Damming the Nile: A Poet’s Ecology


The Nile has always been the beginning and the end of all things.
Baher Kamal

What happens to a person when displaced from their place of origin? At the core of diasporic understanding is the separation of people from their land. Culture and its material symbols can sometimes be emulated, carried, and reinvented from place to place. It is a matter of survival. Even language, by its very nature transient, must be fluid and absorbent simultaneously, but ecology is rooted in a way no other human-defining element is.

My memories both active and latent of the Nile River valley are defining factors in my understanding of self, contextualizing markers in my daily navigation, answers to the often permeating question: why does this place feel so strange? But even on the western coast of the United States where I grew up, through the staggering power of ecology, I could faintly feel the influence of my home river embodied in the relics of places like the Los Angeles River that divides that place into east and west and often steers my gaze toward home.

The placed called Egypt1 has long been referred to as ‘‘the gift of the Nile,’’ the place where the ancient Egyptian god Hapy (often depicted in the form of a potbellied bearded man with a headdress made of aquatic plants) represented a deification of the Nile and gave water for the survival of all things. It is the place where the narrative of the Nile River was born and where the consciousness and culture of all Egyptian peoples were developed and nurtured.


For thousands of years Egyptians have lived by the cycle of the Nile, a cycle that provided physical, spiritual, and communal sustenance. Ancient Egyptian indigenous ideologies, literatures, art, and spiritual practices have always been rooted in the Nile River and its ability to provide for the population. The majority of people in Egypt from antiquity to the present have lived within several kilometers of the river’s edge, relying on the Nile’s rise and fall to sculpt their lives; when the river is healthy, the people are healthy.

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, Egypt and many other African nations shifted into their postcolonial era. With the leadership of Gamal Abdel Nasser and following the 1952 Egyptian revolution, Egypt’s Suez Canal was liberated from Western rule and the British were finally pushed out of Egypt. The hope for a self-determined Egypt, an Egypt articulated by Egyptians, was strong, but just as the British were removed from their role as occupiers, the movement of pan-Arabism came to the forefront, and headed by Nasser a vision for an Arab Egypt was born in a way that I argue would at once free Egypt and enslave it, perhaps forever. Nasser’s ideology of pan-Arabism was rooted in the nationalistic unification of ‘‘Arab’’ states to rule themselves without the outside influence of Western powers. In the process of defining an Arab nationalism and thereby an Arab identity, those who remained indigenous-identified, not the least of whom are the Nubians and Copts, stood the most to lose. As the women’s studies and religion scholar Leila Ahmed once stated, ‘‘The new definition of who we were silently excluded people who had been included in the old definition of Egyptian. Copts, for example, were not Arab. In fact they were Copts precisely because they refused to convert to the religion of the Arabs and had refused, unlike us Muslims, to intermarry with Arabs. As a result, Copts (members of the ancient Christian church of Egypt), were the only truly indigenous inhabitants of Egypt. . . . In the new definition of us, however, they were included as speakers of Arabic but were not at the heart of the definition in the way that we were.’’ Such a shift in Egyptian identity would work toward the erasure of the past as this new Egyptian identity emerged and began to exclude the whole of our history, in exchange for a modern-day Arab state. Such an identity construction, while possibly fitting for other nation states, runs counter to the history of Egypt wherein a multitude of cultural and religious identities coexisted. This new form of nationalist identity put forth a linear ideology in a space that has traditionally embraced or at least recognized multiplicity.

Nasser’s vision of an Arab republic also openly erased the ancient identity of Egypt—this was reflected in his act of changing the country’s name from Egypt to the Arab Republic. It wouldn’t be until after his death that the name Egypt was reinstated in the nation’s official, now hybrid, title making it what we know today, the Arab Republic of Egypt. In the process of instilling a pan-Arabism and a national Arab identity, Nasser envisioned an Egypt that would rise from Third World status to become a major, self-determined power within the Arab world—a vision often clouded in megalomania and an inability to recognize the gifts of antiquity that had always sustained Egypt. As seems often to be the case in situations of modernization, two things must suffer in the name of progress: the environment and the indigenous inhabitants of that environment. In Nasser’s vision was the creation of the Aswan High Dam—an awesome project that has only recently been matched by the Three River Gorges Dam in China. Nasser wished to create a project that would stand as a testament of modern Arab greatness and would work to provide electricity and resources for the people of Egypt, a modern symbol of the nation’s greatness. But in the end the cost of the dam would not only sacrifice a critical piece of Egyptian society but also forever alter the ecology of the nation. Was this a thing of modernity or a thing of empire? Is there a separation between these two concepts? Is the very idea of ‘‘progress’’ what destines us toward demise? These are questions I believe will forever beleaguer the psyche of every person who sees themselves as connected to a land.

