Dr. Gaétan Du Roy: “Everyday Interactions”

How did you get started in the field? What drew you to the subject matter?

When I came to Egypt to learn Arabic, some friends of mine introduced me to the garbage collectors’ neighborhood of Muqattam. I started giving French lessons there and also made several friends. When I got hired as a teaching assistant at Louvain University in Belgium in 2006, I had a vague project about the history of Orientalism. But soon I decided to do something about the zabbaleen (the Arabic name for garbage collectors). I had still to determine a well-defined research problem. Here chance played a great role. Johannes den Heijer was hired that same year as a professor in my university. As an historian of texts, he had written important articles about the story of the Muqattam miracle. The story goes that the Calif al-Mu‘izz (the founder of Cairo) challenged the Copts to prove the veracity of the verse of the Bible affirming that faith is able to move mountains. He then challenged the Patriarch to move the Muqattam mountain, otherwise all the Christians would be killed. The Mountain was finally moved and the Copts were saved. Later versions of this tale even add that al-Mu‘izz converted to Christianity after the miracle.[1] I realized that this story was very important for the Copts and particularly for the zabbaleen, because a priest called Samaan had built a huge place of worship in their neighborhood in the 1990s dedicated to that story. I then discovered that he had earned a reputation as an exorcist and that he was very famous among the Copts. This is how I got started in the field of “Coptic studies.”

I did not want to study the Copts or the zabbaleen as isolated peoples. So, I decided to study the Muqattam area by considering the different social scenes that intersect in this urban space: development projects, religious philanthropy, political patronage, the Coptic Church, global evangelical missions, among others. The aspects that I described about the Muqattam are common to a lot of different informal neighborhoods. I also wanted to deal with the peculiarities of the site, i.e. the fascination that many foreigners have with the zabbaleen. I then tried to turn that fascination into an object of research. For this reason, I nuance the idea that this neighborhood is totally marginalized. Instead, the area has attracted great attention: three or four PhD dissertations, at least twelve Masters theses, three documentaries, three novels, a huge amount of press articles, and many development projects. The Muqattam also hosts one of the most famous Coptic churches in Cairo (Saint Samaan Monastery) and the famed Sister Emmanuelle, a French nun who became a celebrity in the 1980s in France, Belgium, and Switzerland for sharing in the zabbaleen’s life.

Considering the state of Middle East Studies more generally, and Egyptian History more particularly, what topics and issues would you like to see addressed?

For me, the most urgent need is simply to reintegrate the Copts in the study of Egyptian society. Studying the Copts as a separate reality can be misleading. An interesting article was recently published about Coptic Masculinities.[2] It is striking to see that most of what is said about middle-class Coptic men interviewed by the author could just as easily be said about Muslim men from the same social background (which the author actually notes). The only difference appears when those Copts are asked about the dangers threatening the women they feel responsible for. For them, the greatest danger would be Muslim men (especially from a popular background). The author concludes by positing the existence of “parallel masculinities.” But it seems to me that if we consider masculinities as a set of attitudes, behaviors, and perceptions about what it means to be a man, masculinities appear on the contrary quite similar. The difference between Copts and Muslims is almost tautological and lay in the religious divide which manifests itself in a particular fear for the integrity of the group’s women. I think that it would be more accurate here to speak about Egyptian masculinities. This leads me to suggest the importance of studying religious boundaries, but in relation to other divides like gender, class, and politics, among others. Sectarianism does not explain everything.

I also think that more studies should focus on the political and social role of priests (I studied these aspects in my doctoral thesis).[3] We have a lot of studies on the Patriarch’s political role, but what about “normal” priests? It would be very insightful to compare the political role of the priest and of the sufi sheikhs for example. The comparison between Coptic and Muslim Egyptians is a rich field of investigation because you have at the same time a broad range of attitudes that are very similar and a lot of differences—theology, organization, and ritual. You have also a “structural” difference: Muslims live in an Islamic country where Christians are an arithmetical minority of probably 6 percent of the population.[4] Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen opened the path for this new field with her book on Coptic and Muslim pilgrimages.[5] I also think that religious Coptic and Muslim missions could be fruitfully compared as both religious groups borrowed a lot from Western missionary techniques in the twentieth century, and probably still do. Through the case of Father Samaan, I have studied the emergence of a new Charismatic trend within the Coptic Church which also reminds us of the New Muslim preachers, like ‘Amr Khaled. There are of course a lot of differences, but comparison is also valuable to reinvigorate the general view we have of such phenomena. The same discussion is ongoing in the field of West African studies, where studies on Christianity and Islam still lack comparison and cross-pollination.[6]

