The Complexity of Belonging: Reflections of a Female Copt

15 September, 2021
“A City With a Riv­er,” artist Ficre Ghe­breye­sus (2010).


Nevine Abraham

Grow­ing up in Shoubra, one of the most pop­u­lat­ed Chris­t­ian sub­urbs of Cairo, I met all my Mus­lim friends at a French Catholic school, which they and I attend­ed for twelve years. We spent recess togeth­er, exchanged vis­its and play dates, and shared teenage secrets. Our friend­ship nev­er con­jured up our reli­gious iden­ti­ties. My par­ents reject­ed the nar­ra­tive of the “vic­tim­ized” Copts. Nev­er have I heard them label my friends by their reli­gion nor sug­gest that I befriend only Chris­tians, unlike many oth­er Cop­tic fam­i­lies I knew. Dur­ing Ramadan, I abstained from eat­ing or drink­ing in pub­lic out of con­sid­er­a­tion for my fast­ing friends. As oth­er Chris­tians shared Ramadan iftar meals, I did the same; this increased my sense of nation­al belonging.

Fri­day, our days of wor­ship in church­es and mosques, unit­ed us (church­es also held ser­vices on Sun­day). Our paths usu­al­ly crossed short­ly after Fri­day wor­ship, as we lined up togeth­er in front of the street ven­dors’ carts that sell fresh­ly made foul medammes in Qidrah to take home and indulge. The mosque micro­phones res­onat­ed with the calls to prayers while the church bells rang. Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty echoed in the streets and at homes. On Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim hol­i­days, we exchanged home­made ka’ak, gho­ray­ib­ba, and petits-fours: if my moth­er sent our Mus­lim neigh­bors a plat­ter of home baked sweets, they were sure to return it filled with their own del­i­ca­cies. Reli­gions, whether Islam or Chris­tian­i­ty, func­tioned as a basis of our shared cul­tur­al prac­tices and traditions.

Foul medammas.

Ranked 8th out of about 250,000 in Egypt’s Gen­er­al Sec­ondary stan­dard­ized test of high school known as thanaweya ‘amma and pas­sion­ate about my spe­cial­ty in lit­er­a­ture and lan­guages, I pur­sued my dream to be among the one or two who would be select­ed per aca­d­e­m­ic year to join the grad­u­ate stud­ies pro­gram, which guar­an­tees a path to a fac­ul­ty posi­tion at my col­lege. See­ing that my two main aca­d­e­m­ic com­peti­tors became muha­ja­bat in junior year at Ain Shams Uni­ver­si­ty in Cairo, I real­ized that my chances had dimin­ished. My aca­d­e­m­ic accom­plish­ments and high GPA sud­den­ly became insuf­fi­cient: I real­ized I didn’t fit into the per­ceived soci­etal norms of attend­ing grad­u­ate school. For the first time at the age of twen­ty, I was hit with the truth: I had been naive­ly delud­ed into believ­ing in a fic­ti­tious form of nation­al uni­ty and equality.

Inter­est­ing­ly, my child­hood iden­ti­ty chal­lenges stemmed pri­mar­i­ly from with­in the Cop­tic prac­tices. Specif­i­cal­ly, faith, piety, and ortho­dox rit­u­als have defined the Cop­tic her­itage, which prides itself on its unique eth­nic­i­ty and puri­ty as natives of pre-Islam­ic Egypt. The word “Copt” from the Greek “Aigyp­tos” for Egypt, lat­er adopt­ed by the Arabs as “Qibti,” affirms the Copts’ con­nec­tion to the land. Despite this seem­ing homo­gene­ity, atti­tudes among Copts towards reli­gious prac­tices still vary accord­ing to their fam­i­ly cul­ture. The extent to which semi- and strict- fol­low­ers embraced piety cre­at­ed a sub­tle hier­ar­chy among Copts and often raised an inter­nal strug­gle in ques­tion­ing one’s reli­gious belonging.

