Entering the village of Bahjura, you leave behind agricultural lands and drive between two water projects. On one side of the road, boys and men use one for a refreshing swim on a hot summer day. On the other side, a garbage-laden canal, likely dug in the nineteenth century, is being packed-in by the local government. This is the village’s main road, from which you see scattered homes; some newly built, some abandoned, and some are magnificent colonial villas from the early twentieth century. This seemingly ordinary village in the governorate of Qena tells a unique story of Coptic emigration over the past century. Its villas stand as a living testament to the Coptic land-owning families that once held considerable political and social power, prior to the 1952 revolution. Bahjura also tells of the current wave of Coptic emigration to the United States through the Diversity Visa (Green Card Lottery). Both distinctly classed perspectives on the changing climate in Egypt continue to live in Bahjura through folktales of a bygone era, the ever-present detailed wooden balconies of abandoned buildings, and the locked gates of the most elaborate villas, designed by French engineers. Bahjura has a sizeable Christian population. For Copts – as for many Egyptians – emigration out of the village is an economic necessity. Yet, the descendants of Coptic land-owning families continue to share stories of their families’ former prestige in Egyptian religious, social, and political life. A discussion of recent encounters I have had in the field will weave a rich tapestry of land, migration, and memory in this upper Egyptian village.[i]
On a Tuesday around 6pm, Gerges picked me up from my home in the Shig al-Misihiyeen (Christian) district. We walked a short distance to the decorated gate of Beit (the house of) Abu Eskander and entered through a small turquoise door. Walking inside, it felt as if I was transported back in time. Nader, the grandson, had kept the original design. We sat on wood-carved furniture beneath an ornate chandelier. Before us hung an enormous portrait of his grandfather, who had lived here nearly a century earlier. The similarities between the two men were quite striking, especially their large, sullen eyes. “Tell me about your family,” I started. Nader began: “Before the 1952 revolution, they had power through their land. I remember my father telling me stories about my grandfather. In the summer, yroshoo maya (they would water the ground) in front of our house and take a couple of chairs and sit outside. Anyone who would pass got off their donkey and walked in front of them as a sign of respect, and many of them even worked for our family.” Once wealthy employers and landlords, Coptic families held prestige within the community.
I had made my way into Nag Hammadi the previous day, the closest town to Bahjura, to join local historian Shenoda al-Bahjouri for lunch. We looked over some documents together that I had collected from another Coptic family in the village. Flipping through the pictures on my laptop, he stopped at a land rental contract from 1924 between Ibrahim, the patriarch of that family, and a handful of Muslim fellahin (agricultural laborers). “This is significant,” said Shenoda, “pre-1950s land reforms, Copts held al-qowa (the power). Members of these Coptic families were the ones to mediate conflict, even between Muslims, because of their social status. They were extremely respected. That kept Christians connected to authority. Now, since those families have either traveled abroad or many of them have passed away, Copts have been lowered in social stature within the village; they have less clout.” He paused for a moment before solemnly saying: “After the 1960s, Muslims made more money abroad, in places like Saudi Arabia and Libya, and then they bought our lands.” Following the agricultural reforms of Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser, many Copts sold their properties in Bahjura and began emigrating, first to Europe and then to the United States.
The socio-economic impact of such land reforms affected all Egyptians. Amin, another member of the Abu Eskander family, laments that, “There is no work for the youth here. Agricultural work by’mshy shwaya shwaya (moves slowly). It’s not like being a doctor, where you can increase your ranking year by year. Now, a doctor is better than someone who owns 100 feddan. Youth here don’t find work so they leave – to either Nag Hammadi, or the Gulf, especially Kuwait, or the West.”[ii] The traditions and prestige of “family life” in Upper Egypt has declined as migrants left in search of better economic and occupational opportunities. With economic investments and careers located outside of Bahjura, Amin suggested, there really is no other option for descendants of these large families. “They feel more comfortable elsewhere, since the only occupational options here are working as a teacher in Daoud Takla High School or Mounira Takla Secondary School or in Jama’iya Zar’aiya (the Agricultural Collective).”
On another scorching afternoon, I went back to Beit Abu Eskander for lunch. Following our meal, Nader recounted a time when he took a position at a bank in Nag Hammadi that provided him with a stable salary and a nine-to-five workday. His father scolded him then, for lowering himself to the position of a worker rather than an owner like the rest of his family; his superiors did not hold his family’s prestige. Nader now lamented the current state of his family and Christian life more broadly in Egypt: “In the early twentieth century, my family and others like us owned the land, had influence as Christians, and provided jobs for many generations of farmers, especially Muslims. Now, where once my family held much wealth, descendants of my workers own more than I do after traveling abroad to work in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. They have come back with more wealth than we now have.”
His father’s picture overlooked the table where we sat. I could not help but think about the ways in which their house serves as a museum to their family’s heritage; a legacy now mostly preserved in memories. They may still own land, some of it reclaimed over the years, but the social prestige that appears to matter most to Nader has all but faded. Nader admitted that he has submitted the paperwork for the Diversity Visa to the United States more than five times. I asked him why he would apply for such a thing, especially when he remains so attached to Bahjura and to his family’s history. “You just never know where this country is going economically, and especially as Christians. I want to be prepared.” While Nader and his mother cleaned up dishes, I asked Nader’s wife, Maria: “What do you think about what Nader said?” She grimaced and responded, “It’s sad that such a great family lost this prestige. The way that Nader describes it to me, I feel that loss too. Sedoona hena (they have blocked us in, here). Look at what happened in Minya. Look at how influential Coptic families like Abu Eskander were at one point in time. To see Copts in this state today, especially in fear of being the targets of terrorist attacks, it’s unthinkable.”[iii]
Bahjura offers a spatial example of the changes to religious, political, and socio-economic life in Egypt. It tells a unique story of the desires of young and old, rich and poor, to emigrate in search of economic opportunities. As you walk down the streets in the older quarters of the village, you see apartment buildings and magnificent villas abandoned, maybe indefinitely. The facades are dusty, the floors have collapsed, and the old mud-brick has cracked from the unrelenting heat. This sense of loss, of vacancy, is felt across the village. Still, many of the older generation hold on to their memories of what life was like here when Bahjura was the center, not the periphery.
[i] Fieldwork in Bahjura was conducted between Jan/Feb 2017 and May/June 2017. The following vignettes were collected through participant observation during May/June 2017. All names have been changed in the ethnographic vignettes, except for that of Bahjura’s Abu Eskander family. All photographs are the sole property of the author and are not to be shared without express permission.
[ii] One feddan is approximately 1.038 acres.
[iii] On 26 May 2017, masked gunman opened fire on buses carrying Copts from Maghagha, Minya to the Monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor for pilgrimage. The attack killed 29 people and injured 22 others.
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Candace Lukasik is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley. Her dissertation project is entitled “Transnational Anxieties: Shaping a Minority Community between Egypt and the United States.” She explores the transnational effects of the Arab Spring through the lens of Coptic emigration to the United States.