Finally, I think the growing importance of diasporas should lead us to undertake multi-sited fieldwork like those conducted by Candace Lukasik and Febe Armanios. I am not very familiar with diaspora studies, however I think that the challenge is in dealing with both the countries of origin and the situation in the countries of immigration. Yet the difficulty with studying the Copts is that this subject is suspected of carrying some colonial prejudices against Islam. This is true in part, because many Westerners read the situation of Middle Eastern Christians through their fear of Islam. It is thus challenging to convince our colleagues that studying the Copts is an interesting way to study Egyptian society in the same way that investigations of Muslim minorities in Europe are crucial to understand European societies. The other question is: Can we study Copts in Islamic Studies? My answer is yes, if Islamic Studies are not only focused purely on religion or only on Islamist movements. Putting the question in terms of “sectarianism” (with all the problems carried by this term) would maybe allow us to compare interreligious relations in different Middle Eastern countries and elsewhere. Ethnic studies are also a rich field for such comparison. For example, reading Elijah Anderson’s books on black and white relations in the United States was really inspiring for my own research in Egypt.[7] He describes for instance what he calls the “nigger moment,” instances of intense disrespect that remind Afro-American people of their unequal status in American society:

“No matter what she has achieved, or how decent and law-abiding she is, there is no protection, no sanctuary, no escaping from this fact. She is vulnerable. Whatever the educated and often professionally successful person previously thought her position in society was, now she is challenged, as random white persons casually but powerfully degrade her.” The Cosmopolitan Canopy, p. 253.

Those moments of disrespect and the way they are lived by the Copts are something to be taken into account if we want to understand the dynamics of everyday religious boundaries.

Given your current or past interest in Egypt’s Coptic populations, how would you frame the issue of Coptic belonging in Egypt and its diasporas? 

I think that Egypt’s Copts are torn between a desire to be fully accepted as Egyptian citizens equal to Muslims and a will to see their distinct faith and identity recognized. There is a tension between those two aspects because equality and difference are two principles that are not so easy to accommodate. This is also the case in Europe and in the United States. Those who defend equality are maybe not the same people who defend cultural rights. This is even more difficult because, as a Christian in Egypt, it is not easy to complain publicly about religious discriminations, especially since Pope Tawadros decided to support President Sisi. It is almost impossible to have a public discussion about religious divides without being accused of spreading sectarianism (fitna ta‘ifiyya). I was particularly struck by the reactions I heard after the attacks against several churches on Palm Sunday 2017. I was in Egypt that day visiting a Monastery in Wadi Natrun. My Coptic friend told me that it was the destiny of the Copts to suffer and that the most important thing for him was the afterlife, not this life we live on earth. I think my friend’s reaction reflected a discourse promoted by the Coptic clergy who try to depoliticize reactions to attacks targeting Copts.

More generally, I think it is misleading to analyze Copts as an inseparable whole. I have done fieldwork mainly in Cairo and I have noticed that opinions vary depending on social class, age, and the gender of my interlocutors. It is often assumed for example that almost all Copts are pro-Sisi, which is untrue. Most young Christians I have met in Shubra are openly anti-Sisi. It is true that a lot of Christians I have spoken to are against instability and for this reason some of them prefer Sisi to uncertainty. However, that does not mean that they are very enthusiastic about him. There are also a lot of tensions inside the Coptic “community,” as I have shown in my dissertation. For example, Father Samaan and his charismatic way of preaching were always criticized by some bishops (some of them very close to the patriarch).