In a speech to the nation Nasser once ironically stated that he wanted to be remembered by something as great as the Pyramids, a notion not at all rooted in his socialist rhetoric of providing for the people, but rather rooted in the very notions that he openly opposed, namely, colonialism and empire. But leaders of nation-states have never been particularly apt at recognizing their own role in empire building, even those opposed to the idea. Furthermore, the process of modernization moves in a direction that few people have the opportunity to engage in. After all, one byproduct of progress is speed. Things are to move rapidly, if they are to move at all. Given such a framework, little time is left to contemplate ramifications, alterations, and most importantly cultural effects. As one Native American elder of a California tribe once stated, ‘‘We are not interested in progress, we are interested in a movement towards regression. We want to go backwards.’’ Such a statement is a slap in the face of Western notions of modernity and is imbued with a cultural value rarely shared by those in power. However, this must not be understood as an opposition to any form of progress but rather a yearning for an ethical progress, for we know that modernism itself is never static and always exists as an impulse. But the moral imperative then is to ensure that modernist impulses are tempered and shaped by an embrace of tradition. That those of us who care to see a just world which includes both humans and ecology, must, as bell hooks has argued ‘‘refuse simplistic binaries.’’ Or in the words of Bob Marley ‘‘if you know your history, then you will know where I am coming from,’’ and this is where I see Nasser’s failing, his inability to have seen that link, that historical understanding that we must keep at the center of any sense of progress.

As things moved on, the Aswan High Dam would become a project of literal occupation much like that of the British in Egypt. The dam, while generating incredible amounts of electricity and allowing a rapid urbanization, would also be a tool of oppression and destruction for the ecology and lifestyle of all Egyptians. The use of a dam to modernize the country, in blatant disregard of indigenous ecological practices and ancient cultural traditions, was steeped in a supremacist ideology. The new ways, in this case Arab modernization, took precedence over the old ways, thereby implying to the public that the indigenous cultures of Egypt were of little importance and their methods of working with the environment of no use to a modern nation and certainly insu≈cient for survival in a new century. It was time for progress. With our colonial rulers expelled from the land, we would show the world just how modern we could be.

In 1960 the construction of the Aswan High Dam began, despite objections from around the world as well as internally. The chief engineers who spoke against the building of the dam and who predicted disasters (all of which have since come true) were fired from their jobs and alienated by their government from being active members of society. Each engineer noted the dangers of altering such an ancient relationship between human and nature. A six-thousand-year-old agrarian system was to be transformed forever.

In the construction and aftermath of the dam several key elements would prove destructive to Egyptian ecology, culture, and society. To begin with, more than one hundred thousand Nubians were displaced from their homes, losing one third of their land base, their lives permanently modified to make way for the gigantic reservoir that flooded myriad homes, temples, churches, mosques, art, and architecture. The Nubian people would be removed and relocated from their traditional lifestyles and villages and displaced in some cases hundreds of kilometers from their original homelands, making them ecological refugees. This relocation and separation from the river would prove disastrous for Nubian culture and other Upper Egyptians. Many of the younger generation, no longer able to survive by the old agrarian cycles provided by the Nile River, would move to major cities to find work, and therein began the deterioration of the traditional family structure, the diminishment of the Nubian language and its dialects, not to mention urban overcrowding and growing poverty in a nation unable to provide this lifestyle for all. It’s a story as old as progress itself, mirrored in every corner of the world where the metropolis shines in the wake of the retreating rural.

The second key element would be the loss of ancient Egyptian art, architecture, and literature. Nasser’s disregard for an ancient Egypt (he once proudly stated that ancient Egypt was dead and that Egypt was now an Arab country) would prove itself in the creation of the dam. At one point during the construction, aided by the resources of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (unesco) and twenty-two other countries, the ancient temple of Abu Simbol was cut into thousands of pieces and relocated hundreds of kilometers from its original site. Had it been left to Nasser, such a great symbol of our indigenous civilization would have been flooded and covered by his lake. Unfortunately, many other structures of lesser fame, namely ancient Nubian villages, churches, and mosques were not so fortunate. Today in the Nubian museum in Aswan you can view the archeological photos of what sits beneath Lake Nasser. Ancient Coptic churches, walls lined with traditional Coptic icons and frescoes, mosques, and homes nearly ten centuries old, all buried under Lake Nasser, whose very name seems to taunt the local people and remind them of all that’s been lost.

