How Bob Marley Won Nubian Hearts

The artist is an icon in Egypt’s south, woven into the fabric of its music and visual aesthetic

How Bob Marley Won Nubian Hearts
A ferry carries passengers along the Nile River with a Bob Marley banner displayed on the bow. (Getty Images)

Zizo became a boatsman at the age of 10, pushing and pulling against the Nile’s tides under the scorching sun of Aswan, a coming-of-age tradition. Apart from it being a main source of livelihood and a generational profession among the Nubian community, steering a sailboat in the 1980s required a specific kind of motivation.

“As long as the sails were open and the boat was moving, we’d put on Bob,” says Zizo, and by Bob, he means Jamaican singer Bob Marley. The boat’s bunk was dubbed “Bob Marley Room,” where tourists could smoke marijuana. It was painted green and yellow — prominent in Jamaican and Marley culture — Zizo remembers with a smirk.

Bob Marley’s presence in the most southern province of Egypt extends far beyond Zizo’s sailboat. His images, songs and symbols are an integral part of the Nubian visual and auditory aesthetic. While the influence is sometimes very apparent, it can also be subtle and discreet. There are cafes and shops and even people who affect his resemblance conspicuously. Among the attractions are the “Bob Marley Guesthouse” and the multiple impersonators present across the different islands. But there are also traces that require more discernment, such as rasta hats in souvenir shops or Bob Marley flags on top of boats alongside national and football club flags.

Among the Nubians, Marley is an icon. Not only did he share the skin color and struggle but also the lifestyle. Ahmed Idris, the manager of a hotel in Gharb Soheil, confidently declares: “There isn’t a Nubian who doesn’t like Bob Marley.” It’s not clear how it all started. Marley’s cassettes could have arrived with tourists from the Americas as Zizo remembers, or from Sudan, where the obsession is even more prominent, to the south of Aswan. But regardless of the origin, what remains certain is that somewhere along the way, as far back as the 1970s and 1980s up until this day, Bob Marley stuck with the Nubians and managed to make his way into their homes, feluccas and most importantly their hearts and souls.

Like many others, Zizo did not understand Bob’s lyrics when he was first introduced to him. The rhythm, persona and mood were enough to hook him in, but with time, he started picking up on recurrent themes he could relate to such as oppression, freedom, return and alienation.

Zizo’s grandparents were among the thousands of Nubians who were forced to relocate several times after their villages and islands were flooded by the consecutive construction of two dams. It was the Aswan Dam, built by the British and completed in 1902, that forced the first waves of migration, and the High Dam, built under Gamal Abdel Nasser in the 1960s, that intensified the problem and forced over 50,000 to leave their homes. As a result, people migrated to Cairo, Alexandria or northern Aswan, losing their professions as farmers and fishermen.

Zizo draws a comparison between the Nubian displacement and that of the Jamaicans who were forcibly displaced from Africa to the Caribbean in the transatlantic slave trade.

“As Nubians we are at least living in the same climate, plus we weren’t enslaved like them,” he says, and while they dream of returning to Africa, the Nubians long to return to a sunken homeland a few kilometers away.

Like Zizo, Idris, the hotel manager, agrees that there are similarities despite the differences.

“After the first and second migrations, we Nubians always felt oppressed,” he explains. “This is why we connect with other oppressed people.” Before the internet, Ahmed, who is now 40, used to listen to Bob Marley cassettes his friends would bring from abroad. “They would gather us and we’d all listen to Bob Marley together. We’d just sit there and enjoy.”

Longing for a return to Africa is a central theme in Marley’s songs, and it is to Ethiopia in particular that he and other Jamaicans hope to return despite the fact that the Caribbean received barely any slaves from there. The majority were brought from western African countries, including modern-day Congo and Nigeria. The significance of Ethiopia does not spring from a direct historical ancestral land, as is the case with the Nubians, but from an ideology that emerged in the 1930s known as Rastafarianism.