Yet he managed to build good relations with Pope Shenouda. When Tawadros became patriarch in 2012, he designated a bishop to be responsible for the Muqattam region. This bishop settled inside of Samaan’s monastery, creating tensions between the two men as well as divides inside the zabbaleen community between supporters of Samaan and those of the bishop. The religious position of Father Samaan is very Evangelical in the sense that he claims the only thing that really matters is the relation with Jesus Christ: you need to meet Him to become a real Christian. For this reason he considers that the faithful should care more about Jesus than about his saints. In more general terms, he downplays the importance of intercessors and thereby downplaying the role of priests. If you can have direct access to your Savior, the intercession of priests becomes less crucial. Indeed, such theological questions have concrete effects on Church politics.

Concerning the diaspora, what I can share is what I witnessed during my fieldwork in Egypt. I felt the influence of the Coptic diaspora at different stages. The first time was when I watched Zakariyya Boutros’ TV show on Al Hayat channel with Coptic friends in Muqattam around 2005. [8] A lot of them liked him a lot and especially the freedom with which he was criticizing Islam. They were also impressed by the way new satellite channels where talking about Muslim converts. It was very interesting because at the same time Al Jazeera had begun broadcasting in Egypt, providing for the first time accurate political information beyond the usual image of Mubarak inaugurating public buildings or receiving foreign presidents. When freedom of speech increases this does not necessarily mean that all of the voices you hear are liberal or tolerant.

Another way I encountered the influence of the diaspora was when I was writing a part of my dissertation on the social services of the Coptic Church. Bishop Samuel was at the heart of those services in the Coptic Church, in collaboration with Catholics and Protestants. Before starting these projects, he had studied in Princeton and he came back with the idea of creating a specialized domain for social services. This trend had a strong influence on several Copts who later became involved in development project with the zabbaleen, like Mary Assad and Leila Iskander. The last aspect I found striking is the ethno-nationalist discourse that I have continually heard in the field. This discourse links many Coptic traditions to the pharaonic past and defends the indigeneity of Copts who would be allegedly more Egyptian than their fellow Muslim citizens. I was living in Egypt after the revolution and I became interested in the emergence of Coptic activism under the lead of Father Matyas Nasr. It was a coincidence, but this priest was serving in a zabbaleen community in ‘Izbat al-Nakhl (in the North-East of Cairo). I visited his church for the 2012 Coptic New Year. The Egyptian national anthem was sung first in Coptic and then in Arabic. Then a choir of young children wearing Pharaonic robes sang hymns while surrounded by paintings of a Pharaonic temple. The theme of Coptic indigeneity was very visible in that staging and in the discourses displayed that day.

As scholars, what sort of impact do you believe we should have in an increasingly xenophobic and Islamophobic climate today?

We have to do our job honestly and patiently. We need, at the same time, to undertake innovative research and to make an effort to communicate our knowledge to a broad audience. We can, of course, refer to different concepts and theories but at the same time we have to be able to explain what we found in our research with simple words. The difficulty is that when we are solicited by journalists they often have preconceived ideas about the Copts or about Islam. Some of them just want us to confirm those ideas. Just one example: I had introduced a French radio journalist to a Coptic friend of mine. She asked him if he felt persecuted as a Copt in Egypt (it was after Palm Sunday’s attack). My friend answered that he felt discriminated as an Egyptian more than as a Copt. This part of his response was cut from the edited version and the published interview made it seem as if he said that: yes, he felt persecuted as a Copt. So when I explain the situation of the Copts, I insist on the fact that Coptic people share a lot of things with Muslims; they eat the same, they watch the same movies, listen to the same songs, and think similarly on a lot of subjects. I try to explain that Copts are not Western Christians lost in the Middle East, or living relics of “one of the oldest Church in the World.” At the same time, I don’t want to minimize the violence and discrimination Copts suffer. It is an exercise at equilibrium which is sometimes difficult.

I think that the best way to fight Islamophobia is at the same time to take religion seriously as a social force and to account for those aspects of people’s lives which do not always conform to religious logics. This question provoked an interesting debate between Nadia Fadil, Mayanthi Fernando, Samuli Schielke, and Lara Deeb in the Journal of Ethnographic Theory in 2015.[9] My personal stance is that we need to take into account everyday interactions as well as social structures. Of course, the colonial legacy plays an important role. Yet what I find striking in Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age for instance is that Muslim subjectivities (the subject of Politics of Piety) are given almost no role to play in the evolution of interreligious relations. I think that if we want to take religious subjectivities seriously, we then also have to deal with the share of intolerance involved.[10] And this is also true for the Copts. In brief, I think we have to give an accurate and balanced image of reality. We have to describe the full picture of what is happening between Copts and Muslims: moments of conviviality and friendship but also of mutual hate and violence.

