“So, why don’t you write about the Copts?”
This was my advisor’s cavalier suggestion in a first-year graduate course on collective memory. I froze upon hearing those words. I was raised Coptic and I felt intimately familiar with all that entailed. The very idea that I would spend the next several years studying Copts seemed rather terrifying to contemplate.
I was born in Cairo, Egypt and moved to Kuwait with my family when I was just two-months-old. I grew up in a thriving cosmopolitan Kuwait with friends from around the world who taught me the lyrics to the Serbia and Montenegro entry to Eurovision 2005 and the intricate details of day’et Ma’loula’s landscape (before the war in Syria). Kuwait also boasts a sizable Egyptian population and by the time I left in 2011, the Coptic church was massive, intricately adorned, and its congregants were increasing in number. Through all my travels, Middle Eastern friends remain central to my life.
I moved to the United States at 18 to pursue my undergraduate education at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Young and in a new country, I had much to learn, unlearn, and question. I double-majored in Psychology and Sociology and volunteered for a variety of causes, such as campaigns to raise the minimum-wage, to secure the rights of refugees and asylum seekers, to fight against Islamophobia, and for LGBTQ rights. When I moved to Minnesota to join the graduate program in Sociology, I was eager and excited to let my research take me to spaces that were different than my own.
Then, rather unexpectedly, my advisor suggested I commit the next few years of my life thinking, engaging with, and writing about the Copts. He was asking me to return home: to theorize and assemble data out of my community, family, and friends. I stared at him wide-eyed.
“Okay,” I said hesitantly. I sought to make peace with such a research proposal and thought: maybe, for just one year.
In time, I grew interested in how people’s memories and identities are constructed in response to conflict. In particular, I was struck by the centrality of symbols in the Coptic tradition and how they shape and configure memory and identity. Symbols are embedded in history and tell complex stories, such as the combination of the Hilal and Saleeb (Cross and Crescent) that represents national unity and draws connections with the 1919 revolution against British occupation. Symbols are also contested and controversial, such as the use of Ancient Egyptian imagery to emphasize Copts’ supposedly Pharaonic descent, which raises questions as to whether they are a national minority or a religious community. Finally, symbols are able to articulate deep-seated beliefs and signify difference, such as the tradition of tattooing the Coptic cross.
In fact, the Coptic cross tattoo is one of the easiest ways to identify a Copt in Egypt. The practice of marking Copts dates back to the Fatimid Era when believers were forced to wear heavy wooden crosses around their necks, bruising their collarbones. Out of this came the colloquial phrase ‘Adma Zarqa (Blue Bone) to refer to modern Copts. Over time, the tattoo became intertwined with a narrative of martyrdom that articulates a history of persecution for Coptic Christians; first under the Roman and Byzantine empires, then the Arab Conquest, and until today. Coptic collective identity is thus entangled in beliefs and symbols that signify Copts as descendants of martyrs and adherents of the Church of the Martyrs. This persistent narrative of resistance and sacrifice in the face of persecution is meant to symbolize uncompromising faith. While not all Copts get tattooed, and all do it for a variety of reasons, it remains a marker of Coptic identity that evokes a unique historical understanding of what it means to be Coptic.
Early in my life, I too found strength in this narrative of martyrdom. I remember that after the 2011 bombing of Al-Qidiseen Church in Alexandria, Coptic Churches globally received threats of similar violence. Nonetheless, my family and I joined many others for mass the next day and the church reverberated with our prayers. A cloak of deep sorrow enveloped the parishioners and I felt both anger at the violence and courage to face it. Yet, on our way out of the church someone forcefully slammed a car door shut and I leaped into the air. I realized then, that I was also terrified. My heart raced the entire ride home. In truth, my courage was painfully fragile.
Despite intimations otherwise, there was little in the way of positive change after the 2011 Egyptian revolution. In Egypt, incidents of violence have only escalated in recent years and Copts continue to die needlessly due to a combination of state repression, institutional incompetence, discriminatory laws, out-right bigotry, and terrorism. I grew skeptical and tired of resorting to the rhetoric of martyrdom and, like many other scholars, found this narrative to be passive, apolitical, and simply perpetuating victimhood.[i]
As I conducted interviews for my research, iterations of the martyrdom narrative figured heavily in people’s stories. I became compelled to understand what solace it brought to some Copts and the relationship between such collective narratives and resistance. I then stumbled across scholarship that eloquently located Coptic agency within the narrative of martyrdom. Copts may deploy this narrative to strategically talk about their precarity within Egypt, despite being excluded from politics and feeling as though they do not belong.[ii] Additionally, this may allow some to focus their attention on a heavenly citizenship – an eternal life after death.[iii] In the face of increasing horrific tragedies, many Copts draw strength from locating current tribulations in a broader historical narrative.
Today, even within the Church, this narrative is slowly shifting away from the language of passive surrender and total acceptance of death. Copts are increasingly calling for their equal rights and personal security. In a sermon after the 2017 Palm Sunday twin bombings, Anba (Bishop) Rafael expressed:
It is true, we love martyrdom. But, we also love life. We do not hate life on earth. Rather, God gave us life on earth so that we could live it, not die. Even though we accept death spiritually, that does not mean that our blood is cheap, nor does it mean that we do not care. We are not fatalistic.
Copts, in both Egypt and its diaspora, engage with various forms of resistance in the legal and political arenas, in the church, and through community organizations. The biggest challenge of researching something so intimate is that I constantly have to question my own beliefs in order to understand the broader context in which identities and memories shape forms of resistance. Regardless of my own outlook, research allows me to empathize with people and the ways in which they make sense of their reality. As an academic in a secular institution, I would be remiss to dismiss this group’s deeply religious interpretation of their persecution.
Reluctant at first, now I cannot imagine a different focus for my research. I find immense joy in calling my parents and listening to them recount stories about growing up in Egypt. Meetings with like-minded scholars, filled with laughter and familiarity, sustain me and allow for a serious engagement with the inherent difficulties of conducting such research. Most of all, I think it is imperative that I listen to and understand how lay Copts, of all backgrounds, make sense of and respond to their painful experiences. Although I have yet to determine which question my dissertation will grapple with, I am eager to let my research take me to places I once thought were familiar.
[i] Paul Sedra, “Writing the History of the Modern Copts: From Victims and Symbols to Actors,” History Compass, 7(3), 2009: 1049-1063; Paul Sedra, “Time to Reject the Language of Coptic Victimhood,” Jadaliyya, 2012, http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/6814/time-to-reject-the-language-of-coptic-victimhood.
[ii] Joseph Youssef, “From the Blood of St. Mina to the Martyrs of Maspero: Commemoration, Identity, and Social Memory in the Coptic Orthodox Church,” Journal of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies, 5, 2013: 61-73.
[iii] Carolyn Ramzy, “To Die is Gain: Singing a Heavenly Citizenship among Egypt’s Coptic Christians,” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, 80(5), 2015: 649-670.
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Miray Philips is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities. Her research is on collective memory and identity in response to conflict, with a specific focus on Coptic Christians.