Followers of the movement consider 20th-century Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to be the messiah and believe that Black people ought to return to Ethiopia, their promised land, to experience political and social prosperity. Growing dreadlocks and smoking marijuana are two religious practices that signify their spiritual connection and compliance to their god, “Jah.”

The belief is derived from Bible verses that sanctify Ethiopia and is heavily influenced by pan-African thought and the teachings of Jamaican political activist Marcus Garvey, who in 1920 advised people to “look to Africa, when a Black king shall be crowned, for the day of deliverance is at hand.”

If there is anything that keeps Bob at bay, it is his Rastafarianism, and even then, not in its entirety. The dreads and marijuana are accepted practices and even endorsed by many Nubians. It is the worship of Haile Selassie that raises a red flag — a flag not serious enough to stand in the way of loving him but for some, significant, though they love him nonetheless.

Ramadan Abdul Hafeez, better known as Bob, impersonates the singer in almost every single way except in his religious belief. Coming out of the kitchen with a prayer rug, he greets guests and shows them around his campsite on top of Heissa, one of the five islands to survive the flood in the area between the two dams.

“I smoke, but it’s not part of my religious belief,” he says, explaining in broken Arabic that living in nature requires one to consume whatever God has provided the land. Ramadan learned Arabic when he was 17. Like many others from his community, his mother tongue is Nubian. In the past, he had left Aswan several times but decided to come back to live in the peace and serenity of his island.

“When I used to travel,” he says, “I would listen to Bob Marley to feel closer to home, to Aswan and its climate.”

Aside from believing in the same values of freedom, love and nature, it is no secret that marijuana ties the two Bobs so strongly together.

“He’s a prince; he’s so dope,” Ramadan explains when asked about what he thinks of Marley’s smoking. “It’s why he produces such good songs. He smokes to express himself without embarrassment, without fear.”

Another Bob who works in Aswan’s local market and is also named after the singer is unapologetic about the fact that “70%” of his love for the Bob can be traced back to his smoking. Bob, whose real name is Ahmad Saad, started styling his hair in dreads three years ago after his idol. Nubians feel a strong connection to Marley’s hair, especially because in ancient times, long before the reggae artist ever came to light, their ancestors wore their hair in locks. Ahmed sells Marley flags in the souvenir shop he works in. In two days he sold 36 flags, mostly to Nubians and Sudanese.

“Bob is number one here,” he says.

In a relatively quiet street in downtown Cairo, a tall, thin Sudanese man with a dangling rasta cap and black rimmed glasses sits with a group of musicians in the Abdel Nabi cafe. Over the years, the cafe has become a meeting place for the vibrant community of Nubian artists residing in Abdeen, specifically because the office of renowned artist Ali Kuban was located on the same street. Many Nubians settled in Abdeen after their migration from Aswan to work as servants and cooks in the nearby palace.

Unlike Ramadan and Ahmad, this Bob, whose real name is Haidar Awad, seems to have a more complex relationship with Marley — a more intense past and a more cautious love.

When the singer died in 1981, Haidar attended a week-long wake in Khartoum to grieve his death. As a musician himself, he was a fan of Marley and had played his songs with a Sudanese jazz band.

“We were offered coffee and tea and we listened to Bob Marley songs on cassette,” he remembers. “We wore black or put on Jamaican flags and rasta hats. People hugged each other and cried.” The death of the star had a similar effect in Libya, where fans roamed the streets with an empty coffin to pray for his soul.

Within the Arab world, Bob Marley seems to be most popular in Sudan and Libya. At least this is what the administrator of a Facebook fan page confirms. Out of the 12,700 followers of the “Bob Marley fans in the Arab World” group, almost half are from Sudan and a quarter from Libya. Egypt comes next, followed by Algeria and Saudi Arabia.

