Children’s books share Sudan’s endangered Nobiin with new readers

One of the first collections of children’s books ever published in Nobiin, the most widely spoken Nubian language in southern Egypt and northern Sudan, was printed in September. The books of three Nubian-Sudanese authors are written in the ancient alphabet used in ancient Nubian manuscripts for centuries. The project is a collaboration with the independent publishing house Taras Press in London.

The collection consists of four illustrated books designed to introduce children to the Nubian alphabet, one of the oldest African writing traditions. The books teach reading, writing and counting in Nobiin and two story books are designed to develop vocabulary and build the body of Nubian and Nubian literature.. The project was funded through a crowdfunding campaign.

The collection “is ultimately designed to be understandable to those who are already literate in Nubian, and those who learn to be literate in Nubian through our books will hopefully be able to read most of what is written in Nubian,” Hatim Eujayl, one of the writers, told Al-Monitor.

Old Nubian is a literary language appearing in texts from the 8th to 15th centuries in the Nubian kingdom of Makurie, located in what is now southern Egypt and northern Sudan, making it one of the first written languages ​​of Africa and perhaps as old as the first written English. Current Nobiin has direct roots in Old Nobiin and is today the largest Nubian language with speakers primarily in Egypt, Sudan, and the Diaspora.

Old Nubian ceased to be written mainly due to the dissolution of the Nubian kingdom of Makuria, which had held it as an official language, and the Ottoman occupation of Lower Nubia, which accelerated its Arabization and conversion to Islam. Speakers of Nobiin, whose use declined and became endangered, have since turned to Latin and Arabic scripts.

Yet in the 1990s, following a resurgence of Old Nubian within the community, Nubian activists led initiatives to revive the alphabet and advocate for its use. They are credited with laying the foundations for modern Nubian spelling.

“The history of efforts to revive Nubian began in full force in the 1990s with Nubian activists,” Eujayl said, adding that Cairo University professor Mukhtar Khalil Kabbara, “simplified and defined the modern Nubian spelling and has had this tremendous influence on the way people write Nubian today. “

“One of the things that inspired and pushed me to do this is because there are books on the Nubian language, but they are more aimed at academics and people with linguistic training and knowledge. languages, ”Ramy Dawoud, another author, told Al-Monitor. “For ordinary people, and for children in particular, I couldn’t find anything. And nothing that is done in a modern way is attractive, ”he added.

The authors faced two main challenges. The first was technical, as there is very little digital support for writing in the Nubian alphabet. To address this, Eujayl developed the first publicly available Nubian typeface, Sawarda Nubian, based on ancient Nubian manuscripts.

The second challenge was how to use the script to write the books. According to Eujayl, this is where the main debate lies among those trying to revive Nubian writing. After five centuries of disuse, those who write Nubian today do not share a coherent and consistent spelling.

“Although Old Nubian was written for almost 1,500 years, the Nubian languages ​​spoken today have changed in the past 500 years since it was written,” explained Joel Mitchell, founder of Taras Press, at Al-Monitor. “So it is not easy to write there, because there are different approaches to represent it as it is spoken today.”

Here, their achievements are more limited. Eujayl said they found it difficult to access discussions of different orthographic approaches, and noted that they found little desire among advocates of particular approaches to accommodate others.

He also explained that their ability to exercise judgment was limited as they were not fluent. In the end, they decided to follow Kabbara’s methods, on which there is substantial consensus.

“I think I overestimated the importance of reaching consensus when script usage is still so low,” Eujayl said. “The number of people who write in Nubian is very small, so the spelling debates are mainly led by a small sphere of academics who are supposed to be dogmatic about their approaches,” he added, and noted : “In terms of reaching a consensus or having a [well documented and] systematic approach, there is still so much work to be done.

When non-academics start to use the script widely, “there will be more material to inform a real discussion,” he predicted. “I hope these books will help us push us in this direction by widening the circle of Nubian scholars.”

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