In fast­ing rit­u­als for instance, where­as the major­i­ty strict­ly observes the 200+ days a year of the numer­ous fasts, includ­ing the added Wednes­days and Fri­days every week, some —my fam­i­ly includ­ed at times, though incon­sis­tent­ly —com­mit­ted to only part of the long ones: Nativ­i­ty (45 days) and Lent (55 days). Many, myself exclud­ed, were often eager to show their knowl­edge of the less-pop­u­lar saints’ auto­bi­ogra­phies, engrave the tat­too of a cross on their wrists, and par­tic­i­pate in rigid rit­u­als such as stay­ing up overnight singing prais­es on the Night of the Apocalypse.

The Cop­tic cross is the most com­mon tat­too among Copts.

As a child, Sun­day school, which my par­ents encour­aged me to attend fol­low­ing Fri­day church ser­vices, accen­tu­at­ed those dif­fer­ences and cre­at­ed inter­nal strug­gles. There, mem­o­riz­ing the Cop­tic hymns and Psalms came easy to the major­i­ty; for me, it did not. Oth­ers enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly recit­ed the tunes and read the Cop­tic words, while I mum­bled and lost inter­est in that unfa­mil­iar lan­guage. I nev­er fath­omed its impor­tance as a required sta­ple of my her­itage. I did not pur­sue it per­haps because no one in my fam­i­ly knew it. Sun­day school time was too short to allow for teach­ing the lan­guage itself, and I did not find the need to mem­o­rize hymns in a lan­guage that was no longer spo­ken except dur­ing church services.

Cop­tic alpha­bet (pho­to: Wikipedia).

“Spe­cial” church days were oth­er venues of uneasi­ness. On Good Fri­day, I joined those who mut­tered the few lines I knew, but, out of embar­rass­ment, kept qui­et while lis­ten­ing to the singing of those well-versed in the long-sequenced Cop­tic hymns.

To sum­mon it, I felt a strug­gle to meet the Cop­tic Ortho­dox community’s expec­ta­tions of its mem­bers to pre­serve its unique her­itage, and thus fell short when it came to belong­ing among the “Cop­tic Hier­ar­chy” elites.

Faith, piety, and rit­u­als are not the only mark­ers of Cop­tic iden­ti­ty. The foun­da­tion of the Cop­tic Cal­en­dar on the “Era of the Mar­tyrs” or mass exe­cu­tion of thou­sands of Chris­tians under the rule of the Roman Emper­or Dio­clet­ian in 284 AD has set the tone for oth­er aspects of the Cop­tic per­sona. It fos­ters the abil­i­ty to with­stand chal­lenges by pro­mot­ing the rewards of being per­se­cut­ed, tor­tured, or even killed through the reliance on God. It embraces an atti­tude of humil­i­ty, accept­ing less than one’s fair share (more on that lat­er), and allows for pub­lic invis­i­bil­i­ty. The Pact or Covenant of Umar (sev­enth cen­tu­ry?), writ­ten by the Chris­tians of the new­ly con­quered Mus­lim ter­ri­to­ries in Syr­ia, lib­er­at­ed from the Roman Empire and addressed to Muhammad’s sec­ond suc­ces­sor or Caliph ͨUmar Ibn Al-Khat­tab (634–644), func­tioned as an act of sur­ren­der and defined the Chris­tians’ sta­tus as Dhim­mi peo­ple or “peo­ple of the book” who ought to be pro­tect­ed. It lat­er includ­ed the Chris­tians of Mesopotamia, Jerusalem, and North Africa, along with the Jews.

