Discrimination against Nubians in pop culture and media

A Nubian couple watching Nubian culture being depicted on TV. Image by Noran Mosri for Global Voices.

This is part of a series examining free expression and information access in civic spaces across six language communities in the MENA region.

Servants, doormen, wardrobe assistants, and drivers — for many Nubians, their individual identities are often overlooked and disrespected. Instead, society ignores their names, and treats them all as if they are the same, using a common impersonal name like ‘Othman’ to refer to them collectively.

The misconception about these occupations goes further, leading to the false belief that these roles define Nubians, with many assuming that most Nubian grandparents worked as servants in the past.

As a Nubian child, I internalized this distorted narrative perpetuated in Egyptian cinema, media, and society, despite its stark contrast with the rich and diverse reality of Nubian culture and heritage.

Sadly, Nubian people continue to face racism, misrepresentation, or reduction to simplistic stereotypes within both mainstream and digital media, reflecting the discrimination against a community of color in the region. 

While seemingly harmless on the surface, these stereotypes often carry an underlying subtext that labels Nubians as the ‘others.’ Racism and hate speech, whether explicit or implicit, can cultivate a hostile and unwelcoming environment, potentially deterring Nubians from active engagement in public discourse and expressing themselves in the community.

In a notable incident from 2016, Mortada Mansour, a prominent lawyer and supporter of President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, referred to Ahmed Al-Marghany, an articulate Egyptian Nubian football player, as a “bawab” (doorman) during a TV interview. This term was used in a derogatory manner in response to Al-Marghany expressing a critical opinion about El-Sisi. 

Mansour’s portrayal of Al-Marghany as merely a doorman serves to reinforce the enduring myth propagated by Egyptian media suggesting that Nubians are only fit for low-status jobs. 

This case underscores the importance of combating online and media racism, where seemingly innocuous words, like “bawab,” used in daily contexts are frequently weaponized in a racist manner against Egyptians with darker skin. 

Unless platforms incorporate moderators capable of differentiating between harmless usage and demeaning intent, online hate speech and racism will persist, potentially causing these platforms to fail in upholding their own community guidelines.

Negative, positive, and exaggerated portrayals in pop culture

A Nubian village in Upper Egypt. Photo by Doaa. Used with permission.

Centered around the theme of “bawab” and its implications, the 1987 Egyptian movie “El-Beih El-Bawab” (Mr. Doorman), starring the late actor Ahmed Zaki, left me deeply embarrassed as a child. The film followed a man’s journey from Upper Egypt to Cairo, beginning as a doorman and later amassing wealth as a real estate broker. Despite its potential as a classic, a glaring issue marred its impact: the demeaning portrayal of Nubians.

In the movie, the doormen were consistently portrayed as dark-skinned individuals with broken Arabic, often depicted babbling in what was meant to resemble Nubian. Despite its intent as comedy, the movie reinforced negative stereotypes about my community. I couldn’t help but worry about how my classmates would perceive Nubians after watching the film.

Ironically, I wasn't embarrassed any less when Nubians were portrayed in an overly positive light in the 2002 movie Mafia. The film was predominantly filmed in a Nubian village, where the protagonist sought to recharge, disconnect, and find balance, initially presenting a positive representation. However, in one scene, the entire village spontaneously burst into song and dance, perpetuating an unrealistic stereotype about the daily lives of Nubians. 

Furthermore, it was disheartening to observe that the only Nubian character with spoken lines in the movie was ridiculed for his speech. This portrayal reinforced hurtful stereotypes, undermining the movie’s positive intentions.

Depiction of Nubian culture in media

A Nubian village in Upper Egypt. Photo by Doaa. Used with permission.

A trip to Nubia reveals a captivating region with vibrant traditions quietly lining the banks of the Nile River. The mesmerizing charm is undeniable through the beautifully colored mud-brick houses and remnants of ancient kingdoms. The genuine hospitality of the Nubian people leaves a lasting impression.

Originating from the historic region of Nubia, spanning parts of present-day Sudan and southern Egypt, the Nubians are an indigenous ethnic group with a rich history dating back thousands of years. Their diverse cultures reflect various Nubian communities, each possessing unique language and culture. 

Over time, the media have distorted the intricate Nubian culture, portraying Nubians as naive yet cheerful people, while also perpetuating hateful speech and discrimination based on their skin color.  

Activists highlight the ongoing media misrepresentation of Nubians as a form of discrimination that reflects broader systemic biases in media portrayal. 

A 2021 report from the Media Diversity Institute documented instances of racism against Nubians on national television and in the media, including instances of color shaming. The report indicated a concerning rise in racism towards Nubians over time, “for not looking like the majority of Egyptians.”

Initiatives led by organizations and Nubian community members are highlighting recurring misconceptions surrounding Nubians. 

