For its latest U.S. tour, which includes Raleigh on the schedule, The Nile Project arrived in America on Jan. 18. That seemingly inconsequential detail turned out to be fortuitous.
Just over a week later, newly inaugurated President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would have prevented at least one Nile Project member from entering the country. Titled “Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” the order implemented a 90-day ban on anyone from seven countries entering the U.S.
One of the countries on the list was Sudan, which has been classified as a state sponsor of terrorism since the 1990s. And Sudan is the home country of Nile Project singer/percussionist Asia Madani.
After the January travel ban was suspended due to court challenges, Trump signed a newly revised executive order on Monday. The new order drops Iraq from the list of banned countries – but Sudan is still on it along with Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen.
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The new regulations are scheduled to take effect on Thursday, March 16, while The Nile Project is in Raleigh. And while Madani already has a visa and is probably fine, no one is sure what all this will mean for their future travels.
“The travel ban is mostly about people coming into America,” said Nile Project founder/director Mina Girgis. “Since Asia is already in, I don’t know if she would be deported. At least we won’t be flying until the end of the tour, which minimizes interactions with the TSA. But there is uncertainty and anxiety, a feeling of hostility in the air. And we’re trying to build bridges.”
Watching and waiting
This is a difficult season for arts presenters who specialize in talent imported from other countries, especially local university series. Duke Performances in Durham and Carolina Performing Arts in Chapel Hill report that the travel ban has yet to affect any of their bookings. At this point, all they can do is wait and see.
But N.C. State Live, which spearheaded the effort to bring The Nile Project to North Carolina, has been sweating the new rules. The Nile Project is scheduled to appear at six university campuses across the state this month, from Western Carolina University in the mountains to UNC-Wilmington at the shore. The 12-member ensemble’s N.C. State residency includes a week’s worth of performances and appearances in Raleigh starting Wednesday (the day before the new travel ban takes effect).
N.C. State LIVE director Sharon Moore put nearly two years of work into bringing The Nile Project to North Carolina. She’s keeping her fingers crossed that the group encounters no difficulties in its travels across America.
“So far, they’ve not had any issues,” Moore said. “But the whole thing with the travel ban is a question mark for all of us. It’s a little chilling to think what long-term effect it could have on our ability to do what we do. Our mission is to connect artists and audiences to explore global issues, and you can’t do that in isolation.”
Music, politics and water
What’s ironic about this is that The Nile Project is a performing unit intended to break down walls and foster communication. The group’s appearance in Raleigh will coincide with the annual conference of the Water Resources Research Institute (WRRI), which is fitting because The Nile Project very much represents the river for which it’s named.
At more than 4,200 miles, The Nile is the world’s longest river (although some accounts claim the Amazon is longer), flowing North to South through 11 African countries with a total population of nearly half-a-billion people. Despite its length, The Nile is narrow and carries a fraction of the water the Amazon does. And the countries it runs through have a wide range of priorities.
“Some have food-security issues,” Girgis said. “Others like Sudan are going through civil war, others like Ethiopia have gone through floods and droughts. I felt music could help change the way people think about these issues.”
The Nile Project draws musicians from different countries in the Nile basin, using music to foster communication across borders, cultures and differences. The Egyptian-born Girgis, who has a background in ethnomusicology and lives in San Francisco now, put the group together in the wake of the 2011 “Arab Spring” democratic uprisings.
“I was inspired, and hoped to do something with impact,” Girgis said. “Since then, it’s been a political rollercoaster for Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Ethiopia – and it’s getting that way everywhere else, too. We were in London last year the week of the Brexit vote. And at the show in L.A. recently, I told the audience, ‘You guys are freaking out about water scarcity, and a crazy President. Welcome to the Nile! That’s our world every day and we have a few things to help you.’ ”
The Nile Project performs at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at N.C. State’s Stewart Theatre. Tickets are $30 ($7.50 for N.C. State students).
The group also plays a free show at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 21, on N.C. State’s Stafford Commons.
Group members will also be involved with events connected to the Water Resources Research Institute’s annual conference. For details, see live.arts.ncsu.edu.