Through Mus­lims’ eyes, Chris­tians were viewed as poly­the­ists or wor­ship­pers of mul­ti­ple deities: God, Jesus, and the Holy Spir­it. The self-imposed “oblig­a­tions” tak­en upon the Chris­tians, as stat­ed in the Pact, restrict­ed the con­struc­tion of church­es (“We shall not erect in our cities or in their vicin­i­ty any new monas­ter­ies, church­es, her­mitages, or monks’ cells”) and homes (“We shall not build our homes high­er than theirs”), defined the Dhimmi’s dress code (“We shall not attempt to resem­ble the Mus­lims in any way with regard to their dress” “We shall always adorn our­selves in our tra­di­tion­al fash­ion. We shall bind the zun­nār [a type of belt] around our waists”), and assert­ed their sec­ond-class cit­i­zen­ship (“We shall show respect to the Mus­lims and shall rise from our seats when they wish to sit down”). This was in addi­tion to choos­ing between the imposed jizya, or tax, or con­ver­sion to Islam. The Pact remained in effect under the sub­se­quent caliphates: the Abbasid (747‑1252), Mam­luk (1252–1517), and Ottoman (1517–1798) periods.

In mod­ern times, Copts, who con­sti­tute 10–15% of the Egypt­ian pop­u­la­tion, had to abide by the Mus­lim majority’s soci­etal expec­ta­tions found­ed on cer­tain “moral codes.” Though both groups share the same con­ser­v­a­tive val­ues since reli­gion per­me­ates their dai­ly lives and lan­guage, putting the bur­den of social moral­i­ty on the shoul­ders of women, Mus­lim and Chris­t­ian alike, has some­times com­pli­cat­ed Mus­lim-Chris­t­ian rela­tions in work­places, for instance. Embrac­ing the hijab has set a hege­mon­ic expec­ta­tion of the female Copts’ pub­lic appear­ance. My mother’s muha­ja­bat co-work­ers often reproached her for her uncov­ered, blond-col­ored hair and short-sleeved tops, deemed haram by society’s stan­dards, and advised her to cov­er them. Though chang­ing the length of clothes proved fea­si­ble for her, cov­er­ing her hair, tra­di­tion­al­ly restrict­ed to church ser­vices as instruct­ed in the Bible, meant pos­ing as a Mus­lim; she could not, prompt­ing a com­pro­mise of her accep­tance at work.

Cop­tic women cov­er­ing their hair dur­ing a Cop­tic Ortho­dox Church ser­vice (pho­to Nevine Abraham).

In the streets, I recall an inci­dent of a beard­ed man who firm­ly grabbed my friend’s arm, warn­ing her of God’s pun­ish­ment if she did not cov­er her naked flesh, and anoth­er who screamed “’a’uthu bil­lah min ghadab illah” (“I seek refuge with God from the wrath of God”) in my ear in dis­ap­proval of my wear­ing a tee-shirt. Despite the real­iza­tion that such behav­iors dero­gat­ed our reli­gion and denied us the right to be respect­ed in pub­lic space while giv­ing the majority’s reli­gion moral impuni­ty, many Copts still some­how believed in their equal cit­i­zen­ship and the “eter­nal” rewards of these chal­lenges. These inci­dents, which my fam­i­ly viewed as iso­lat­ed, grad­u­al­ly fur­thered my belief that gen­der and reli­gion con­signed me to a mar­gin­al place in my homeland.

Sure­ly, cloth­ing and appear­ance do not con­sti­tute an obsta­cle to the male Copts’ social accep­tance. How­ev­er, their reli­gious iden­ti­ty can be stig­ma­tized dif­fer­ent­ly. Only in the U.S. did I hear their sto­ries, main­ly because Copts nev­er dared com­plain due to the sys­tem­at­ic mar­gin­al­iza­tion of their voic­es in Egypt. Their child­hood mem­o­ries com­prised being chased on a week­ly basis by Mus­lim chil­dren throw­ing stones at them, labeled ‘Issa (Mus­lim for “Jesus”) by their pub­lic-school teach­ers, and denied inclu­sion in the top aca­d­e­m­ic class­es restrict­ed only to the high­est achiev­ing Mus­lim major­i­ty. They nev­er processed the impact of such stigma­ti­za­tion, which reduced them to a mere innom­i­nate minor­i­ty and exclud­ed them until they left Egypt. Those who enjoyed rel­a­tive “equal­i­ty” in the more-priv­i­leged pri­vate schools lat­er faced the real­i­ty of the pub­lic uni­ver­si­ties’ unfor­tu­nate favoritism toward Mus­lim grad­u­ate stu­dents and fac­ul­ty, and dis­crim­i­na­tion against their Chris­t­ian coun­ter­parts, shat­ter­ing dreams like mine to pur­sue grad­u­ate stud­ies. It became clear that our coun­try under­mined our hopes and aca­d­e­m­ic achieve­ments and exiled us: emi­grat­ing to a West­ern coun­try became almost every Copt’s dream.

