Interview with Amy Fallas: Philanthropic Solidarities

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

I was once told that the dissertation is one of the most autobiographical genres of writing. Although I am still far from the writing stage of the PhD, the reason I decided to research and study history is largely tied to my personal and intellectual journey. While I started studying the Middle East as a Political Science major in undergrad, it wasn’t until I moved to Cairo during the halcyon years of 2010-2011 that I began to wrestle with methodological questions and interrogate why I was interested in the region and its people. There’s something about having to buy phone credit at the local kushk (booth), arguing with your cab driver about fare bidun (without) meter, and figuring out how to get around the watchful eye of your bawab (doorman) that changes you.

Then of course, the revolution happened in January 2011, and that changed everything—there was something about the euphoria of the uprising, the communities forged in the square and the camaraderie among friends and neighbors that drew me to the diversity of narratives proliferating in the moment. When you heard the protest songs and saw the signs in the streets, and looked at how public space transformed, it became apparent that the archive was everywhere and its mediums were diverse. So ultimately my draw to history was living through histor(ies) in the making and thinking about what historians of the future would write about these moments.

Perhaps a stranger question is how the daughter of evangelical Central American immigrants became interested in Coptic studies and Egyptian history? This is also largely personal. In 2010, I spent a great deal of time teaching in Coptic Cairo and becoming acquainted with a Christian tradition vastly different than my own. I made many friends who patiently and eagerly introduced me to various aspect of Coptic Orthodox practice, while I continued to attend an evangelical church in downtown Cairo. Years later, when I started my Master’s at Yale, I became interested in how evangelical modes of religiosity developed in Egypt which inevitably led me to Anglo-American protestant missionary sources. Reading works by Heather Sharkey, Febe Armanios, Paul Sedra, and Beth Baron encouraged me to think critically about the systems and power relationships that enabled missionary enterprises to take root across Egypt and how they interacted with pre-existing religious communities.

It was around this time that I met Michael Akladios at MESA where he encouraged me to apply to the second CCHP conference. Although I was not exclusively working on Coptic history at the time, I started working with Arabic documents from Coptic organizations that I found in my archives. I developed a more nuanced perspective on the religious entanglements of nineteenth and twentieth century Egypt by centering Coptic experiences of these encounters. Following this paper trail led me to over six different archival trips to Cairo between 2016-2020 and, with the encouragement of an amazing cohort of colleagues like Michael, I am now writing my dissertation about the development of charity in modern Egypt, how Copts featured in these philanthropic enterprises, and how it relates to transnational connections during the twentieth century.

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

My project looks at the development of charity in nineteenth and twentieth century Egypt. The limited financial capabilities of the Khedival state to provide for social welfare following the Egyptian debt crisis (1876) and the British occupation (1882) formed a catalyst for Egyptian notables to develop lay-operated philanthropic institutions. I follow these lay-based responses to the economic, political and social disruptions of the period. My preliminary research suggests Copts were central to the formation of these institutions and even collaborated with Muslims in these efforts.

In considering the scope of social assistance in modern Egypt, I am also asking: how did these developments respond to social inequality during the colonial period? Did these projects require collusion with or defiance of foreign influences? What can these projects tell us about transformations across categories of race, gender and class? In connection to inter-religious relations, how does the cross-confessional character of these projects upset what we know about sectarianism in Egypt during this period?

I examine this inter-religious theatre of charitable associations as a parallel space of cross-confessional collaboration during a period that also witnessed sectarian conflict. I do not see these two phenomena as separate but as occurring simultaneously amid profound transformations in Egypt and beyond. In fact, a significant aspect of my work deals with the inextricable transnational context of these charitable developments.

Am I being swayed by the current ‘transnational’ turn in scholarship? I would like to think that my sources attest to the multiple localities of these philanthropic initiatives and speak to a broader story about flows of capital, networks of print, mobilities of religious ideas, notions of public charge, and machinations of empire. Is this a story about Copts? Modern Egypt? The Middle East? The metropole? American missionaries? I hope my dissertation can be in conversation with all these fields by situating Egypt as both a physical and conceptual fulcrum to understand broader changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

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?

After undergrad, I worked for four years in public history institutions, archives and museums. I spent a large part of my professional career in these positions thinking about the relationship between historical interpretation and accountability—who are we talking about? Which stories are we telling and which ones are we leaving out? Are we including the communities in question and centering their experiences? So when I decided to pursue a career in academia, these questions were at the fore of my mind because these are ultimately ethical questions as much as they are methodological and theoretical considerations.

As someone who was not raised in the religious tradition or communities that I study, I am very conscientious of how I conduct my research. I am aware that I have many privileges as someone who holds a blue passport, travels without restrictions placed on persons of different nationalities, and can navigate spaces in other countries limited to locals based on race, religion, or gender. This is why I believe it is important to actively be in conversation with the communities we research, to be mindful of what we are doing with information entrusted to us, invest back into the populations we co-create knowledge with, AND support scholars from regions we study.

