Christmas Misfits: Ethnographic Notes on the Coptic ‘Waguihs’

An Apparition

Saint Mary appeared on April 2nd, 1968 in the Neighborhood of Zeitoun, Cairo. Her apparition allowed Copts to see Jesus’ mother with their naked eye, and to challenge their marginalization as a minority. The ‘visibility’ of Mary’s light overcame doubts surrounding the ‘truthfulness’ of Coptic Christians’ faith. It was a chance for Christian prayer and devotion to be present and ‘visible’ in the streets and among the Muslim majority. [1] Elsewhere, Coptic novelist Waguih Ghali remained ‘invisible’. Ghali did not have the chance to form a relationship with Mary. He was an exile, both in faith and as an émigré in London.

It is May 1968. A month after Mary’s apparitions first started. An Egyptian statesman openly accused Waguih Ghali of being a spy at the London School of Economics (LSE). Ghali was seated on a panel with an Israeli anti-Zionist radical leftist and a British scholar. Ghali wrote in his diaries that during the event: “a chap from the back rose and said, ‘Excuse me please. Before you start I would like to mention one important thing: on your posters you advertise Waguih Ghali as an Egyptian. I am a representative of the Egyptian government. Mr. Ghali is not an Egyptian. He has defected to Israel’.” [2]

There was a reason behind this accusation. In July 1967, Ghali had visited Israel merely a few months after the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War. Moreover, in the 1950s Ghali escaped Egypt to be with his Jewish lover. Like the communist character Ram in Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club, they were harassed by President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s authoritarian regime because of their political activism and allegiance to communist revolutionary ideas. [3]

In Egypt, Ghali lived under the threat of arrest. This insecurity led him to move to Germany and then Great Britain. Prevented from renewing his Egyptian passport, Ghali was always searching for an alternative ‘home.’ Ghali reflects in his diaries on this as a punishment. He wrote his response to “the chap” from the LSE panel: “My passport…should [I think of] another national[ity] in consequence [?]” Although Ghali recalls that he received support from the audience, this incident, as he wrote, “struck me- and…affect[ed] me so much.” [4]

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The Apparition of Mary in Zeitoun (wikimedia commons)

A Suicide on Christmas

A few months after the LSE incident, Nasser visited the parish of Zeitoun to witness Mary’s apparition. His visit was celebrated as a symbol of national unity. Mary’s continued sightings were signs of divine support for the entire Egyptian population following the 1967 defeat. Meanwhile, Ghali attempted suicide on Boxing Day in December 1968. In the last entry of his diaries, he wrote:

“I am going to kill myself tonight … It had to happen… My life was simply a matter of postponing- putting it off-off-off.…There are actual real tragedies in life- and the obvious tragedy is that of despair…I have already swallowed my death. I could vomit it out if I wanted to…I really don’t want to. It is a pleasure. I am doing this not in a sad, unhappy way; but on the contrary, happily and even (a state of being and a word I have always loved, SERENELY)… serenely.” [5]

Ghali died a few days after on January 5th, 1969. Commenting on the life of Waguih Ghali, Dioscorus Boules wrote of this “extraordinary Copt” on Coptic Nationalism:

“I am afraid I don’t identify with Ghali even though I feel very sorry for him and for his early death – a talented life that was prematurely cut and could have been used better. I sympathize with him enormously in his mental illness and his sad life, and find in his early childhood the key to his later struggles and complex personality. Children who are neglected and abused, physically, emotionally or sexually, mostly turn out to be ‘Waguihs.’ It is now established science that children who have experienced adverse childhood events have higher incidence of mental illness, ranging from anxiety, severe depression and schizophrenia, trouble with police, gambling, drinking, suicide and early death.” [6]

Dioscorus Boules’ ‘non-identification’ with Ghali deserves some attention.  Born in 1929 or 1930, Ghali was the son of a Coptic Catholic Christian family. [7] Ghali’s story as recorded in his memoirs and through his novel reveals that he did not care about any religious beliefs or rituals. During his visit to Israel in July 1967, Ghali stumbled upon the Coptic Orthodox Church in Jerusalem. He heard a sound asking him to come “[u]p the stairs.” Afterwards, Ghali writes: “and so I, suddenly remembering I was a Coptic Orthodox, went up the stairs; and there sat the typical Copt- with a cross tattooed on his arm. He would not believe I was Coptic. I had to show him my passport and repeat my very well-known Coptic name.” [8]

It seems that Ghali did not know the difference between the Coptic Catholicism of his family and Coptic Orthodoxy. This is because, I believe, he did not care. Ghali most likely neither cared to know nor follow the miracle of Mary’s apparitions. Even if he was living in Egypt at that time, I think he would not have concerned himself with witnessing this significant religious moment.

The apparition indeed challenged the minority position of Copts in Egypt. Moreover, it necessitated a responsibility to proudly talk about what Copts witnessed. According to scripture, Copts are required to openly share the ‘visibility’ of Mary. We read in the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Mathew: “let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” [9]

However, what happens if one fails to meet such expectations? Dioscorus Boules not only does not identify with Ghali, he sees him as a model of the Coptic ‘misfit.’ The absence of Ghali’s faith in Mary and his disregard for his upbringing precluded him from being saved. His ‘sins’- his alcoholism and unstable messy romantic/sexual life- brought Ghali to depression. He committed suicide around the time of Christmas, when Mary gave birth to her child. He left us to think about the anxieties and pressures, which do not always heal with the Word of God, the Logos.