Are you working on a new project? What topics and themes do you hope to address in your future work?

I am currently working on the history of inter-religious relations in the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra. I am investigating everyday interactions and the reputation of Shubra as a convivial place where Christians and Muslims coexist peacefully. To do so, I am using ethnography and oral histories but also soap operas, movies, and novels. The broader project I would like to develop is a history of Christian and Muslim religious revivals to compare both phenomena and study inter-religious relations since the era of Nasser. I am also interested in studying comparatively Christian and Muslim movements of religious proselytism as they relate to social services.

I would also like to consider other urban contexts and draw comparisons between them. In that effort, I organized a research seminar last year with students in history from Louvain University (Université  Catholique de Louvain).[11] The topic was on the municipality of Molenbeek, which suddenly became infamous after the terrorist attacks in France in 2015 and Belgium in 2016. A few of the perpetrators were from that municipality. I am also working on a documentary project with my partner Natalia Duque on the neighborhood where we live in Brussels, which is predominantly inhabited by people of Turkish origin. I remain very much interested in comparing different urban contexts and histories concerning different ethnic or religious groups to investigate everyday interactions.


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Gaétan du Roy is a postdoctoral researcher at the FNRS and at UCLouvain in Belgium. He was a postdoctoral fellow at University of Pennsylvania and at the Berlin Graduate School, Muslim Cultures and Societies. He is a specialist on the religious and urban history of contemporary Egypt. His main theme of investigation is the history of Christian-Muslim relations in Egyptian cities. He has recently edited with P. Desvaux a special issue of Egypte/Monde Arabe entitled Cairo’s Zabbaleen. An Over-Studied object?  He has published extensively on Egyptian Copts and on other related subjects. Most of his publications are openly accessible here.


[1] I helped to produce several videos analyzing this story in a MOOC, Oriental Beliefs: Between Reason and Tradition.

[2] Barde Helge Kartveit, “Being a Coptic Man: Masculinity, Class, and Social change among Egyptian Copts,“ Men and Masculinities, I-26, 2018.

[3] Du Roy, Le prêtre des chiffonniers ou la construction d’une autorité religieuse au Caire entre tradition, charisme et clientélisme (1974-2014), PhD diss., Université catholique de Louvain, 2014.

[4] On the number of Christians in Egypt: Philippe Fargues, Youssef Courbage, Christians and Jews Under Islam, London, I. B. Tauris, 1997; Cornelis Hulsman, “Discrepancies Between Coptic Statistics in the Egyptian Census and Estimates Provided by the Coptic Orthodox Church,“ Mideo, 2012, online: https://www.arabwestreport.info/sites/default/files/pdfs/AWRpapers/paper52.pdf.

[5] Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen, Pèlerinages d’Égypte. Histoire de la piété copte et musulmane. XVe-XXe siècles, Paris, Éditions de l’EHESS, 2005.

[6] See the debate in Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute, vol. 86, n° 4, 2016.

[7] I quote Anderson in an article to be published this year: “Chrétiens et musulmans dans Le Caire contemporain, où passent les frontières?“ in Pierre Jérémie Piolat, Thierry Amougou (ed.), Des études de développement aux études postcoloniales. Renouveler la critique sociale à l’heure de la globalisation, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, Forthcoming 2019.

[8] A show titled Questions concerning God which began in 2003 and ended in 2010.

[9] Journal of Ethnographic Theory, vol. 5, Issue 2, autumn 2015: https://www.haujournal.org/index.php/hau/issue/view/hau5.2.

[10] See Richard Gauvain’s reflections on the way researchers studying Salafi people often omit to mention the share of intolerance they encountered in the field: “‘Just Admit it Man, You’re a Spy,‘ Fieldwork Explorations Into the Notion of Salafi Oppositionality,“ Fieldwork in Religion, 13-2, 2018.

[11] We have two Louvain Universities in Belgium, a French-speaking and a Flemish one (Leuven) which are separate entities.

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