Interview with Mina Ibrahim: Coptic Misfits

How did you get started in the discipline of anthropology? What drew you to your research topic?

In 2010, I joined the American University in Cairo and majored in political science. The 2011 uprising erupted in my second year, which was also when I took my first anthropology course. I liked its approach because it brought me closer to Tahrir Square, and to the people, their lives and their needs. Compared to the political science courses I had taken, I found anthropology to far more credit the agency of the actors. As my mentor, anthropologist Hakem Rustom, once told me, “Anthropology is the study of what occurs after people sleep or die.” Honestly, it was this very statement that drove me to pursue a minor in anthropology, with a major in political science. 

My first anthropology paper was about the Maspero Youth Union, which formed following the ousting of Mubarak as a means to represent the demands of Coptic activists. I did not do fieldwork among members of the then nascent social movement, but instead, read their statements and social media postings in an anthropological manner. I was attracted to the paradox of both their resistance to the control of the Coptic Orthodox Church and continued participation in activities organized by the same institution. Candace Lukasik captures this paradox in her 2016 article on the Maspero Youth Union. It was this puzzle that inflamed my passion in anthropology in general, and in the Coptic Christian community in particular. My other papers analyzed personal biographies, and the necessity of investigating the messiness and ambiguities related to people’s political, social and moral lives.

In my Master’s program, I conducted my first official fieldwork among Copts. Because I am of a Coptic Christian background, I realized that I took many things for granted. My Master’s thesis was about a small Coptic Christian charitable association located in the Cairene neighborhood of Shubra. My mother has worked for this association for nearly 25 years, and I had never paused to consider the reasons why she remains attached to the association. During my fieldwork, I noticed how she and other administrators were keen on writing financial accounts for the Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA), even though they hated this task, and sometimes suffered from discrimination by MOSA Muslim clerks. I learned from the administrators that they were okay with living and experiencing this paradox for the sake of St. George (Marguirguis), after whom the association is named. In taking divine beings seriously, as anthropologist Amira Mittermaier reminds us in her recent book, I was once again convinced that anthropology can help us form relationships with people who are dismissed by other disciplines and overlooked in our daily lives.

What is your dissertation about? What is its broader significance?

On Christmas Eve in 2017, I was at a bar owned by a Coptic Christian. The Christmas service was playing on the TV, which many clients at the bar objected to. This led me to engage with a common debate among Copts: is drinking moral and good? The Coptic Orthodox Church abhors drinking alcohol. Yet, I wondered about the meanings of the presence of liquor and wine in, for instance, households and during summer vacations or wedding ceremonies.

This incident and other similar ones inform my interest in analyzing the relationship between morality and tradition in the lives of Coptic Christians in Egypt. In my dissertation, I ask: how do Copts imagine meanings of morality? What is considered a good life for ordinary members of a religious minority? My dissertation is titled, “Coptic Misfits: On Intimacy, Morality, and Tradition.” I seek to bring two bodies of literature together that have criticized each other over the last few decades. First, as many anthropologists do, I learn a lot from the work of Talal Asad and his prominent students Saba Mahmood and Charles Hirschkind. Their insightful work focuses on people’s agencies in cultivating their moral selves. Praying, fasting, and listening to cassette sermons are examples of practices that discipline the body and shape people’s submission to God and religious traditions.

Second, I am drawn to anthropological and historical literature that questions such agencies and bodily embodiments. For example, the work of Samuli Schielke, Alireza Doostdar, and Khaled Fahmy point at the limitations of tradition and of God’s laws in informing aspects of the moral good. In this regard, people might draw on other modes of reasoning when talking about the universal values of, for example, justice, equality and freedom. It was at this cross-road that I decided to introduce the concept of the “misfit,” which integrates situations of failure and incompetence with practices and agencies in normative Coptic debates. I am interested in showing what happens when Copts accept their exclusion from hegemonic interpretations of the ‘good’ version of a Coptic Christian tradition. Doing so, I ethnographically analyze intimate human interactions as well as personal relationships developed with divine beings that reflect modes of challenging dominant interpretations of such traditions.

For example, most of those who know, study, or are Coptic are familiar with St. Simon the Tanner. We know him because of his famous miracle where he moved the mountain of al-Mukattam. But there is another story that I am interested in. One day when he was working, a woman entered his shop and, according to the story, she tempted him sexually. St. Simon quickly recalled the biblical verse, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it away from you. For it is more profitable for you that one of your members should perish, than for your whole body to be cast into hell.” St. Simon literally executed the commandment. It is this literal understanding of the verse that led the Church to condemn him at the time. However, he is still a very famous and revered Saint. I argue that this is because of the personal relationships that St. Simon had built with the bishops and the pope. They were able to advocate for St. Simon’s “pureness of heart” and his “good intention” to obey God. These moral reasons, which would have been difficult to articulate without personally knowing St. Simon, contested ruling definitions of the tradition.