But perhaps the most long-lasting effect of the Aswan High Dam is its ecological degradation and thereby its cultural destruction. For thousands of years before the dam, the Nile River flooded and fed the soil with lime deposits unlike in any other place on the planet. Egypt was once referred to as the most fertile place on earth, the breadbasket of the world. It was because of these lime deposits that such fertility was possible. Today those lime deposits sit behind the dam. The soil must now be fed with imported fertilizers and pesticides. The river no longer floods, which has created a more predictable and steadier life, but it has also allowed for steady population increases concentrated in urban developments along the Nile’s corridors. The Delta in the north, a major center of agriculture, is now deteriorating as a result of the absent silt deposits which once continued to build its banks and keep it from being eroded by the Mediterranean Sea. Farms are being replaced with factories. The abundance of fish and wildlife that ran the river has been diminished by pollution and a regulated flow, and for the first time in the history of Egypt, the nation is unable to create enough food to feed the population.

And all of this—this now modern reality—is a central backdrop to the makeup of who I am as a person and as a poet, of what shapes not only my writing but also my consciousness. As a Copt, the Nile has always been in my consciousness. Each and every day as Coptic priests raise incense and pray liturgies in Egypt and the diaspora, they entreat, ‘‘Raise the Nile to its measures, according to Your grace O Lord / Give joy to the face of the earth / May its furrows be abundantly watered and its fruits be plentiful / Prepare the land for sowing and harvesting / manage our lives as deemed fit.’’ We have understood from antiquity to today that our lives would not exist were it not for this river, that in a desert such as ours this gift of fertility is a gift of sustenance. Prayers like this have been a part of our daily lives for nearly two thousand years and root themselves deep in ancient Egypt (Kemet), where inscribed in hieroglyphics on the walls of the temples you can find ancient hymns such as this:

Hail, Oh Nile
You show yourself in the land
Coming in peace, giving life to
Kemet . . .

My memories of home and my understanding of cultural identity never deviate far from this river, and my lineage as a poet has been shaped by this landscape. In my poems I cannot help but envision what it was like before the dam while often contending with what it’s like now. What could things have been like today? Perhaps it is, admittedly, a privilege to contemplate the past from this current vantage point, to wonder about a time when daily survival was certainly more di≈cult than it is today. However, as the great Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano once argued, the right to dream is a basic human right, and it seems equally necessary in the postcolonial psyche of an artist that we envisage the past, maybe even more so than the future.

To this end, the political climate that created this dam and worked to destroy a critical piece of our history must be read as the same climate that pushed members of my community into diaspora. It has worked conversely to sever me from my roots. Even now, upon returning to Egypt, it is clear that the sociopolitical and as a result ecological constructs that make up modern-day Egypt are ones that work to erode the identity of the Coptic community and ultimately that of all Egyptians. Poverty and lack of food and clean water become central concerns. Where once we could give praise for the river’s sustenance, we now curse much of what it brings. Each time the banks of our Delta erode as a result of the dam, or the imported fertilizers poison our soil, a process of erosion and poisoning is occurring within our communities. If we lose the Nile, we lose ourselves, and our ability to sustain our lives and histories on this planet. Our ancient relationship with the Nile must be understood in order to understand our postcolonial and in this case postsustenance identity, an identity that contrary to Nasser’s vision now forces us to depend on foreign aid for food. The Nile of sustenance is recalled now through the literatures, oral traditions, and antiquities of those who choose to preserve our past and tell the story of before, those like Haggag Hassan Oddoul, the Nubian fiction writer who writes the tragedy of the Nile and the erosion of Nubian life.

Forced into a contemporary Third World reality, I then in my own writing seek to explore the anger and hurt caused by loss and by being foreign in one’s indigenous land. Those in positions of power may need not worry about the rise and fall of the Nile, nor do those who wish to live immersed in an Arab identity need worry about what was lost by creating the dam, but for those who wish to carry on their lives as part of a continuum, these realities cannot go unquestioned.

And so, I cannot help but mourn what was lost in the flooding of our cultures, knowing that the things that lie beneath Lake Nasser are of great importance to us, in some ways maybe more than those that remain above. It is hard to fully comprehend the result of these acts, which sought to erase people in blatant disregard for their histories.

On a trip back home, as I have each time I return, I sailed the Nile and took with me my memory, my questions, and my notebook. Here are a few poems from one such trip:

For Lower Nubia

There was a time in this very spot
before the dam was resurrected
before the now-dead president flooded a culture
when everything was black and brown.

Nubia thrived by the grace of Horace
people styled tombs.

Villages moved with the pace of elders
temples changed by time of day
everything was black and brown.

Now beneath the glimmer of a beautiful lake
relics evaporate from the surface
masks reflect in the ripples2
their images stretching to the shore

and the only color left is blue.

