Interview with Dr. Angie Heo: “Defamiliarizing the Familiar”

How did you get started in the anthropological profession?  What drew you to the subject matter of your first book?

Back when I was a freshman in college, I was trying to figure out what major suited me, and a senior in my dorm gave me a helpful piece of advice. She suggested that I take the course catalog, circle all the titles and descriptions that piqued my interest, and then see where the highest concentration of circles landed. Language and culture, comparative kinship, memory and colonialism, social medicine, ritual technology – I remember how these descriptors grabbed my attention and kicked my imagination to other places, other experiences of living and dying, other meanings of salvation, truth and power. It turns out I had already been consumed by wanderlust and the quest for defamiliarization before I even knew what anthropology was. By my early twenties, I recognized that my world was small and that I needed to get out there and challenge what was natural and dear to me.

My first book, The Political Lives of Saints: Christian-Muslim Mediation in Egypt, is part of my anthropological journey toward broadening my horizons. My book is an ethnography of Coptic Orthodox Christianity and Christian-Muslim relations. It builds on my years of fieldwork in various neighborhoods in Cairo and Alexandria, along with villages and smaller cities throughout Upper Egypt and the Delta. To understand how Orthodoxy shapes Christian-Muslim interaction, my study focuses on saints and material cultures of image veneration. I am a Korean-American who grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and my religious upbringing was very immigrant and Presbyterian – let’s just say that relics, apparitions, and icons were decidedly not part of my spiritual repertoire. The entire task of entering into the cult of saints and analyzing what holy images do for nation-building and sectarian dynamics was a challenging and transformative experience.

I understand that CCHP attracts a robust readership from the Coptic diasporic communities in North America. Reflecting on my autobiography here, I want to add that one can certainly be part of the Coptic community and the Coptic Orthodox faith, and also write an extraordinary ethnographic account of both. Doing fieldwork and being an anthropologist doesn’t require going to the unfamiliar (in fact, if anything, anthropologists are quite critical of the exoticizing and otherizing inclinations of the discipline). What I think the ethnographic method does demand, though, is an insistent inquiry of assumptions that are readily taken for granted – a kind of “unlearning” that may have required additional work, for example, had I done my research on Korean-Americans and Evangelical Protestantism.

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

Relative to other geographic regions, the Middle East, and especially Egypt, receives vigorous coverage in anthropology. For a novice in the field, the wonderful advantage is that there is an impressive body of literature and set of questions to build on and orient towards. One possible drawback, however, is a reproduction of familiar themes and frameworks that may become a bit too comfortable at times. Writing about Copts in Egypt, I began to realize that I needed to read beyond anthropology into other disciplines – in late antiquity studies, art and architectural history, Ottoman history, and Russian Orthodox theology, to name just a few. So in response to your question, I would say that it is not so much certain topics and issues I seek to encourage among prospective anthropologists, but more a capacity to branch out and identify the ways other field-specific conversations can enrich new ethnographic directions and debates in social theory.

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?

This is an important question that deserves more attention, both empirically and conceptually.  Diasporic nationalisms are a powerful force in our current global condition of increasing mobility (e.g. immigrants, refugees, migrant workers) and geopolitical hierarchy (in Egypt’s case, I believe the U.S. and Saudi Arabia exert significant forms of influence). From the perspective of the diaspora, the status of the “nation” can look strikingly different. What is Egypt as a territorial nation-state?  What is Egypt as Holy Land or as homeland? What is Egypt with respect to regional formations throughout Europe and Africa? A focus on religion can make for very interesting answers. And Copts, however large or small in their transnational numbers, offer an exciting potential for defamiliarization precisely because of their location on the nation’s margins.