As a Latina who is part of a diasporic community shaped by similar experiences of the protagonists of my research—such as the role of missionaries, the reach of empire, authoritarian rule, and the misuses of nationalism—I also feel a responsibility to myself and my community to draw these connections and tell these stories. Within my own Central American community, many of these factors contribute to the silencing and marginalization of communal narratives and experiences. Acknowledging that similar relationships of power contributed to this marginalization in both the Middle East and Latin America motivates me to challenge these historic silences through my research.

Another indispensable way I am able to faithfully do my research is due to the community of junior scholars working on this topic—they are the embodiment of collegiality. I mean, we really are out here in the archives together, organizing panels, jointly attending conferences, co-writing articles, and asking difficult questions of our research and each other. I would not be where I am without the support and encouragement of my colleagues (and closest friends) working on Coptic studies.

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 2017, I gave a televised lecture about Connecticut’s response to the humanitarian crisis that faced Armenians, Syrians and Greeks in the Middle East during and following World War I. At the time, I was on the board of a refugee resettlement group and finalizing a project on the contributions of Lebanese and Syrian migrants in CT to the war effort during World War I.  I gave this lecture at a time when resettlement agencies across the state had been working assiduously since 2015 to resettle Syrian refugees. This was also several months after US President Trump signed anti-refugee and anti-immigrant executive orders preventing Syrians, among other nationals, from entering the country. As a scholar, I felt the obligation to bring my research into broader public conversations about migration policy. Although I was involved in different forms of activism at the time, I was also developing academic work that could historicize and provide insight into an important contemporary issue.

Since that time my research interests have changed but my approach to contemporary issues and geo-political debates remains the same. As graduate students, we direct our time, resources and intellectual mentorship to ask deep questions and interrogate foundational assumptions with data generated through our respective methodologies. We are in a unique position to contribute richly to conversations on current issues beyond our academic milieus. One of the outlets that has been effective for me to convey the relevance of my research and contribute my academic specialization to engage current events is writing for magazines, newspapers and online blogs. Not all of us are in a position to do so, which is why I take these opportunities to write very seriously and perhaps engage it more regularly in order to critique the systems that prevent my colleagues and interlocuters from exercising their civil liberties.

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?

One of the most exciting things about studying modern Coptic history is that there is so much that has yet to be written about it. What do we know about class formation and its influence on the rise of lay activism during the nineteenth and twentieth century? How do these experiences vary by region—is the ‘Coptic experience’ different in Asyut verses Cairo? Do these regional dynamics connect to broader changes over time in modern Egypt and the Middle East? How does gender intersect with these varied changes?

What these questions press upon us is the realization that researching modern Coptic history does not only tell us about the communities in question but also about broader local, national and transnational contexts in the modern Middle East. All of these are questions at the heart of my own work but also that of my colleagues—I’m so excited for where we will be in five to ten years with new works speaking to these issues using innovative methodologies and in conversation with the communities we study.

In terms of where the field is going—I see both a methodological and a conceptual shift. The first, which is quite evident in our current moment, is the growing difficulty of conducting research in the Middle East. Even in cases when you can research, there are limitations to accessing sources, meeting interlocuters and traveling to collect data. I think this presents us with an opportunity to be creative about how we craft our projects and where we find our information. It also underscores the personal aspect of our work as we each embark upon these decisions and journeys that fundamentally shape the outcome of our research. For me, this means going to smaller libraries and archives for information and spending time learning from librarians, priests, janitors and others I meet in these spaces.

The second is the engagement with critical and intersectional approaches. I’m currently working on a dissertation chapter that looks at the intersection of race, gender, empire, and religion through the experiences of Esther Fahmy Wissa, a notable Coptic woman during the twentieth century. I am only able to do this because many of my academic mentors have long been interrogating relationships between colonial medicine and slavery, or sectarianism and race, or the environment and moral economies.

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

I’m just over half way through the second year of my PhD so right now my focus is on surviving comprehensive exams and getting to ABD status! But, of course, my long-term goal would be to continue in academia. My initial reason for pursuing higher education was witnessing the lack of women of color in teaching roles during my undergraduate years and this continues to undergird my motivations as I continue to progress in my program. I would be the first in my family to ever receive a PhD and the first generation to go to college in the United States. The sacrifices my family has made to support me through this process collectively keeps me going. While my current research on charity has really opened avenues for me to think about future projects, I think, for now, I’ll focus on nurturing my dissertation project as it is still in its early stages.


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Amy Fallas is a PhD student in the Department of History at UC Santa Barbara. Her research focuses on modern Egypt, religious minorities in the Middle East, missions and global Christianity, and history of charity. Her dissertation examines the development of faith-based charitable institutions in Egypt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a focus on Coptic societies and organizations. She’s currently an assistant editor of the Arab Studies Journal and her work is published in the Yale Journal for International Affairs, Jadaliyya, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Palestine Square, Sojourners, Religion Dispatches and others. 

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