Haidar went as far as visiting the Rastafarian community in Shashamane, in southern Ethiopia, but his friend went even further and joined the community. He left Sudan behind and converted into the new religion, Haidar explains with subtle remorse. The land on which the community is based was donated by Haile Selassie to the descendants of Black slaves after the Second World War. Although the offer didn’t specifically target Rastafarians, they ended up being the vast majority of those who made the move, especially after Selassie’s 1966 visit to Jamaica in which he declared that Jamaicans and Ethiopians are blood brothers.

With an undertone that blames but immediately excuses, Haidar remarks that Marley is partially responsible for converting his friend: “No human being is perfect, but I took from him the good things, his hair, his music.”

For Ahmad Derdig, the percussionist of an Egyptian reggae band called “Meshwar,” even the hair proved to be an undesired association with Rastafarianism. In the past, Ahmed used to grow long dreads, but then people started asking him whether he was Rasta.

“Back then, I didn’t know anything about the religion. I just liked Bob’s look and style,” he says. The question caught Ahmed off guard and led him to read more about Rastafarianism, which eventually led him to write a book about the religion with the purpose of negating it from a Muslim standpoint. “I am a Muslim and I have an identity,” says Ahmed, explaining why he let go of his dreads but not his love for reggae or Marley.

Musically, reggae uses the pentatonic scale, which is also used in African music including Nubian and Sudanese. The familiarity is yet another reason Marley is relevant. Ayat Mohammad, who is also part of a musical group, says that 95% of the music she produces uses the pentatonic scale.

“We work with it because it is who we are,” she elaborates. “The pentatonic scale resembles us southerners.”

Although Derdig feels that he has to choose between Rastafarianism and Islam, it’s not the same with his Africanness, Arabness and Blackness, which he strongly believes can all co-exist.

Similarly, Nubian musician Adel Mekha embraces his multilayered identity without feeling conflicted. When he decided to compose music that would go with the lyrics “I am an Arab, by God I’m an Arab,” he chose the pentatonic scale. “I didn’t want to use a typical Arab scale because one has to use the color [genre] of music he was brought up with,” he explains, criticizing the narrowness of the question he often receives on whether he considers himself to be an African or an Arab.

In addition to the spontaneity and courage he found in Bob Marley, Adel’s love for the singer is more about their shared skin color. He confirms that his bias toward Blackness does not stem from racism but rather a shared sense of brotherhood. It is the same reason he used to like Michael Jackson, whose posters he used to hang up on the walls.

“When he turned white, I felt insulted,” Adel remembers. “I threw out all his cassettes.”

To many, Marley could easily be mistaken for being a Nubian. “He looks 100% Nubian,” points out one fan. “He looks exactly like us,” says another, “as if he’s one of us.”

As a kid, Adel used to cheer for the football team that had the highest number of Black players.“I felt like they were my brothers, I was cheering for my brothers,” he explains, laughing at what he now thinks of as the immaturity of his younger self.

“When I grew up I knew that I was wrong, I learned to think with my brain, not my eyes,” he continues. Even with Michael Jackson, Adel eventually softens. “If he was truly sick, I would have forgiven him,” he says, “but in all cases I was wrong, it’s his personal choice. Oh well, the man is dead now, it’s not a big deal,” he concludes with a chuckle.

Perhaps the secret in Bob Marley’s influence on the Nubians lies in the fact that one does not necessarily have to know the lyrics or even understand English to feel a certain connectedness. In the world of symbols, the musical scale, the hair, the joint are enough to turn him into a totem and an integral part of the Nubian collective consciousness.

But Bob is more than just a phenotype. When his fans eventually do understand him, in the traditional sense of the word, their bond grows only stronger. The congruence between his appearance and his revolutionary thought legitimizes their love for him and grants him the permission to change them. It could be a change in hair style, in name, in thought.

Adel sums it up quite simply: “If Jamaica and Egypt were playing against each other in the World Cup, I’d cheer for Egypt. But if Jamaica was playing against any other country, I’d probably cheer for Jamaica, because I feel that Jamaicans have struggled. Who gave me this feeling? This man, Bob Marley.”

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