Struggle Over the Nile

Singing for the Nile

Egyptians are full of love for the Nile, but often forget that ‘their river’ passes through many other countries.

By filmmaker Hussein Elrazzaz

I was born in Cairo, the Egyptian capital that until this day continues to grow along the banks of the River Nile. The year of my birth – 1971 – witnessed the opening of the Aswan High Dam – humanity’s greatest effort to control the river about which so many poems, songs and stories have been written.

The dam ushered in a new relationship between the Nile and Egypt. Since the time of the ancient Egyptians, Egypt had been at the mercy of the river. The level of its annual flood determined the wellbeing of the state: A low flood brought the threat of famine and drought, while a high flood delivered even greater devastation.

But the Aswan High Dam changed the equation – finally putting the Nile under the total control of the Egyptian irrigation engineers who decide when to open or close its sluices. The huge man-made reservoir behind the dam offers an additional insurance policy to all Egyptians.

As a result of the dam, I belong to a generation that has never felt threatened by the river, that has never witnessed the floods that used to take place yearly.

My father, who was born in one of the many villages that dot the Nile Delta, would tell me stories of the river’s force during flood season.

Like many Egyptians in the countryside, his favourite hobby was to swim in the Nile. But during the flood season, he would emerge covered in silt – the substance carried by the river from the Ethiopian highlands which was so instrumental in turning the Nile Valley and Delta into such fertile soil; the soil that was the cradle of one of the world’s oldest civilisations.

WATCH our three-part documentary Struggle Over the Nile

We Egyptians adore our river and Herodotus’ words “Egypt is the gift of the Nile” can be found carved inside the heart and soul of each of us. When we speak or think of the Nile it is as ‘our river’, as an ‘Egyptian river’.

We forget, whether consciously or unconsciously, that it reaches us only after passing through many other countries.

My first meeting with the Nile outside Egypt took place in 2008. While on a filming trip to Tanzania, I found myself standing on the shores of Lake Victoria, one of the most renowned sources of the river.

We were not filming anything related to the Nile, but somehow, watching the source of my adored river, I found myself overcome by love for it. I began singing for the Nile, a classical Egyptian love song for the river. I had not noticed my voice growing louder, until our local Tanzanian fixer woke me from my daze, laughingly asking what I was doing.

“I was singing for the Nile,” I answered. “This water will be in Egypt in a few weeks and Egyptians will be using it.”

The fixer’s laughter gave way to anger as he told me: “You Egyptians are greedy. You are taking all the water for yourselves and you leave us with nothing. But this will change soon.”

That came as a shock to me. I realised that a problem was brewing and that it would only grow larger and more troubling.

The following year, I decided to embark on a project narrating the story of the struggle over the Nile. My research led me to a treasure trove of information – some of it surprising, some of it entirely new. I became convinced that many around the world should know about it.

The shooting of this project began in Sudan in March 2010. It took a year to complete the English and Arabic versions of the series, which will be aired on the same days on Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Jazeera English.

I have tried hard to distance myself from my Egyptian identity and to approach the project as a professional journalist, presenting a balanced and fair story. I hope I have succeeded in that.

I would like to thank everyone who has been involved in the project, particularly those working in the field under very testing circumstances. I hope you enjoy the series and look forward to receiving your feedback.