What Life Is Like In Egypt's Nubian Society

Relatives and neighbors of the groom’s mother helping her in cooking and delivering the food for all the guests. The groom's family transforms some rooms and a courtyard into a large makeshift kitchen, where they cook large amounts of food, including the cow or sheep slaughtered on the previous night.
Relatives and neighbors of the groom’s mother helping her in cooking and delivering the food for all the guests. The groom's family transforms some rooms and a courtyard into a large makeshift kitchen, where they cook large amounts of food, including the cow or sheep slaughtered on the previous night.
Nour El Refai / VSCO

Photographer Nour El Refai spent more than a year documenting life among Egypt's Nubian community, capturing daily rituals, art, meals, social gatherings and celebrations.

The Nubians are one of the oldest civilizations in the world, having lived alongside the Nile river in what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan for thousands of years.

Today, most Nubians live on the fringes of society in Egypt. Nubian communities have been forced to leave their homes near the river to make way for reservoirs and dams several times in the past 100 years.

In the 1960s, more than 50,000 Nubians were forced to vacate their lands and offered a place in desert settlements near Kom Umbo during the construction of the famous Aswan High Dam. Some families moved to the settlements, while others sought refuge on islands north or in villages in Gharb Aswan.

With his project,which is part of the VSCO Artist Initiative, photographer El Refai aims to document the traditions these families still observe despite the dramatic changes their communities went through in past decades.

For more photos of life in the Nubian community, check out El Refai's photo journal at grid.vsco.co/journal/the-nubians.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

Hajj Elias and his wife Fayza in front of their house in the immigration area near Kom Umbo. These houses were offered by the government to families whose entire village was submerged after the building of the Aswan High Dam in 1964. The new houses were built with no consideration to the hot weather or the Nubian culture and style, on a site that is very far from the Nile or any other water source. The Nubians who accepted the houses tried to customize them to their needs as much as they could,.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

Hajj Eissa plays on his old tambour in his "room of memories" in Toshka Village, the immigration area in Kom Umbo. Hajj Eissa created this room next to his house to store artifacts his family owned before migrating in 1964. Due to modernization, most items in this room are no longer used by many other Nubians.

The tambour instrument in the photo is made from wood and animal leather. There are few original tambours left and even fewer Nubians know how to use it.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

A man sleeping in the shade in Balana, near Kom Umbo. Temperatures reach over 45C in summer. It's not possible for street vendors to keep standing under the sun for long periods. They usually leave their goods on the street and find a nearby tree to rest underneath and stay in the shade.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

A young boy carries a goat in the Saturday market at Sayala, known as Kalabsha market in Kom Umbo. People usually buy their food on a weekly basis since they have means to store it.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

Hassan selling pottery in Balana, near Kom Umbo. The large pots are called "€œolla" and are used to store water and maintain its temperature during the heat.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

Ruins of the deserted Nag' Bleida, an old Nubian village in Gharb Aswan. They show a glimpse of what the original Nubian houses looked like.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

Hajja Sameeha smokes shisha in her home in Nag' Besion, her daughter Mona and grandson Yaseen are sitting with her. These old Nubian houses in Gharb Aswan are characterised by a large, open courtyard in the center with more than four rooms opening to it.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

Leftovers are served to the livestock. Women usually own livestock, which are treated with much care.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

Mourad walks on Seheil Island. Many of the Nubian families who refused to immigrate to the land offered to them by the government in 1964 have moved to islands that lie north of the old reservoir or to villages in Gharb Aswan.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

Mourad and his niece Sabrine on Seheil Island. Most Nubian men living on Seheil work in tourism. They bring tourists from Gharb Seheil, a touristic village with many hotels and lodges, and give them a tour of the island, showing them the archaeological artifacts like the Famine Stela, a Pharaonic inscription on a granite. They also welcome them to their homes to show them their pet crocodiles and their handmade artifacts.

Nour El Refai / VSCO
Mohamed broke both his arms while playing football. People from Seheil Island were collecting money for the operation as his mother Aziza couldn't afford it alone. This is just one of the pros of living in a community where all people know and care for each other. Their only insurance is being loved by everyone in the community.
Nour El Refai / VSCO

Kids playing in the Nile at Kodi on Seheil Island.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

A shy Nubian girl holds her grandmother'™s hand on Heisa Island. Nubians on Heisa Island are the only ones who didn't have to leave their island during the construction of the High Dam in 1964. Heisa island was partially submerged because of the dam, so many families left their homes and built new ones at a higher altitude. Nubians on Heisa Island, especially children, are less exposed to strangers and tourists. The Nubian language is stronger on the island and Arabic is not often used by the elders or the children. Kids start understanding and using Arabic when they reach the age of ten and start learning it at school. Because the school is located far from many of the islands' villages, children don'€™t join it until they are able to walk the long distance.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

Sabrine and her 6-month-old son Mohammed in their home on Heisa Island. Most men work in Aswan during the day, leaving the women, children and elders on the island.

Nour El Refai / VSCO
A Nubian woman cleaning her carpet in the Nile while her child is having a swim. Cleanliness is a well-known quality of the Nubians, most probably because of living by the Nile where they can efficiently clean all their stuff with fresh water.
Nour El Refai / VSCO

A girl is waiting for her finished henna to dry. Henna has been grown and used in Southern Egypt, and particularly in Nubia, since ancient times. It's a dye that is used on hands, feet, and different body parts. It may look like a tattoo, but it's not permanent; it fades away in a few weeks. There is a day dedicated to henna before any social event where all women gather and have their henna done by an artist. It's an event that is adored by young women as they get the chance to express themselves through the designs. For many of them, it's the most intimate art form.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

A group of the groom's friends are invited to rest inside the house of a guest to the wedding. A week before his wedding in October, the groom Mohamed Noureldin, 27, and his friends started a hectic quest to invite the guests from all the Nubian villages across Aswan. It usually takes up to four days to invite all the guests; each day starts very early and ends at midnight.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

The groom's family receives guests and relatives until all the rooms of the house are filled. After eating and drinking tea, they play cards, dominos, and socialize. The Nubian culture is based on the bond between its people, and marriage in itself forms a strong bond between two large families. During the whole week that precedes the wedding, the bond gets strengthened through shared activities and events.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

Shaalawi checking the western port of Seheil Island before his son's wedding night. This would be the main access for all guests arriving from Gharb Seheil.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

An old Nubian woman on Seheil Island is moving her goats to leave room for the guests coming for a wedding taking place on the island.

Nour El Refai / VSCO

Relatives and neighbors of a groom's mother help her to cook and deliver the food for all the guests. The groom's family transforms some rooms and a courtyard into a large makeshift kitchen, where they cook large amounts of food.

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