INTERVIEW: The changing face of Copts in Egyptian literature

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 20 Aug 2023

Writings from and about Copts and other Christians in Egypt have come a long way over the past century, according to Nevine Mossad.

Nevine Mossad
Nevine Mossad, A professor of political science.


The professor of political science and commentator is planning to be done by the end of the year with a manuscript she has been working on for several years. The manuscript will be the culmination of research that began in 1999 on the portrayal of Copts in contemporary Egyptian literature. The initial research was first shared in the then-monthly book review magazine AlKotob Weghat Nazar (Reflections on Books) which appeared in February of the same year.

The research has since expanded significantly to cover almost every single title issued over the past century that has either been authored by a Copt or other Egyptian Christian or has a representation of Copts and other Christians.

“It has been amazing to read all these volumes and to see the profound change that they carry with regard to the Copt’s self-perception and the perception that others hold of Copts. [They also show] the ability of Coptic authors to challenge narratives that had long been established about the inevitable social seclusion of Copts or the preordained moral nature of every single Copt,” Mossad said.

“Then again, I have to say that overall, Egyptian literature has come a long way in terms of its ability to challenge established narratives and to ask critical questions; this is why I always insist that at the end of the day, there is not exactly ‘Coptic’ literature but there is literature that reflects on the lives of Copts whether written by Coptic or Muslim authors,” she added.

Mossad gave the example of two novelists. The first, Edouard El-Kharrat, was a Copt born in Alexandria in 1926. The second, Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, was a Muslim born in Alexandria in 1946. Both novelists’ work has profound representations of the lives of Copts in pre-1952 Alexandria, both before and after World War II.

“Clearly, Kharrat was mostly writing about his own family and his own life in a way that was almost designed for a Coptic reader who would have to be very familiar with all the details of the religious rituals, history, and habits. This is not the case with Abdel-Meguid, but both leave the reader with some very concrete images and tangible thoughts and questions about the life of a Copt or of a Coptic family in Egypt of the time,” Mossad argued.

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Meanwhile, Mossad said, it would be a mistake to reduce the literary work of Kharrat to just a narrow examination of Coptic lives in pre-World War II Egypt.

The same, she said, would be true of later Coptic authors who examined Coptic issues in their literature. She referred to contemporary novelists like Shady Lewis Botros, born in 1978, and Mina Adel Guide, born in 1990, whose work offers a much more daring take on the lives of Copts and Coptic communities but which also offers a more holistic perception of life’s big questions and the evolution of society.

However, Botros’ Torok El-Rab (The Roads of God), published in 2018, and Guide’s Beit El-Massakine (The House of Humble People), published in 2022, go way beyond the works of someone like Kharrat or Gamil Atia Ibrahim, born in 1937, in piercing the layers of Coptic unconsciousness.

“Obviously, the works of Robert El-Farres, both fiction and non-fiction, and the recent first novel of Karoline Kamel (Victoria) have gone very far not just in criticizing religious figures, which was simply unthinkable a few decades ago, but also to put forward questions of faith,” Mossad said.

According to Mossad, the evolution of the reflections on the lives of Copts and other Christians, “including the Protestants, who would hardly be mentioned before,” in literary works of Egyptian Coptic and other Christian writers is also more daring in criticizing the manifestations of radical Islamism and acts of discrimination.

“I think today, with what we may safely call ‘the new wave’ of writings by and on the lives of Copts in Egypt, we have authors who speak up in a more uncompromising tone and language than before,” she argued.

Moreover, Mossad, who examined the socio-political state of minorities in Egypt in her PhD degree in the 1980s, argued that the representation of Copts in contemporary literature, written by Muslim authors, has also come a long way.

“Gone is the representation of the introvert Copt who is simply disengaged and who is usually an accountant or a physician,” she said, adding that such representation was mostly untrue.

“Of course, it was not always a monotonous representation and there are some interesting characters that we find in the works of Tawfik El-Hakim, Naguib Mahfouz, and in the later works of Bahaa Taher,” Mossad said. However, she added, that it is true that the role and status of Copts in Egypt has gone through phases.

“It would be safe to say that there is the pre-1952 Revolution moment from 1919 to 1952, when the Copts were a lot more involved and then there is the phase between 1952 and 2010 when things were generally different. Then there is the moment of the 2011 January Revolution when the Copts decided to end their social isolation and just be a lot more engaged and a lot more present,” she said.

She added that the literary work by and on the Copts of Egypt has changed significantly in the aftermath of the January Revolution.

“We can also see an increase in the number of Coptic and other Christian novelists which is a function of a collective, even if unconscious, decision to break the silence but also a function of the increase in the interest in this kind of work both by publishers and readers as well as the increase in the number of publishing houses and the volume of production of literature in general,” she added.

Today, Mossad said, it is very interesting to see not just the examination of reality but also the re-examination of the past, “again both by Coptic and non-Coptic writers”, including the work of Robert El-Farres who revisited Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of Gebelawi and the dispute between the Coptic Church and Abbas Mahmoud El-Akkad, a writer who was born in the late 19th century and passed away in the mid 20th century, over nature the of Jesus Christ, and the novels of Mohamed Afifi and Doha Assy on the role of Copts in Egypt during the French expedition to Egypt.

File Photo: Millions of revellers from all over Egypt Christians and Muslims participate in the celebrations commemorating the journey of the Holy Family in the Monastery of the Virgin in Durunka, the region from which the Holy Family returned to Bethlehem. Photo by ministry of Tourism.

According to Mossad, the “new wave” has allowed for some titles that examine some semi-philosophical questions on the relations between Copts and Muslims and the true meaning of acceptance and co-existence, as reflected in the 2016 novel Ibn El-Qaptiah (Son of the Coptic Woman) of Walid Ala and in Achraf AlAchmawi’s Beit El-Qaptiah (House of the Coptic woman).

Overall, Mossad insists that the issue that her manuscript, to be published sometime next year, focuses on is the profile of Coptic and other Christian characters in modern and contemporary Egyptian literature.

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