Ramey Dawoud is a Sudanese-American rapper, actor, songwriter, activist and author. He is of Nubian descent and his family originates from the Nubian town of Wadi Halfa, Sudan. Passionate about preserving Nubian cultural heritage, in 2021, Dawoud collaborated with Taras Press to participate in the "Read, Write, and Count in Nubian: ⲅⲉⲣⲓ, ⲫⲁ̄ⲓ̈, ⲟ̄ⲙⲓⲣ!" Kickstarter campaign to publish four books written in Nubian languages to encourage literacy in the Nubian alphabet, for which he wrote and published Nabra's Nubian Numbers, a children's book written in Nobiin and English which teaches Nobiin numbers and incorporates various references to Nubian culture.
We talk to Ramey about the preservation of language, Nubian identity, the idea of belonging and the future of Islamic art and culture.
What was your journey to becoming interested in languages?
I was born into a journey of languages. I could even say that my journey began before my birth. My family originates from a Nubian village called Argeen, in the Wadi Halfa salient in Sudan. Since the flooding of northern Nubia by the Aswan High Dam, my family moved to New Halfa and eventually Khartoum where the Arabic language started taking over their native Nobiin. All of this happened before I was born but the effects of this forced migration can still be felt to this day. When my mother was pregnant with me, my family moved to Egypt and I was born there, in Alexandria. My identity was made clear to me from the beginning, not only by what I witnessed at home, such as my grandmother's broken Arabic; but also by the community I found myself in. Being threatened by the school to not pass my exams if my family didn't pay our "refugee fees" is a memory that's still fresh in my mind. During my early childhood I was so immersed in this multi-layered world of identity that I didn't get the opportunity to make any sense of it. When I was 9 we relocated to the US and once again I had to adapt to a set of unwritten laws of belonging. Only as I grew older was I able to step back and get a zoomed out view of these layers and experiences that shaped and continue to shape my life.
How does your cultural heritage inspire your creativity and work?
When you're born into a minority culture you are made aware of it in every aspect of your life. My heritage was made clear to me both by my family as well as by the society in which I found myself in. Hearing stories from my elders about "old" Wadi Halfa and the life they lived prior to the forced relocation fired me up; and it still does even now. Today's generation of Nubians feel a sense of emptiness when we hear about our homeland. For me as an artist, sometimes my creative work is the only way I can fill that void, even if I know it's temporary.
Why is the preservation of language important for cultural heritage?
Language, with all of its make up, is a key human characteristic. Not only as a tool of communication in the present, but we use language to communicate and understand those who came before us. A language is more than sounds and letters and grammar. When we lose a language we lose with it stories that can never be told again. We can translate stories, but translations lose so much along the way that it is hardly the same story it was in its original form. We lose stories of fellow humans; stories of migration, celebration, mourning, we lose the ability to hear people tell us who they are from their own narrative.
You are passionate about Nubian identity and culture, why is this important to you in relation to an increasingly globalized world?
I believe it's important to recognize and celebrate our diversity as humans. Understanding and learning about different cultures can cure illnesses such as racism and tribalism. In Sudan for example, I believe one of the biggest reasons we have a tribalism/ethnicity problem is the lack of interaction between the various ethnic groups. Little to non-existing infrastructure makes it difficult to travel within the country and therefore at times the only knowledge people have about one another is from second hand stories that grow into rumors that eventually grow into beliefs. While some people say assimilation is the answer to this problem, I'm of the stance that assimilation in itself is a form of cultural warfare. The dominant group will always force the weaker group to assimilate and not vice versa. I believe the true answer to these issues is rather than forcing a society (country, world) into assimilation, we should celebrate the unique traditions and customs and identities. We don't have to adopt them, nor do we have to accept them. However, we should at the very least, attempt to understand them. Allahﷻ tells us in the Qur'an "We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another." Allahﷻ didn't say to overtake one another, nor did He say to annihilate one another. Allahﷻ said to "know one another".
As a poet, can you tell us more about your approach to creating a poetic language?
When I write I take myself to a specific place. Sometimes that can be a time period and at times it can be a physical location. I try and put myself in the midst of what I'm writing about and I use the language that best fits.
Can you share one of your poetry works with us?
This is "The Martyr's Song", a piece I wrote after my cousin was killed by Bashir's forces while peacefully protesting in 2019.
Breakfast is tear gas and burnt tires here
Diggin in your flesh, bullets from the liars here
You put your fist in the air and walk through the fire here
30 minutes later your life will expire here
"Promise you'll come back to me safe", your Mama said
That's when you gon feel the hollow tip drill in your head
You'll be sorry that you left her message on read
Before you could reply they gon shoot you dead
Last night in the cold my sister faced the heat
This morning we found her braided hair all on the street
Same evening she came back home bruised up and beat
She refused to wear the uniform of defeat
Last week my neighbor's kid went to play outside
Sharp teeth bullets would seek while he would hide
One bullet bit him on the neck, the other on the side
Now he's fast asleep on his last ride
If you ever wonder why I act so weird
You killed my brother and forced me to watch him bleed
A bullet in your heart is all I need
I can imagine revenge would taste so sweet
Does the pain ever go away? hardly
Are the tears dripping down my face? probably
Just imagine waking up and the first thing you see is
Images of your brother's soul leaving his body
Natla3 fil shari3, omahatna shayleen ham
(We go out into the streets, our mother's are concerned)
Tashtari ru7 alshaheed be kam?