As a US immi­grant who enjoyed the equal oppor­tu­ni­ty of earn­ing a grad­u­ate degree, teach­ing in Amer­i­can insti­tu­tions, and par­tic­i­pat­ing as a nat­u­ral­ized cit­i­zen in elect­ing my lead­ers — all priv­i­leges that were strange to me in Egypt — I call the US home, a term I nev­er savored until I dis­tanced myself from my coun­try of birth that oth­ered me in many ways.

Black Lives Mat­ter res­onat­ed around the world, ignit­ing dis­cus­sions of social jus­tice, equi­ty, and inclu­sion. In reflect­ing back on the rea­sons why minor­i­ty Copts have not voiced their oppo­si­tion to inequal­i­ty and exclu­sion, one must allude to what has become a nor­mal­iza­tion of their under­mined sta­tus since the Ottoman mil­let sys­tem and under British colo­nial rule. Colo­nial­ism deep­ened divi­sive­ness among cit­i­zens of the col­o­nized Arab states “based on a dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of cit­i­zen rights in var­i­ous cat­e­gories, depend­ing on people’s cul­tur­al assim­i­la­tion, reli­gion, eth­nic­i­ty, and espe­cial­ly loy­al­ty,” cre­at­ing a sort of “for­eign patron­age” of Chris­tians.  Nonethe­less, in their rise against British colo­nial­ism, Copts unit­ed with Mus­lims dur­ing the 1919 rev­o­lu­tion under the slo­gan “Reli­gion is for God and the nation for all” and were care­ful to express their loy­al­ty and nation­al­ism. Saba Mah­moud right­ly observes in her essay, “Reli­gious Free­dom, the Minor­i­ty Ques­tion, and Geopol­i­tics in the Mid­dle East,” that Copts refused for a long time to be called aqal­liya or minor­i­ty in favor of being con­sid­ered equal cit­i­zens. One impor­tant short­com­ing of this resolve to not chal­lenge nation­al uni­ty and to con­vey the illu­sion­ary image of their equal­i­ty to the major­i­ty was their social exclu­sion, con­se­quent­ly over­look­ing their con­cerns. As Vivian Ibrahim argues in “Beyond the Cross and the Cres­cent: Plur­al Iden­ti­ties, and the Copts in Con­tem­po­rary Egypt,” “the rhetoric of Mus­lim-Cop­tic union has played an impor­tant and reoc­cur­ring role in the mem­o­ry and imag­i­nary of who was an ‘authen­tic Egypt­ian,’ sub­sum­ing minor­i­ty rights to a ques­tion of ‘Egypt­ian rights.’”

Copts and Mus­lims march­ing in the 1919 Egypt­ian Rev­o­lu­tion show­ing nation­al unity

Egypt­ian nation­al media per­pe­trat­ed such exclu­sion. Pri­or to the rev­o­lu­tion of satel­lite dish­es, Egypt­ian soci­ety was seen through the lens of its only three nation­al tele­vi­sion chan­nels. Copts’ rep­re­sen­ta­tion was restrict­ed to minor, insignif­i­cant roles in tele­vi­sion or cin­e­mat­ic works. While Egypt­ian cin­e­ma embarked on tack­ling many crit­i­cal social prob­lems like drug addic­tion and ter­ror­ism that crip­pled soci­ety from the 1980s to the 2000s, it insist­ed on keep­ing its largest minor­i­ty invis­i­ble on the pre­text of a fear of sec­tar­i­an­ism and out of its desire to con­vey an image of co-exis­tence. Young film direc­tor Amr Salama’s Excuse My French (2014) made his­to­ry in Egypt­ian cin­e­ma, fol­low­ing a four-year bat­tle with cen­sor­ship and five rejec­tions of his script, for detail­ing a Chris­t­ian boy’s dai­ly strug­gle to fit into a Mus­lim-major­i­ty pub­lic school. Lit­er­ary works afford­ed more free­dom due to their lim­it­ed acces­si­bil­i­ty and read­er­ship and small­er impact on soci­etal changes. Laila Farid’s “Copts in Mod­ern Egypt­ian Lit­er­a­ture” sur­veys the many lit­er­ary pub­li­ca­tions on Copts.

