed to pack their things. Carrying children in their arms and boxes over their heads, the Nubians waited in long lines to be thrown into crowded ships.  

The descendants of the Kingdom of Kush and the Black pharaohs of Egypt had once  submerged the heads of their babies in the Nile River’s blue waters for good luck. Now, they  watched as the river flooded their land, swallowing their centuries-old histories. One of their  most precious artifacts, the Abu Simbel temple, would have been buried underwater had it not been for UNESCO. Many women miscarried during that year, their bodies witnesses to the  horrors of Nasser’s decree. Nubian musicians started singing about the hardships of displacement and the longing for their land. 

When my grandparents and other Nubians arrived in their new “homeland” in Kom  Ombo, a place just over thirty-two miles away from Aswan, they were shocked to find it along a  mountain in a desert filled with scorpions. Unlike their land, where any seed planted into the  ground would quickly grow into a tree, this land was unsuitable for farming. Finding himself  jobless, my grandfather searched for a new place to call home. With barely any money, he  moved to Hadayek Helwan, a quiet suburb of Cairo. Nubians were ostracized due to their Arabic  accents and Blackness, so they naturally gravitated toward banding together. Many, hoping to  keep the sense of community they had lost, followed in my grandfather’s footsteps, until, slowly,  they became a large portion of Hadayek Helwan’s population. They might not have been in  Aswan anymore, but like the wind, they followed each other wherever they went, holding tight to all they could of their past. 

In Cairo, my grandfather was now at the lowest rung of the social ladder. Everyone in his family had been a farmer, so he was not equipped with the necessary skills or tools to find a job. It took many years for him to improve his social standing. He joined the army and worked as a chef for an oil company before heading to America to work for the Ambassador of Libya to the United States. Once he had saved enough money, he bought a three-story villa. While the gray building with little color, a tiny garage, and a garden was nothing compared to the house he grew up in, it was something my grandfather was proud of. My grandparents spent part of every year in this house, going back and forth between Egypt and the United States, until my grandfather got sick, and they moved to the United States full-time.

Over the years, whenever I visited Egypt, I spent my time in the villa. The villa had two  living rooms, but one had fancier sofas, a chandelier, and a keyboard piano. My grandmother  found it necessary to create a space that was untouched by her messy grandchildren. As a kid, I  played hide and seek with the stray cats that snuck into the villa. I picked mangoes and dates  from the villa’s trees, but over time, because of our neglect, the trees withered. Our friends liked  to play in the garden and veranda because they did not have a similar outdoor space in their  house. Many of their families had not been as lucky as mine had. Their financial situation had  not changed too much from when they first arrived in Cairo, and society kept inflicting  challenges on them to keep them at the bottom. 

The third floor of the house was usually off-limits as it was mainly used for storage. A trip to the third floor was like traveling through a time machine. There were old suitcases from the 1980s and broken TVs. A lot of the things in the storage needed to be thrown away but my  grandparents did not want to go through the hassle of cleaning out the storage, especially since  they were older and did not want to go up all those stairs. The third floor opens onto the rooftop, where we used to dry our laundry. The rooftop was like a stage where all our neighbors could see us and talk about us. Thus, we resorted to using the balcony on the second floor. 

From the rooftop, you could see the villa’s street and the street next to it, called Mahmoud El-Shamy. One time, a visitor at the villa thought Mahmoud El-Shamy must be a carnival or amusement park, we were so eager to go there. It was simply the name of the street where everyone gathered, and you could drop by unexpectedly and find people sitting on the street, often munching on snacks from the nearby store. There were usually some kids playing soccer, hopscotch, or some games that they could play without needing toys. Sometimes the Nubian men would gather there after work. Nubian women also went to Mahmoud El-Shamy whenever they needed a break, but it was more likely to be younger, unmarried women there. 

The adhan, the Muslim call to prayer, came from the local mosque and echoed through  the house five times a day. It woke me up early in the morning. I would always rush to pray at  the sound of the adhan, feeling a sense of shame if I didn’t. I felt more connected to God when I was in the villa. Not only did the adhan bring me a sense of peace, but seeing people who had way less than me devote so much of their time to their religion pushed me to become a better Muslim.