(How much shall you buy the soul of the martyr for?)
alshawar3 3ibara 3an seyuul dam
(The streets are practically flooded with blood)
La bnakhaf min sila7 la jihaz amn
(We fear not the weapons nor the security forces)
Golna silmiya golta gasas sai
(We speak of peace, you speak of revenge)
Naftur boomban wa nat7ala be rasas 7ai
(Our breakfast is teargas and our dessert is live ammunition)
You published your first picture book Nabra's Nubian Numbers. How did the project come about?
Growing up I didn't have access to any Nubian language reading material. What little material that was available was not geared towards children. Although I am not fluent in Nobiin, I still wanted to create something that would prevent the next generation of Nubians from experiencing what I had experienced. Around the same time in 2020, an artist and writer named Hatim Eujayl had a similar idea. We teamed up with Taras Press and its creator Joel Mitchell and decided to publish the books under one campaign rather than each of us doing it separately. Eventually we were joined by a 3rd author and poet, Khalid Eltinae. The four of us launched the Geri, Fai, Omir (Read, Write, Count in Nobiin) campaign via KickStarter. Through crowdfunding we were able to publish three of the books, and the fourth is currently in its final review. Nabra's Nubian Numbers is a children's book that teaches the reader how to count in Nobiin while incorporating different aspects of Nubian culture. We are planning to publish Arabic editions of the books in the coming weeks.
What are the challenges to creating bilingual and multilingual texts?
Accurate translation can be a challenge; transliteration can be an even bigger challenge. The Nubian languages for example are Nilo-Saharan languages while Arabic is an Afro-Asiatic language and English is an Indo-European language. Transliterating certain sounds from one language into another can be challenging due to those sounds not existing in all languages. Another challenge is HOW to write Nubian. While Arabic has Fusha and English has Standard written English, the Nubian writing system is yet to be standardized. The thing that stands out the most in our books is the font used. Hatim Eujayl, one of the book authors developed the "Sawarda" font based on Old Nubian manuscripts dating from 6th-15th century.
Nubia has a rich tradition, which is also linked to Islamic heritage. How can we better understand the culture?
Nubia's ties to Islamic heritage can be found in both the Qur'an and Hadith. Luqman the Wise, who has a chapter in the Qur'an named after him, is said to be from Nubia. In a narration through Ibn Hisham, the prophet ﷺ told his companions "Beware of Allahﷻ regarding the people under protection in Egypt, the people with the black skin and curly hair, for we share with them lineage and marriage relations." This is referring to the lineage traced through Hajar, the mother of Ismail (a.s.) Prior to Islam being the dominant religion in the Nubian region, Nubia was comprised of three Christian kingdoms which lasted for nearly 1000 years. Going back even before the Christian kingdoms in Nubia, there was the Kingdom of Kush. The Bible speaks of the king of Kush defeating and expelling the Assyrians out of Jerusalem (Al-Quds). This shows Nubia's historical connection to the Abrahamic faiths.
For those looking to develop language skills, what advice do you have?
The best way is to physically be in the communities who speak the language we are learning. In the case that travel is difficult, the next best way is to expose yourself to the language on a daily basis. Finding an online community of people engaging in the language. In the case of Nubian languages, that is where the most Nubian related content is produced and shared. Also, be prepared to make mistakes and embarrass yourself.. alot.
Can you share some of your favourite Nubian words?
Ⲉⲥⲕⲁⲗⲉ̄ (eskalé)- waterwheel
Ⲕⲁⲇⲓ̄ⲥ (kadiis)- cat
Ⳣⲓⳡⳝⲓ (winji)- star
ⲞⲨⲛⲁⲧⲧⲓ (unatti)- moon
Ϣⲟ̄ⲣⲧⲓ (shorti)- soul
Although not supported by academics, it is said that the word nuu, meaning grandfather, comes from the name of prophet Nuh a.s. as prophet Nuh was the grandfather of Cush, father of the Cushites. Kingdom of Kush/Cush was located in Nubia.
Are you currently working on any projects?
I'm currently preparing the Andaandi-Mattokki editions of Nabra's Nubian Numbers along with their Arabic translations. Andaandi is a Nubian language spoken by the Dongolawis of Sudan and Mattokki is a Nubian language spoken by the Kunuuz of Egypt.
What does the future of Islamic art, heritage and culture look like to you and how can language contribute to its development?
Islamic art and heritage to me is a combination of the various styles and cultures found throughout the Islamic world. When we think of the Islamic golden age, we think of the great leaps taken in mathematics, astrology, and literary works. These new heights were reached because of the knowledge collected from the cultures that had already existed within the Islamic world. From Persia to Egypt to the Islamic kingdoms of west Africa, Muslims collected thoughts and ideas and together we were able to achieve great success that the entire world is benefitting from to this day. Only if we once again, respect and acknowledge that Islam belongs to all Muslims of all nationalities, races, and ethnic backgrounds and languages, and remove superiority complexes from within our community at large by acknowledging marginalized communities rather than brushing their struggles under the rug; only then will Islamic art, heritage, and culture flourish. While Arabic is the language of the Qur'an and we should learn it to better understand our religion, the many indigenous languages spoken by millions throughout the Islamic world should also be valued as they tell the stories of the people who make up this beautiful religion in a way only they can.
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