Vol 1 No 8 Spring/Summer 2003

Recollections of Nabil Sobhi Hanna

by Bernhard Streck

Editor's Note: The following paper was distributed at the International Romani Studies Conference in Istanbul, Turkey, 11-12 April, 2003. The conference was held in memory of Nabil Sobhi Hanna and Angus Fraser.

I would like, first, to thank the organisers of this first conference on Gypsies of the Orient that they have included a chance to commemorate our Egyptian colleague, who has been a pioneer in this area of study and has unfortunately passed out of scientific life much to early, in the programme. Nabil has allowed, with his first monograph on the Ghajar of the Nile valley, published first in Arabic, as a short version in English and almost in its entirety in German, the social sciences entry into the world of this, since the middle ages well-known, group of Egyptian Gypsies and enriched this since Newbold and Kremer familiar but little considered field of research decidedly. In the following I would like to summarise the personal ties I have to Nabil.

I first became aware of the name Nabil when he was mentioned to me towards the beginning of the 1980s in Khartum by El Haj Bilal Omer, who had studied with him in Hull, England. During a visit to Prof. Cunnison in Hall, Richard Rottenburg and I discovered that he had already returned to Egypt before the completion of his work. I acquired Nabil’s address and a copy of his Arabic language book on the Ghajar in 1984 thanks to the mediation of Ahmed El Kayatis. In a letter I asked him to allow me to organise a German translation of his work, since I suspected to find significant parallels to the situation in the Sudan of the Halab, Ghajar and Bahlawan that I was studying at that time.

The translation dragged on, since I was continuing my research in the Sudan at the same time, until 1988. I initially worked together with Mohammed et Tayeb, a Sudanese student at the Technical University Berlin. Later, Ahmed El Kayati took his place. Neither this religious philosopher and mystic nor his computer scientist predecessor had any great interest in the topic, but their Arabic was much better than mine, so that after the fatiguing transcription of the often complicated academic Arabic and endless debates about particular terms, with time a passable German text developed.

After initiating with Fritz W. Kramer our Sudanese ethnography series “Sudanesische Marginalien” in the Trickster-Verlag in Munich, I wanted to publish Nabil’s translation and my monograph on the Halab as close together as possible since my description of the Sudanese group referred regularly to Nabil’s work and the two texts supplemented each other very well. What Nabil described from a sociological and integrationist point of view, I approached from an ethnological and historical perspective. The findings showed that the gypsy groups on the lower and middle Nile had very much in common, which meant that a close relationship had to be postulated. What they altogether did not have was a nameable Romani vocabulary, with which we could correct respective speculations in the pertinent literature. The Ghajar in Egypt and the Halab in the Sudan are marginal groups in an already very heterogeneous Arabic-speaking population and take the position, where delimitation is necessary, of an Arabic “Rotwelsch”, as Littman already described it in 1920.

When I finally met Nabil, with whose Arabic formulated thoughts I had been wrestling for many years, in person for the first time, he had long since moved on from his tsiganological studies. He was in Ulm at the beginning of the 1990s taking part as a guest of the University at a symposium on the hospice movement. That was his new area of interest. I asked him, what an Arabic-Islamic society, in which family and seniority were still vital, needed such institutions for. In his ever careful manner he tried to correct my simplistic perception of the socially stable Orient and I noticed that he, as a Copt with a minority perspective sharpened over centuries, saw Egyptian society from an entirely different position than my Muslim friends in Egypt and the Sudan.

My second encounter with Nabil took place at the Conference of Gypsy Lore Society in Leyden, Holland in 1995. His book had by that time been published in German and he assumed I would now be able to pay him a generous honorarium as author. After I explained to him in detail the complicated calculations for the translation and the publishing of the book for which funding from the Free University of Berlin, the Stiftung Volkwagenwerk and the VG Wort had to be organised, he gave himself content to accept the additional free copies that I had brought him. Nabil was a very modest and reserved person who nevertheless resolutely pursued his goals. He would never otherwise have made it to a sociology professorship at the Cairo University; he described for an entire evening the power relations that existed there. We had intended to discuss a possible University co-operation between Leipzig and Cairo, but since gypsy studies were no longer his main area of focus, we found few concrete points in common.

When, in the years that followed, a Leipziger anthropology student decided to go to Egypt, I gave them Nabil’s address. Thus he knew that my orient studies were continuing. It unfortunately never came to the realisation of the planned co-operation of German anthropologists studying Egyptian Gypsies and Egyptian anthropologists or sociologists studying German Gypsies. Nabil never did get to hear about how tsiganology in Leipzig has been established as part of a research project on the interaction of nomadic and sedentary populations. The exiled Sudanese student Hayder Ibrahim Ali, my co-translator and friend Ahmed El Kayati and one of the staff members in the special research project Katharin Lange reported to me independently of the passing away of Nabil Sobhi Hanna in Cairo. He remains with us and will take part in our future studies through his well observed and pointedly written monograph, published in three languages, on the Egyptian gypsies of “Goddess of her neighbours” (so the translation of Sitt Jeranaha or Sett Guiranha, the cryptonym for his study area south of Cairo). The social scientific and anthropological study of the gypsies of the Orient has hardly begun. Those who try themselves in this area rich in surprises will not be able to get by the pioneering work of Nabil Sobhi Hanna.

Translated by: Andreas Hemming 17.03.2003

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