Nile Procession

for Hamza El Din (1929–2006)

Never created ourselves
So praise be to the ancestors
Who show us wisdom
In the tantamount night

When the water line breaks from shore
Raise our heads to the subjugated flowering
Of the lotus that never closes

Keeps a reminder
Like your silence
Tells us you are where you should be
Brushing with the skin of a tree

If the bird of peace were to rise from earth’s ashes
Could we hear her song
Like we hear yours?
Will the village rhythm match the beat
Of the donkey’s click
Or have we only one song left to sing?

Your village was hung by the noose of modernity
Drowned her ancestral dust
To birth concrete & artificial light

How many pieces of Africa
Must be scattered & burned
Drowned & hung
Before the world can hear your songs?

You curved the aged wood of your oud3
Into a never-ending Nile
Made your hands her cataracts
Elevated our inner ear

You sing Paremhat4
From the green of your lungs
Each note a furrow
A wish
Placed in the agricultural tome
Of epic memory

Tainted Waters

we have crossed the
corners of geography
to find the aroma of home

frankincense & coffee
rising from its basin
to rally in the ethereal

skin etched
in the script of belief
a smoke rising from our eyes

we stand on the edge of this concrete blockade
& in love with language
make letters of golden symbols

birds of alabaster lined in the sand
ancient sentences pointing to a curved geography

symbols spelling fissure
the conjuring recede of a lake
named for evil

antecedents surface again
nilometer of vitals
glorious lacerations of sun
grace land and air
dry the clay of the water jug
expose the villages of indigo nights
and make their face to be shown
in the song of Napata5
rejoice in this resurrection dance
and watch Nuba6 become whole once more

Back in Aswan, I board a felucca. The boat sweeps near the edge of the bank, creates a ripple that carries to the grass-seeded earth, and begins to pull away from its dock. I stare into the thickness of this river and begin to imagine how a world of flooding might have felt. What is it about flood waters that we find so haunting? What is it about the rejuvenation of earth, of soil, that we find so indelible? Is it our attachment to material things, our notions of permanence that makes the idea of a river-soaked earth so frightening? In the days of antiquity, the ancient Egyptians created a device we’ve come to call the nilometer. The nilometer’s purpose was to measure the height of the Nile, and it comprised a series of stone steps that can still be seen in the temples of Philae, Edfu, Esna, Kom Ombo, and Dendera and also on Elephantine Island, an island in the center of the Nile at Aswan. We know the ancient Egyptians kept records of the utmost heights of the Nile, but it’s unclear what was done with that information. What is clear is that from antiquity we have been cautious and in awe of the power of water, a delicate balance, knowing that too much or too little could cause great peril. But in the contemporary psyche, we’ve come to control these ecological mood swings by damming and diverting, assuring a modicum of stability in our daily lives. But just how stable is it? I find my mind wandering, wondering how a small crack in the concrete, hardly larger than a fracture in the sidewalk could forever change the course of human life and history.

As our boat floats down the river, departing, the shrinking shore of Aswan to our back, I reflect on the numerous outcroppings, rock islands that are scattered near this first cataract of the Nile. At one time, these islands were subject to subjugation and exposure by the river, but no longer is that the case. We sail to a small island and climb out onto a protruding rock where we continue climbing to the top and are greeted by a Nubian man and his family. They live here, on this rock outcrop in the middle of the Nile. A small vegetable patch and several dwellings are present and it is here that I begin to understand that this river still remains the strongest point of our identity, and that the dam and poisons are momentarily overcome by the spirit of the people who call this home, by the continuum of memory, by the prayer uttered daily:

Raise the Nile to its measures
according to Your grace, O Lord
Give joy to the face of the earth
May its furrows be abundantly watered
and its fruits be plentiful
Prepare the land for sowing and harvesting
Manage our lives as deemed fit.

1. The name of Egypt in the ancient Egyptian language is ‘‘Kemet,’’ or ‘‘Kimi’’ in the Coptic language. Both are translated to mean black (fertile) land.
2. ‘‘masks reflect in the ripples’’: In Ancient Egyptian culture, alabaster jars with differing heads were made to hold the contents of human remains after mummification.
3. oud: Arabic, a traditional short-necked lute.
4. Paremhat: Coptic, the seventh month in the Coptic calendar, occurring from early March to early April.
5. Napata: Ancient Egyptian, District of Nubia on the Dongola reach of the Nile near the fourth cataract.
6. Nuba: Arabic, name for Nubia.

The epigraph is from ‘‘The Nubians: They Built a Dam to Take Away Our River’’ by Baher Kamal in Story Earth: Native Voices on the Environment (San Francisco: Mercury House, 1993).
The quotation by Leila Ahmed is from Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman’s Journey (New York: Penguin Books, 1999).
The author’s poems ‘‘Tainted Waters’’ and ‘‘Nile Procession’’ are from Seasons of Lotus, Seasons of Bone (Rochester ny: BOA Editions, 2009).