In this regard, I wonder what remained of Waguih Ghali that he may still be identified as a Coptic Christian? His name was written on a passport withdrawn by the government. He both rejected and was rejected by a ‘visibility’ that was expected of him as a Coptic Christian during the 1960s, amid Mary’s apparitions and the Six-Day War.

Absent (from) Khidma

My insistence on mentioning Ghali’s Coptic identity is an attempt to broaden the scholarly scope through which the challenges facing the largest Christian minority in the Middle East are treated. The drama of Waguih Ghali took shape in the context of the ‘Revival Movement’ of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt. The term khidma became popular as a part of this movement, led by members of the Sunday School Association.

In the Coptic tradition, khidma refers to services conducted in the name of Jesus. Khidma encompasses a wide range of activities: from being a student or a teacher in Sunday school class to singing hymns, organizing trips to holy sites, leading spiritual gatherings, helping the poor or disabled, and paying visits to the sick, imprisoned, or widowed. [10] The all-inclusive practices and experiences of khidma reflect and define relationships between Copts, despite their heterogeneity in class, age, and gender.  In other words, khidma has become a significant ‘visible’ signifier of who Copts are and how they should act toward one another and among Muslims.

The opening of this essay introduced a fictive connection between the miraculous apparitions of Mary in the Zeitoun neighborhood and someone who failed to build a relationship with such an event. By bringing the ‘extreme’ case of Waguih Ghali to the forefront, I would like to think out loud about the other ‘Waguihs’ who are not able to define some of their relationships and interactions with the Coptic tradition of khidma. I wish to point to the stories of Coptic Christians who accept the fact that their lives- or at least some aspects of their everyday relationships- do not reflect how they are identified. Yet their stories wrongly contribute to the insistence on a hegemonic identification process.

Building on Candace Lukasik’s response to my earlier essay on CCHP, I add that sometimes we might also need to look at contexts when people declare their inability and undesirability to join debates about religious traditions. I argue that sometimes Coptic Christians prefer to hide and escape from the power relations that configure their religiosity. To rephrase Talal Asad, Coptic Christians are sometimes unwilling, or do not have the chance, to get involved in the politics of ‘visibility’ and ‘presence’ that discursively cultivate their subjectivity. [11]

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Tahrir Square upside down (Mina Ibrahim)

During my fieldwork, I met Coptic Christians who decided to be ‘invisible’ from khidma and from its attendant social relationships. They do not think that khidma can deal with their political ideologies or activism, homosexuality, poverty, childhood traumas, physical/mental breakdowns, prison experiences, drinking/smoking habits, and ‘illegal/immoral’ labor. I have since become interested in the ‘misfits’ who exist in the “shadow or halo of discursive traditions and discursive formations.” [12] I aim to learn about the meanings of absence from khidma in Coptic Christians’ lives. By paying attention to those who do not seek to negotiate or articulate the perfect ‘visible’ image of Coptic Christians, I will develop a wider understanding of the discursiveness of Copts’ everyday lives.


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Mina Ibrahim is a third year Doctoral Student at Justus-Liebig University, Giessen-Germany & The international Graduate Center for the Study of Culture (GCSC). His work ethnographically searches for ‘negated’ and ‘rejected’ spaces in academic and non-academic writings about the lives of the Copts.


An Acknowledgment: Some of the ideas of this essay were inspired by a discussion I had with friends and colleagues at the internal colloquium at the Orient Institute Beirut (OIB). I would like to thank them so much for that, and for hosting me as doctoral fellow in 2018.

[1] See, for example, Anthony Shenoda. 2010. Cultivating Mystery: Miracles and a Coptic Moral Imaginary. Ph.D. dissertation, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University, Chapter three.

[2] May Hawas, ed. The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties. Vol. 2. Cairo: The American University Press. 2017. p.191, (emphasis in original).

[3] Waguih Ghali. 1968 [1964]. Beer in the Snooker Club. London: Penguin Books.

[4] May Hawas, ed. 2017, p.191.

[5] May Hawas, ed. 2017, p. 211-212, (emphasis & capitalized words in original).

[6] Dioscorus Boles. 2017. “Waguih Ghali: An Extraordinary Copt”. On Coptic Nationalism. November 2. https://copticliterature.wordpress.com/2017/11/02/waguih-ghali-an-extraordinary-copt/

[7] May Hawas, ed. The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties. Vol. 1. Cairo: The American University Press. 2016. p.2

[8] May Hawas, ed. The Diaries of Waguih Ghali: An Egyptian Writer in the Swinging Sixties. Vol. 2. Cairo: The American University Press. 2017, p. 124.

[9] (Mathew 5: 16).

[10] Many researchers have worked on the tradition of Khidma while studying the Coptic Christian Revival Movement of the Coptic Orthodox Church. See, for example, the second part of S. S. Hasan. 2003. Christians Versus Muslims in Modern Egypt. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[11] See for example Talal Asad’s latest piece about Tradition. Talal Asad. 2015. “Thinking about Tradition, Religion, and Politics in Egypt Today. Critical Inquiry. Available at: https://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/thinking_about_tradition_religion_and_politics_in_egypt_today/

[12] Samuli Schielke. 2018. Secular Powers and Heretic Undercurrents in a God-Fearing Part of the World, lecture transcript, Secularity and Religion Research Network Conference, King’s College, 5 July, p.13. Available at: http://allegralaboratory.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/KEYNOTE_Schielke-2018.pdf

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