A notable initiative in 2018 featured a research study overseen by Mohamed Azmy, a lawyer, human rights defender, and former president of the General Nubian Union. Azmy’s team thoroughly examined 60 films, dozens of national television programs, and news reports, uncovering clear cases of biased representation. Discriminatory media portrayals involve shaming public figures based on skin colors, or for residing in Upper Egypt occurring in both online media and television programs. 

Nonetheless, members of the Nubian community have actively confronted these discriminatory portrayals. In 2009, Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe included the derogatory phrase “the Nubian monkey” in a children’s song referring to dark skinned Nubian children as monkeys. Nubians took legal action against the singer, claiming that the song was fueling racist attitudes towards Nubian children. The court case resulted in the removal of the offensive line from the song.

While this case was successful, it serves as one example among many. With limited legal frameworks in place to address racism and ensure accurate representation, civil society bears the responsibility to protect Nubian culture. This requires tackling the challenges facing the Nubian community and taking proactive steps to safeguard their cultural identity, language, and heritage.

The endangered Nubian languages

A Nubian market. Photo by Doaa. Used with permission.

Nubian languages, descended from Old Nubian, form a linguistic family spoken by Nubian peoples. Historically, Nubians used their distinctive writing system (orthography) for religious texts, official records, and literature before transitioning to the Arabic script with the rise of Islam, causing the unique writing system to fade. Nevertheless, Nubian languages endured through oral tradition.

The 1960 construction of the Aswan High Dam displaced many of the Nubian people, leading to a significant decline in the Nubian language. Currently, the Nubian language faces a notable threat of disappearing, as the number of speakers is decreasing. Without formal recognition as a language in Egypt, there are no official statistics on the number of Nubian speakers. 

In Egypt, the absence of Nubian orthography and discriminatory language policies have resulted in the absence of schools or universities teaching the Nubian language. This neglect of formal education has contributed to a dwindling transmission to younger generations. 

Indeed, as Nubian-speaking communities undergo urbanization and face misrepresentation in media, the Nubian language may risk being seen by younger generations as a relic of the past or associated with rural settings.

“Nubians have abandoned their language because everyone was mocking them on TV and in movies,” Mohamed Azmy told Global Voices in an interview. “The representation often took a comedic approach, making fun of Nubians and portraying them as funny non-Arabic speakers,” he added.

Azmy, a former resident of Aswan in Upper Egypt, highlighted that today, less than 20 percent of Nubians pass their language down to younger generations. This choice serves as a protective measure to shield their children from experiencing the ridicule and trauma they endured in their own past.  

I used to live in a Nubian village and people were saying: “Don’t teach your kid Nubian; do you want them to be seen as Barbarians?” This is the term used to describe non-Arabic speaking Nubians.

A promising shift is underway as younger, tech-savvy Nubians take the lead in self-representation through various online initiatives to advocate for and teaching the language. For example, Nobig Koro, (“learn Nubian”) frequently shares educational videos on social media. Furthermore, the Nubi App provides online resources for those interested in learning the language. 

‘We have problems but we don’t complain’

A Nubian home. Upper Egypt. Photo by Doaa. Used with permission.

Former journalist and writer Reem Abbas, renowned for her research on history and civil society, highlighted in an interview with Global Voices that Nubian culture has gained recognition on television over the past decade and, more recently, on social media. In 2012, amid political division in Egypt, a successful TV ad campaign showcased Nubians as integral to Egyptian diversity, encompassing their traditions and music. Abbas stated:

When I was younger living as a Nubian Sudanese in Egypt, I noticed a lack of awareness about Egypt’s cultural diversity, which includes Nubians as an integral part. However, there has been some improvements.

Abbas believes that the Nubian community tries to cope with hate speech, misrepresentation, and discrimination. She notes, “the Nubian community is peaceful. We’ve learned to solve our problems internally, relying on social solidarity. Outsiders might assume we don’t have problems because we don’t complain. Yes, we have problems, but we solve them on our own.” 

Coping alone is insufficient. Abbas advocates for legal measures to combat color-based racism in media. She underscores the importance of using social media as a platform for Nubians to authentically represent themselves and challenge stereotypes. She emphasized, “We should use social media to be our own ambassadors and not wait for mainstream media to accurately represent us. People should become the mainstream.”

Nubians grapple with the harmful impact of discrimination in the media, causing feelings of sense of invisibility, exclusion and self-censorship. These portrayals further marginalize Nubian communities, obscuring their rich cultural contributions and impeding open expression of their perspectives and experiences.

Despite Egypt’s constitutional provisions against discrimination, it is disheartening to witness ongoing discrimination against Nubians, fueled by social and cultural influences in the media. Both public and private sectors have a pivotal role in addressing this issue. Enforcing laws that officially recognize and protect Nubians, while involving community members and leaders in policies can help ensure the preservation, promotion and freedom of expression for Nubian culture.

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