Often char­ac­ter­ized by their sub­mis­sive meek­ness, Copts had to accept their exclu­sion and insti­tu­tion­al dis­crim­i­na­tion, find­ing com­fort in the belief in the reward of for­give­ness, of turn­ing the left check to those who slap them on the right one. Self-con­so­la­tion with such a reward that awaits was all that they had, since author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments coerced for so long the Cop­tic Ortho­dox Church into silence in return for pro­tec­tion and secu­ri­ty. The church-state entente began with Gamal Adbel Nass­er who ruled with an iron fist; his suc­ces­sors fol­lowed suit. Anwar Sadat set the tone of expec­ta­tions of the Cop­tic papa­cy by send­ing the patri­arch of the Cop­tic Ortho­dox Church Pope Shenou­da III into exile in a monastery in 1981 for accus­ing Sadat of fail­ing to con­trol Islamist groups (the Pope was not released until

Graf­fi­ti of the Jan­u­ary 25, 2011 Egypt­ian rev­o­lu­tion show­ing a cross inside a cres­cent as sym­bols of reli­gious uni­ty (pho­to Wikipedia).

Mubarak took office in 1983 fol­low­ing Sadat’s assas­si­na­tion, which many Copts still dub God’s pun­ish­ment for the Pope’s exile). Three decades lat­er, when pro­tes­tors took to the streets in the Jan­u­ary 25th rev­o­lu­tion of 2011, demand­ing an end to Mubarak’s author­i­tar­i­an rule, Pope Shenou­da III who died March 17, 2012, warned Copts not to par­tic­i­pate and pledged the church’s sup­port of Pres­i­dent Mubarak as its guardian, which many Copts viewed as a wise step in face of the unknown. Of course, Mubarak was oust­ed, and many sec­tar­i­an inci­dents erupt­ed even before the first Islamist pres­i­dent Mohamed Mor­si took office. Hop­ing for less blood­shed, they sup­port­ed the 2019 amend­ment to the con­sti­tu­tion that extend­ed Al Sisi’s pres­i­den­cy until 2034 as he vowed their pro­tec­tion “from the evil pow­ers of the Mus­lim Broth­ers and oth­er ter­ror­ist groups,” estab­lish­ing with them a rela­tion of loyalty.

Undoubt­ed­ly, grow­ing up in a col­lec­tive soci­ety of expec­ta­tions and out­comes has chal­lenged the upbring­ing of a Copt in Egypt. Adding to the inter­nal pres­sure by the community’s faith-relat­ed prac­tices and the rela­tion to the larg­er Mus­lim major­i­ty, rad­i­cals, and the state, recent glob­al debates about race have giv­en rise to the Copts’ con­scious­ness of their eth­no-racial iden­ti­ty and the need to fit into a racial clas­si­fi­ca­tion, tra­di­tion­al­ly an uncom­mon issue of dis­cus­sion in Egypt. This need has yield­ed an ambiva­lence of self-iden­ti­fi­ca­tion as white, brown, or black among Copts.

My imag­ined iden­ti­ty cel­e­brates its unique eth­nic­i­ty and rejects any soci­etal judg­ment found­ed on faith, so-called moral stan­dards, dress code, skin col­or, hair tex­ture or col­or, race, or any stereo­type or ele­ment that sub­ju­gates its freedom.



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