Eventually, all my grandparents’ children and their families moved to the United States, mostly to Virginia, which is where many Nubian Americans live. Even when Nubians move abroad, they try to retain their communities by staying together. Despite moving abroad, my grandparents refused to sell the house, which was a living reminder of their Egyptian heritage. When someone broke into their house, they had relatives install barbed wire around the gates. The only time my entire extended family could visit the villa together was when one of my mother’s five siblings got married. Once, there were multiple villas in the adjacent streets, but when some of those villas were sold, money-hungry individuals replaced the villas with tall apartment buildings. With only our villa surviving, whenever we were back in Egypt, everyone came to know us as the “people of the villa.” The mysterious ones that showed up every few years whenever they seemed to remember their house. 

Sometimes, the villa was a community center. I would wake up with my curly hair spinning in all kinds of directions and boom, I would spot someone in our living room having a conversation with my aunt. The house was always occupied by our local friends working hard to make up for the eighty percent of the time when we were abroad and the house was silent. They would drop by unexpectedly, sometimes for a cup of tea. Unlike Americans, they were not overbooked, and gossiping about something for hours was a perfectly acceptable way to spend their time. 

Even without the visitors, my family—with my aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, mother,  and grandparents—was enough to fill the house. For my younger cousins, the two-month  vacation was a big upgrade from the sleepovers we had every Saturday night at my grandparents’ house in Arlington, Virginia. Unlike the house in Virginia, lacking in toys, the villa became the site of my cousin’s treasure trove as they tracked down decades-old photos and scanned the pages of the Arabic Mickey Mouse magazines they could not read, piecing together the remains of their parents’ childhoods. 

In 2013, when I was eight years old, we went back for my Aunt Mona’s wedding. Now that I had exhausted all the opportunities to search the villa, and was growing up and becoming more curious, Cairo became the site of my new treasure hunt. I visited a museum in Tahrir Square with my mother and two siblings. I remember seeing the artifacts filled with dust, and it was hard to see the artifacts because many of the glass containers did not have working lights.  Many artifacts were stolen from the museum’s storage during the 2010s. It was rumored that  high-profile members of the government sold the artifacts to make fast cash for themselves. The day after my aunt’s Henna Night (a traditional celebration for brides), the country installed a 9:00pm curfew. My aunt was forced to move her wedding to the morning. Military tanks  loomed in front of the church. A little after the Arab Spring, the coup that would allow President Sisi to grasp power was unfolding before my eyes. This began a period of mass arrests and killings. My ten-year-old self did not understand what was happening during this time. When I left to go back to the United States, I was so preoccupied with back-to-school plans that I did not think about the military tanks or events I witnessed. 

After I finished middle school, we returned to the villa. My family dynamic was different, which surprised the Nubian locals. My parents had divorced earlier that year, which is  something that is often looked down upon by many Arab communities. More specifically,  Nubian communities, who have witnessed their culture being suppressed over generations, can  only rely on themselves to sustain their cultural values. The Nobiin language used to have more  words, but when older members of the community died without passing the entire vocabulary of the language to the next generation, those words were forever lost. Now, people speaking Nobiin must occasionally mix in Arabic filler words to make up for words they do not know in Nobiin. Our history is carried by our families, not by the Egyptian government. Photographs of our displacement are stored in people’s homes and Facebook pages. Nubians’ remedy to these threats to the preservation of our culture and history is to keep future generations connected to the culture. Even as Nubians become less centralized and move abroad, there remains immense  pressure to continue the practice of marrying another Nubian to keep children immersed in their culture and historical background. My parents’ divorce made people feel uncomfortable.  However, since the rules had already been broken, I felt more liberated from this cultural  expectation. I could carry on the culture in a different way than just passing it onto the next generation. 