Another example of the misfit, which may appear to be the complete opposite of St. Simon, is Coptic novelist Waguih Ghali. I have previously shared some insights about him in a piece published by CCHP. Ghali attempted suicide nearly 50 years ago, on Boxing day in London, England. Waguih Ghali was a non-believer, an alcoholic, sexually active, and had a tumultuous romantic life. Unlike St. Simon, Ghali was not a committed follower of the Bible and its commandments. By traditional Coptic standards, Waguih’s lifechronicled in his diariesis an example of an immoral Copt. However, Jesus himself maintained companionship with sinners and outcasts, and He says, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” In other words, if God is merciful and only He can decide who is good or bad, then there is always the possibility that Ghali and other Coptic ‘Waguihs’ can become moral Christians.

Although Waguih Ghali may not necessarily be considered a “good Christian” in the eyes of many Coptic believers, he shared with other Coptsbelievers and non-believers alikean Egyptian passport, and a name that reveals an intimacy (i.e. common ground) between him and the Coptic Christian tradition. Indeed, intimacy in this respect does not refer to love, but rather refers to shared land, history and an identity that shapes debates and conflicts regarding the meanings of morality. When Ghali was accused by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime of being an Israeli spy in 1968, he felt “shattered.” That same year, St. Mary appeared in Cairo, which widely became understood as an apparition to support Copts in particular and Egyptians in general following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and the defeat of the Egyptian army. It was at this juncture where Ghali’s assumed nationalism did not fit into the mainstream nationalist discourse of Coptic believers, whose national belonging was intertwined with their religiosity. This juncture is also where Ghali sought to make the Egyptian nation more inclusive of non-believing misfits like him. Thus, the imagined Egyptian-ness that is shared, though in multiple ways, between Waguih Ghali and those who witnessed the appearance of St. Mary showed an intimacy with the hegemonic understanding of the Coptic Christian tradition that Ghali paradoxically rejects, and one that considers him a sinful person.

Against this backdrop, my work seeks to bring similar stories to the forefront, to form intimate relationships with them as well as between them and my potential readers. In short, my project is an ethnographic study of the wide array of misfits who dwell between St. Simon and Waguih Ghali. I examine biographies that are simultaneously ignored by historical, anthropological and sociological writings on the one hand, and that are institutionally suppressed by the Egyptian State, society and the Coptic Orthodox Church on the other. My scholarly research takes place in bars, coffeehouses, night clubs, weed gatherings, prisons, and casinos. I tell stories of Coptic sex workers, queers, alcoholics, drug addicts, non-believers, and traumatized people. My aim is to elevate the voices and agencies of people who reflect heterogeneous definitions of what it means to be, and to live, as a Copt.

In thinking through your positionality, how do you define your relationship to the populations you study and what responsibility do you have in sharing their stories?

I have been taught, and I teach my students that there are three levels to an anthropological project. The first level is the ethnographic notes we write during our fieldwork. Jumping to the third level, it is the jargon we use, the big concepts that we must engage with for our work to be considered ‘academic.’ The second level, in my opinion, is the most important one. It is our passion and commitment to a message that allows us to bridge the first and the third levels. It is the level that puts what our interlocutors say and do in the forefront, before any discussion of jargon or abstract concepts.

“You should talk about good Copts not about the ones who committed suicide,” a church servant once said when I told him that the introduction of my dissertation is about the story of Waguih Ghali. The servant did not know who Waguih Ghali was. For that matter, neither did I until I encountered his famous and only novel Beer in the Snooker Club and his diaries, published by May Hawas and the American University in Cairo Press. Again, it was this intimacy, particularly the Coptic background I share with Ghali, and more importantly, the marginalization of his story from academic and non-academic writings about Copts that have ignited my passion to write about him. I believe that it is my responsibility to convince this church servant and other Copts that Ghali and other misfits are worthy of our attention.

For many, my interlocutors may not be the best representatives of Coptic faith and identity. After all, Coptic Christians make up a minority of the Egyptian population, and are always required to be a visible model minority in front of both the Muslim majority, and the international community of human and minority rights activists. In a world that merely accounts for minorities only when they fit into narrow categories that shape victimhood discourses of suffering, I attempt to challenge and problematize the static features of the so-called “Coptic Question.” I am sure that once my work is published it will be met with much criticism, as is already happening. However, I insist on elevating the stories of my interlocutors to challenge dominant conceptions about who can speak on behalf of Copts, and where, when, and how such narratives take shape.

As scholars, what sort of impact do you believe we should have in an increasingly xenophobic and nationalistic global climate? Do contemporary geo-political debates have a role to play in your discussion of Coptic populations?