Heo Book ImageIn my book, “Redemption at the Edge” is the one chapter where I most consciously work to address the questions above. I am thinking of two particular moments in the chapter when I explicitly mention the diaspora and their implications for studying the contents and boundaries of Egypt. The first moment mentions the Coptic-French filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh and the “Virgin of the Apparition” image of 19th century Catholic French origin (the image is on my book’s cover). In his documentary film, The Virgin, the Copts and Me, Abdel Messeeh travels to Cairo and Asyut on a hunt for his Coptic roots through stories of the Virgin’s appearances in Egypt. Haven’t many Copts in North America also heard about the Virgin of Zaytun or the Virgin of Asyut? I embark from the irony that Abdel Messeeh travels from Paris to Egypt in search of an image that actually originated in Paris. Egypt, imagined as Holy Land, is shaped by holy aesthetics originating from mission history and Mediterranean ecumenism. Egypt, imagined as homeland, is shaped by a desire to return to one’s native origins, itself a moving target. The diasporic condition helps us understand the intertwining dynamics of Holy Land and homeland together, i.e. creative forms of national belonging.

The second moment, one of my favorite parts in the book, is when I meet Ummina Thiyuhipti in the Convent of St. Dimyana. Picture my surprise when Bishop Bishoy introduces me to one of the newest monastic additions to the convent – a young Hongkongese-Canadian who had converted from Buddhism to Coptic Orthodoxy while studying science in Toronto! This story, joined by many others like it, indicates extraordinary developments in the Coptic Church that have transpired only in the last couple decades. These developments include an increase in overlapping migrant communities abroad (e.g. Egyptians, Chinese, Koreans) and conversions between neighboring traditions (e.g. Buddhism, Evangelicalism, Orthodoxy, Islam) as well as inter-racial marriages and youth movements for pan-Orthodoxy in Europe and North America. What does it mean to be “Coptic” or “Orthodox” in these contexts? Again, the diaspora provide a crucial lens into the rapidly changing demographics, geographies, and experiences of Egyptian belonging.

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

I have so many different responses that I could give here. I’m choosing a brief one based on whom I anticipate my audience reading this interview to be. Copts in North America play a very important role in how Westerners imagine Islam and Muslim-majority states. It is no secret that persecution politics have been historically central for widespread depictions of Jews and Christians in the Middle East as second-class citizens and victims of violence. There is no doubt that Copts suffer significantly, confronting killings, threats, and systemic discrimination on a regular basis; I have no wish to undermine these realities. In light of these horrific realities, however, I believe it is all the more important to ensure the diagnosis for these problems is not reactionary but carefully accurate. Coptic scholars and scholars of Copts can help mitigate Islamophobia by directing attention away from the “essence” of Islam and toward the larger structures of violence and disenfranchisement that impact all minority communities, Christian and Muslim alike.

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

I am currently in the early stages of developing my second book on religion and capitalism in the Korean peninsula. This entails several different projects, but here I will mention one for those interested in transregional connections between the Middle East and East Asia. Last summer, while I was conducting research in Seoul, I learned that over 500 Yemeni refugees landed on Jeju Island, seeking asylum from the civil war. A resort island and special self-governing province, Jeju has an open-visa policy designed to increase revenue from Chinese and Southeast Asian tourists. Many of the Yemeni refugees who ended up applying for refugee status in Jeju had traveled from Kuala Lumpur via cheap, nonstop flights; weeks after their entry, the Ministry of Justice imposed a visa ban on Yemenis. This sudden, small influx of Yemenis ignited a highly charged discussion around the status of migrants and refugees in South Korea.

I am also excited that this project has occasioned a research collaboration with my colleague Nathalie Peutz (NYU Abu Dhabi) who had already been doing extraordinary research on Yemeni refugees in the Horn of Africa. I am looking forward to thinking comparatively with her about Yemen and Korea, their histories of civil war and refugee displacement (the divided Koreas is also a Cold War battleground and Jeju is the historical origin of many Korean refugees to Japan). Given that Evangelical Christians are active in both supporting and opposing the presence of Arab Muslims in South Korea, I anticipate that this work will also open new arenas for the study of Christian-Muslim relations.


The CCHP is always looking for people to contribute to our digital initiatives. Please contact theCCHP@gmail.com if you would like to join or support the Project.


Angie Heo is Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Sociology of Religion at the University of Chicago. She received her BA from Harvard and her PhD from Berkeley. She previously taught at Barnard College and Emory University, and was a research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity. Her first book is The Political Lives of Saints: Christian-Muslim Mediation in Egypt (University of California Press 2018).  Her fieldwork research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Social Science Research Council.

 

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