The story of the High Dam was a tale of a nation, hikayit sha‘b, as Abdel Halim Hafiz chanted in an iconic song from the Nasserist period.
This nation lived under the yoke of British colonialism for over 70 years. After gaining independence, Egypt’s revolutionary president, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, approached the World Bank to finance the construction of a dam on the Nile, a vital step towards economic development. The World Bank refused. In an audacious challenge to old and new imperialism, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 to acquire funding for the project. The struggling nation heroically endured subsequent military assaults and a trade embargo. The dam was eventually built.
“We said we would build and here we have built the high dam. Oh colonialism, we have built it with our hands, the high dam. With our money, with the hands of our workers,” Abdel Halim’s chorus enthusiastically repeated. Like this, the socialist dream began, only to fall apart, leaving behind memories of a vanished era.
The story of the High Dam at Aswan is indeed the tale of this nation. The stages of its history chronicle critical transformations in Egyptian history at large. During the last half century, the dam moved from being a celebrated monument to Egyptian independence to a forgotten barrage deep in the country’s south. It was a state-engineered tool of anti-imperialist propaganda, whose splendor faded away with the downfall and fundamental reversion of the anti-imperial project.
When the dam was built, it was high–as high as the proud head of a newly independent nation. Nasser’s Arab socialism was born out of the construction of this dam during the 1960s. When the US refused to fund it, the Soviet Union stepped in to offer not only a loan, but also experts and equipment. It was the tensest years of the Cold War, and Nasser’s decision to side with the communist camp was declared.
Egypt’s state of development at the time necessitated such a dam to control Nile flooding in order to develop agriculture and to generate electricity for the dream of heavy industrialization. In Nasser’s propaganda, the High Dam became the symbol of the end of decades of economic dependency. As the thrilling news of the dam filled newspapers and public television everyday throughout its years of construction, the populist government was spreading free university education, distributing land deeds to peasants, erecting public sector factories, granting rights to workers, expanding freedoms to women, and much more.
Nasser did not live to see the dam completed and President Anwar el-Sadat opened its gates in 1971. Nasser had died a year earlier in the wake of a humiliating defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. During the opening ceremony, Sadat and the president of the Soviet Union also unveiled a sculpture nearby commemorating “Egyptian-Soviet Friendship.”
Only a year later, Sadat expelled the Soviet experts from Egypt and decided to switch Cold War camps, forming a strategic alliance with the United States and reversing Nasser’s socialism by liberalizing the economy and introducing the “open door” policy. After years of patiently waiting for its completion, the High Dam, all of sudden, seemed unimportant. If the state was withdrawing from the economy, privatizing state-owned factories, and returning agricultural land to the old aristocracy, then it no longer needed to sing for a dam.
Over the course of the following the 1970s, the news of the dam gradually disappeared from national papers and television, only to be replaced with stories of imported consumer goods, private business tycoons, and a peace treaty with Israel. During the 1990s, news of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s introduction of market economy reforms and neoliberal developments dominated Egyptian media and almost nobody heard about the poor dam.
A pronounced cultural narrative developed around the High Dam during its construction and into the post-Nasserist era. Songs, movies, poetry, and fiction all recorded in meticulous detail narratives of a nearly mythical entity on the southern Nile that would supposedly alter the fate of all social classes in the nation. Abdel Halim Hafez was not simply another nationalist singer who cheerfully chanted for the dam in 1960. His voice symbolizes the Nasserist period, with its victories and defeats, and echoes a generation of romantic idealists–mostly educated and middle-class—whose slogans of progress and global equality were quickly smashed.
The famous movie of el-Haqiqa el-‘Ariya (The Naked Truth), produced in 1963 and starring the legendary couple Magda and Ehaab Nafi, was far from a simple love story between an engineer in the dam and a pretty tour guide in the ancient sites of Nubia. The protagonist, a middle-class, educated woman, took a group of tourists to Aswan to show them Pharaonic temples and the dam, only to find true love there. At first the handsome engineer resented her career ambitions, but he eventually gave in. In the shadow of the dam, a man realized the importance of women’s rights, and a woman was liberated.
In his famous poems "Letters of Hiraji el-Qutt to his Wife Fatima," Abdel Rahman el-Abnudi told another story of workers receiving their liberation through the construction of the dam. These poems narrated the story of a poor Upper Egyptian laborer whose journey to work for the dam transformed him from an illiterate peasant into a skilled worker enjoying political awareness. The poems, which were publicly recited in 1969, recounted how Hiraji took the train from his small village to Aswan, leaving behind his wife Fatima, and their two children. In his letters to Fatima, the worker sent not only money that bettered his family’s life and educated his son, but also passionately notes about how the dam taught him new things and created a new person out of him every day. Hiraji was at first sad to be away from his village, but an enlightened engineer told him about the war Egypt fought for the dam, and taught him how to work machines. “The dam, Fatima, opened my eyes for the world, as if it took me out of a hole into light,” Hiraji asserted.
All this was a part of conspicuous state propaganda program, as many opposition groups came to realize. After Nasser died, Sonallah Ibrahim, then a young communist, wrote a novel undermining the myth after a visit to Aswan. Nasser’s totalitarian, one-party regime had jailed Ibrahim and his fellow dissidents for years. Ibrahim’s novel Najmat Aghustus (The August Star), published in 1974, depicted a building project where inhumane conditions and workers’ repression prevailed. It was hot in the deep south, under the burning sun of August, and it was no place for liberties or anti-imperialist fantasies. He compared Nasser to Pharaoh Ramses II who built Abu Simbel Temple— allegorically insisting that both of them constructed colossal monuments to glorify their despotism.
A visit to Aswan today would bring about another set of bitter memories. It is most likely when you take a taxi there that the driver will be a Nubian, and he will be playing a tape of sad folk songs of the “old country." The old country, or el-balad el-gadima, is the villages of old Nubia whose inhabitants were forcibly relocated to create space for the dam’s reservoir. These internal refugees were given spacious new houses, land, and cattle, but in dry deserts far from the green paradise where they once lived.
Other sorts of odd memories still linger in the city. Ordinary women go to what they call sug el-rus, “the market of Russians,” which is probably where the Soviet workers on the dam shopped for their groceries. Remnants of Nasserist engineers, lawyers, and aging workers are still Aswan, inciting political activism in a city remote from the central government.
Fifty years have passed since the onset of the dam’s dream, and many believe that Western imperialism is already back in Egypt with US economic domination. The High Dam no longer looks so high. What remains of it is a field trip that school children take for a drive on the body of the barrage and a visit to the “Egyptian-Soviet Friendship” monument. Magda and Ehab Nafi’s movie “The Naked Truth” is still pointlessly, yet routinely, shown on state television. And occasionally the enthusiastic voice of Abdel Halim chants amid women’s ululations, “Oh colonialism, we have built it with our hands, the high dam.”