In March 2019, I co-organized a conference with my friend and colleague Rahma Bavelaar about what Hoda Elsadda calls “traveling critique,” which emphasizes the importance of paying attention to changing power dynamics and shifts in hierarchies. For example, I cannot ask Coptic Christians in Upper Egypt, who face discrimination on a regular basis, (not) to understand Islam in a particular way. I cannot talk to someone who is displaced from his home and land in a village in Minya governorate about Islamophobia because these discussions are void in this context. However, Islamophobia ought to be criticized in Western contexts. I have lived for a few years in Germany and Hungary, and often get into discussions with Copts in the diaspora about their privileged positions with respect to Muslims outside of Egypt. I have frequently tried my best to argue against those who make use of Islamophobic discourses in the West to get their rights as ‘victimized’ immigrants. Traveling critique considers power relations before imposing politics.

People travel, forces of power shift, and so should ideas and discourses. I suggest that we should be flexible and exert effort in constantly formulating our criticism of practices and institutions. Flexibility is not just based on diaspora and migration status, but class and gender also play important roles in traveling critique. A Cairene Coptic male, who is a rich businessman, is not similar to the mother who lost her son in Libya in the February 2015 massacre committed by ISIS. If someone cannot find bread on a daily basis because of religious discrimination, this should be our first aspect of critique before we talk about their role in fighting against racism and xenophobia. Quoting Samuli Schielke, I believe that “what is a valuable engagement against a hegemonic normality in one place may result in a misunderstanding of the hegemonic normality of another place…[Scholars should] stand in different places, facing different powers, and need different approaches.”

Considering the state of Middle East Studies more generally, and research on Egypt and Coptic communities more specifically, what topics and issues would you like to see addressed?

Building on the last chapter of my dissertation, which covers Coptic prisoners, I attempt to develop the idea of prison studies in the Middle East. I currently work as a project coordinator with Umam for Research and Documentation, which is based in Beirut, Lebanon. The project I am involved in is called MENA Prison Forum (MPF). Prisons in this part of the world have often been studied as either reflections of the modern nation-state or as tools used by authoritarian regimes to maintain power. In addition to these two powerful, yet insufficient, assumptions, MPF argues that prisons do not form just one aspect of existing MIddle Eastern states, but are inherent reasons for why such states exist and continue to function.

Accordingly, I would like to take advantage of this interview to invite everyone who is interested in learning about or joining the project to visit our website and social media pages. MPF delves into the areas of politics, society, art and literature, among others, to imagine the Middle East through prisons and via the prisoners’ life worlds. The Arabic word for forum, muntadā, comes from the word tanadā, which literally means calling out to each other, and more casually, to exchange views. In other words, it describes the process of discussing or debating. In its original Latin, “forum” is defined as a public place or gathering intended for discussions. Thus, if we define prison as a public institution designed to isolate those incarcerated from the outside world, then the aim of establishing prison studies for the MENA region can be the location, the forum, to break such isolation. Prisons, in this regard, can be viewed as the common ground shared by those who were once imprisoned and the society from which they came.

Are you planning to pursue a career in academia? What topics and themes do you hope to address in future work?

I will submit my doctoral dissertation in 2020. I am currently applying for post-doc fellowships in Germany and beyond, with the goal of developing the idea of prison studies in the Middle East. In 2019, I founded a small research center called, Shubra’s Archive for Research and Development (SARD) in my Cairo neighborhood. As the name suggests, the purpose of the center is two-fold. First, with respect to research, the center will work on building oral and written archives about the histories of neighborhoods in and outside of Cairo. I also want to build an archive of theses and dissertations submitted to public universities in Egypt. By translating and editing them, SARD will situate research projects written in Arabic within the global job market of publications, fellowships, and professorships. Second, SARD will try to organize courses and workshops for those who are interested in pursuing academic careers outside of Egypt. By teaching scholars how to write proposals, how to contact universities, and how to learn languages, SARD will act as a bridge between Egyptian and non-Egyptian scholarship. Similar to my doctoral project on Coptic misfits, I also believe that the academic community should be a comprehensive mosaic that integrates what appears to be unreconciled misfits.


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.


Mina Ibrahim is a Doctoral Student at the University of Giessen in Germany and the International Graduate Center for the Study of Culture (GCSC). His doctoral dissertation ethnographically complicates the difficulties and the possibilities of living as a “good” Christian in Egypt. His recent publications include articles with Jadaliyya, Social Compass, and Middle East Topics and Arguments, and book reviews with On Culture and the Asian Journal of Social Sciences. Beyond his scholarship, Mina is the founder and director of Shubra’s Archive for Research and Development (SARD), a research center in urban Cairo. He is also the project coordinator of the MENA Prison Forum, based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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