A Photographer’s Quest to Discover His Nubian Ancestry

By Mohamed Altoum and James Estrin


After his father’s death, the photographer Mohamed Altoum went on a journey to understand what it means to be Nubian.

A Nubian bride preparing for her traditional wedding ceremony with her family. Kibera, Kenya.CreditCreditMohamed Altoum

Photographs by Mohamed Altoum

Text by James Estrin

Mohamed Altoum had faint childhood memories of his father’s stories about their Nubian culture from their ancestral village in north Sudan. Yet when his father, Osman, an accountant who also wrote poetry, recounted them again in 2010, Mohamed paid close attention.

His father was dying from liver cancer. So while Mohamed and his family cared for Osman around the clock at their home in Khartoum, Sudan, his father’s stories rekindled something deep inside him.

“He spoke about the music, literature and culture,” Mohamed said, “and told me that I needed to discover my roots in the Nubian community.”

The photographer’s ailing uncle with a friend. His uncle would recount stories about Nubian people and wrote Nubian poems about daily life. Hoshmar, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum
A Nuba dress, with shadows revealing its patterns. White Nile, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum
The photographer’s mother and sister, sitting in the same place as when his father died. Khartoum, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum
Nuba people dancing in a yard. Khartoum, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum

Mohamed had grown up in Khartoum, Sudan’s mainly Arab capital, and though his mother, Majda, is also Nubian, he rarely had contact with the Nubian culture other than listening as his father fell asleep to the sound of Nubian songs on the radio. But when Osman died, Mohamed started a quest to find out more about his father and what it means to be Nubian. He traveled throughout north Sudan to Aswan in southern Egypt, as well as to Kenya and Uganda, where there are large Nubian communities.

While visiting his uncle Al-Haj in the family house in the town of Hoshmar in north Sudan, Mohamed found a photo of himself as a boy dressed in traditional clothing.

“I realized that my father had always tried to pass on this culture,” he said, “but I wasn’t making connections between the history and the present.”

Residents relaxing with friends in the evening at a space introduced to the photographer by one of his cousins. Hoshmar, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum
An old tape recording and an old photo of the photographer wearing a style of Nubian clothing that residents wear in Hoshmar, his father’s hometown. Khartoum, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum
The photographer’s uncle’s wife preparing a traditional Nubian dish mixed with milk. Hoshmar, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum
Spectators at a Nubian wrestling match. Khartoum, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum

Nubia is a region along the Nile, stretching from Aswan a thousand miles south to Khartoum, and its rich culture dates back to at least 2500 B.C. It was home to several powerful empires. By the sixth century A.D. most Nubians had converted to Christianity. After almost a millennium of rule, the last of three Christian kingdoms fell around 1500, and most Nubians converted to Islam.

Mohamed participated in the Arab Documentary Photography Program started by the Magnum Foundation, the Prince Claus Fund and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, and he continued his project under the mentorship of the photojournalist Randa Shaath.

He photographed weddings and festivals as well as everyday life on the street and inside houses. In Khartoum, he photographed Nuba wrestling matches, a sport he recognized from the games his father taught him and his younger brother Maaz as children. In the countryside he learned about the importance of nature in the Nubian culture.

Fatima, a Nubian woman who has never visited Sudan despite its connection to the Nubian community. Kibera, Kenya.CreditMohamed Altoum
Children taking a funeral bed back to the house after a burial. Kibera, Kenya.CreditMohamed Altoum
Nubian women gathered outside their houses midday. Kibera, Kenya.CreditMohamed Altoum
A Nubian businessman celebrating a mall’s opening day with friends and family. Khartoum, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum

His journey made him more “relaxed and peaceful” and also affected his photography, emphasizing the importance of storytelling, which, he said, is central to Nubian culture.

“I have a responsibility as a Nubian person to tell our story in the right way and counter the stereotypes from colonial days,” he said. “I tried to reflect the identity, and the humanity of Nubians. It is a very strong culture, and the people are really helpful to each other and respectful of every living thing.”

A motel room on the mountain. Aswan, Egypt.CreditMohamed Altoum
Two children celebrating Nubian Culture Day by participating in a show at a Nubian club. Khartoum, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum
Nubian architecture. Aswan, Egypt.CreditMohamed Altoum
A farmer on his land. North Sudan, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum
A radio from a collection belonging to the photographer’s father. Khartoum, Sudan.CreditMohamed Altoum

James Estrin, the co-editor of Lens, joined The Times as a photographer in 1992 after years of freelancing for the newspaper and hundreds of other publications. @JamesEstrin