After all my mother’s siblings had gotten married and Egypt entered a period of some stability, we flew from the United States to Egypt for another summer vacation together in the villa. This fell in the summer after I graduated from high school. The problems with a house that was not lived in began to catch up to us. The adults were all arguing over the beds that needed new mattresses, the rooms that needed air conditioning, the shower heater that only worked in one bathroom, and the old kitchen that desperately needed renovation. They did not want their vacation to turn into a segment of HGTV’s House Hunters International Renovation, but nobody was willing to make a separate flight in the future just to fix the house. However, it was not just the house. It took hours for everyone to get ready to go somewhere, and we always needed a microbus. Everyone was tense and annoyed with each other by the time we left. 

The suburb, Hadayek Helwan, changed too. Four years before, my brother and I had felt like millionaires when we converted our American dollars to Egyptian pounds. Everything in Egypt was so cheap that we paid about $0.05 at the local store for sugar cane juice. Now, after the pandemic, the price was much higher. Hadayek Helwan had also become increasingly crowded and auto rickshaw vehicles, or “tuk-tuks,” filled every street corner. Many of our extended family members moved away, chasing after the same quiet sounds that had initially brought my grandfather and them to Hadayek Helwan. 

I began noticing things that never crossed my mind when I was younger. When my family went to visit the pyramids, the cashier was insistent on us paying the price for foreigners. He argued that we were not Egyptians, but rather Sudanese or of some other ethnicity. He assumed that our Blackness made us different. While we speak the same dialect of Arabic, not many Egyptians recognize or understand our complex history. They may listen to our music, which was carried by Mohamed Mounir across multiple countries, or watch Bakar, a cartoon show centered around a Nubian Egyptian character. However, as I learned when a truck driver commented on the darkness of my skin when I was crossing the street, Nubians are subject to racist comments in their daily life. The Egyptian government once used our Nobiin language, which is solely spoken and not written, as a secret code for the military because we were the outsiders in Egyptian society, and few people understood our language. My family became “foreign” at a new level in 1964 when we went from outsiders who were left alone to oppressed minorities. 

The villa is all we have left. It is a cultural hub, where we can practice our culture in a  vacuum, without fears of assimilating into mainstream Egyptian culture or being judged. It was big enough for everyone to gather and anyone was free to use it as their venue for their events. The memories of us dancing to Nubian songs, cooking together, or participating in some other bonding experiences made the villa feel like home to many members of our community. 

On that recent trip, I started treating Egypt like a treasure hunt again. My second cousins who lived in Egypt were now in college. On the metro, people put products from napkins to hairbrushes and small toys in my lap. Unless you paid for the product, they came back to pick it up again. Many of the sellers were small kids or women, but that might have been because we were in the women’s only metro carriage. They mastered the art of showing you the product while leaving just enough time to hide it when the metro arrived at stations where there was a huge police presence. My second cousins often carried on conversations in Nobiin in public spaces, leaving me and others on the metro clueless. They had learned it from their grandparents and at that moment, I wanted to rush home and have a study session with my grandmother. I wanted to have the words flow off my tongue easily. However, part of me did not want to go through the hassle of learning a new language, especially after years of Arabic and Spanish studies. 

We often took metros to museums because one of my second cousins, Salma, was an art  student, so she got access to some of them for discounted prices and was willing to give me tours of them. I had another racist encounter with an Egyptian outside of the Coptic Museum of Cairo, where again people assumed that I was not Egyptian due to my race. At the Museum of Egyptian Civilization, an object immediately caught my eye. From outside the glass cover, I peeked into a piece of my culture embodied in a dress and veil. The traditional Nubian dress was mainly orange with touches of blue and brown that formed oval shapes. The veil was long and thick, reaching the floor so that when a woman walked somewhere, it would cover up her tracks, and no one would know where she was going. It allowed the woman to be mysterious. The mannequin was also wearing three pieces of gold. The gold necklace on her chest had circles that resembled coins and a crescent shape with blue touches. I had always wanted to be able to point out a Nubian item in the museum. After all these years, I had finally found the treasure I had been looking for.