This post was prepared by Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei whom we deeply thank for sharing this report from a most important venue through our blog.
The 2013 Nilo-Saharan Linguistics Conference at the University of Cologne was for me the first time to come into contact with the scholarly community around the Nubian language family after having been woken up from my philological slumbers by Claude Rilly’s Le méroïtique et sa famille linguistique in 2010. It proved to be a particularly fertile occasion, providing the impetus for Dotawo: A Journal of Nubian Studies, whose first two issues published the proceedings of the Nubian panel there and a later follow-up in Khartoum. This in turn led to the “Attiri Project,” a collaborative and interdisciplinary effort to publish the Old Nubian documents from Attiri, lodged at the Sudan National Museum. It provided also the occasion for an offhand remark by Shafie El-Guzuuli, an Andaandi mother-tongue speaker and Nubian language advocate, that “I should visit Sudan.” I told him: “If I come to Sudan, we might as well do some work.” Thus the idea to organize an Old Nubian seminar in Khartoum was born – to bring back a language to the country where is was spoken more than half a millennium ago.
Three years later, and thanks to the tireless efforts of Shafie, Angelika Jakobi, Abeer Trefi, the Faculty of Linguistics at the University of Khartoum, and many others, the five-day seminar “The Grammar of Literary Old Nubian” became reality. After weeks of harassing the Sudanese Embassy in the Netherlands, and many letters from Abeer, I finally received my visa that allowed me to board a plane from Tirana to Istanbul to Cairo and finally Khartoum, where I was picked by Shafie and his brother Awad, my more than generous hosts during two weeks in Sudan.
The seminar itself was festively opened by Nubian song and dance and many speeches, and was attended, for the full five days, by the unexpectedly large number of 60–70 participants every day: linguists, Nubian scholars, and native speakers of Nobiin, Andaandi, Midob, and various Kordofan Nubian languages. Participants had traveled from many parts in the country, and even from Egypt and Germany to attend. It was truly an event where old and new Nubian languages met and conversed about their connections and differences. As Angelika put it: it was not only an academic event; the communal lunches, cultural evenings, and exchanges also made it an important social event, where no doubt connections and relations have been initiated that will strengthen Nubian scholarship and research in the future.
The basis for the seminar itself was an early draft for “A Possible Grammar of Old Nubian,” which I hope to finish by 2018 and which aims to provide a new foundation for grammatical analysis and interpretation of Old Nubian texts, building and expanding the pioneering work of Gerald Browne with the insights from Nubian linguistics over the last decades. The seminar provided a first testing ground for the material, and especially the input of the native speakers of modern Nubian languages present provided many an insight into the interpretation of certain Old Nubian constructions.
What was so valuable about the realization of Shafie’s suggestion of three years ago, was that it also showed that it is possible to bring Old Nubian back to its country of origin, and relate the analysis of a language that is by any judgment quite dead to the very living concerns of mother tongue speakers whose languages are threatened by gradual extinction. It showed that the obscure philologies of a marginal medieval language can still bring people together, creating a historical basis and community from which to think language preservation and politics in the twenty-first century, against everything the financialization and neo-liberalization of the university wants us to believe.
And moreover, what this seminar showed and confirmed to me once more is that within our respective scholarly departments (I, for one, hardly belong to any) we ought to practice some humility when claiming a graffito, document, inscription, or pot shard as “ours” (ours to describe, analyze, publish). Whatever materials from Sudan or elsewhere have allowed us insight into ancient languages and lives, they will never yield their full potential until discussed with the people whose heritage it is, no matter what their level of scholarly engagement. That a seminar on Old Nubian can elicit long-forgotten technical terms of boating, the orientation of villages and islands, or bring people to share and recite Andaandi poetry or Karko songs, moving people (at least myself) to tears, is something that no academic training or library hall can prepare you for. It can only be found in a shared engagement between scholars and non-scholars alike.
In the same period, I was lucky enough to visit the archives of Sudan National Museum and examine the Attiri documents, some of which could unfortunately no longer be traced, and other parts of which were presented in the exhibition upstairs, in less than ideal lighting conditions. Nevertheless, I was able to make a few significant improvements on few of the lesser readable texts, and we hope that publication of the complete documents will come to a completion this year.
After the seminar, Shafie and his wife (and formidable cook) Fayza took Angelika and me on a true road trip through the Makurian, Kushite and Meroitic heartland, visiting Old Dongola, the former capital of Makuria, the temple of Amon in Kawa, the deffufa in Kerma, royal tombs in Kuru, the holy site of Jebel Barkal, and the royal cemetery at Meroë. During all of this, the hospitality we experienced cannot be praised enough. In Dongola we were hosted for several days by Shafie’s family, who spared no effort to make our life comfortable and show us around their remarkable fields and cultural treasures. In Karima, close to Jebel Barkal, we were welcomed by the Vice-Dean of the local branch of the University of Dongola, who generously lodged us in the university’s guest house, close to the temples of Amon and Mut. Many an evening was spent lounging on beds in the hosh discussing new insights and ideas, regurgitating on a satisfying and exhausting day.
All of this is a cultural heritage the Nubians are rightly proud of, but in order to honor this heritage truly, much more effort is needed. It became very clear that the people in the Old Nubian seminar were in many cases representatives of the last generation that has grown up with speaking a Nubian language at home, whereas the next generation is growing up with Arabic. This process of language shift will most certainly, unless considerable efforts are made, be irreversible within one or two generations. But after the energy and engagement that I have had the privilege of encountering during the seminar I truly believe that it is possible, for scholars of both old and new Nubian languages and the Nubian community to work together to preserve them, to develop a shared understanding of them, and a fruitful basis on which – hopefully sooner than later – they can be taught: not just at university, but from the cradle.