In August of each year, Saint Mary is especially important among Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt. From the 7th till the 21st, Orthodox Christians – like many other Christians in Egypt and the world – commemorate the actions of the Apostles of Jesus many centuries before them. According to the Synaxarium of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Apostles fasted for two weeks to see the assumption of Mary into heaven, one more time after St. Thomas had initially witnessed this miraculous incident while he was on an evangelical mission to India.
All over Egypt for these two weeks, Copts gather at what is called Nahdet el-‘Adra (Prayers conducted in praise of Mary). These prayers coincided with my 2017 doctoral research period in the village of Tal Saqr, located in an Upper Egyptian governorate. My first visit to this village was in June 2016, and I eventually decided to make it my primary dissertation field site. While it is often the case that researchers, journalists, and visitors would be interested in going to the visible places of worship during St. Mary’s time (i.e. the official parishes), I was eventually driven to other invisible spaces that, paradoxically, are very important for the Copts. Building on Miray Philip’s photo essay about urban places of worship, my story aims to shed light on less visible places where Copts navigate their aspirations, pressures, and desires.
Tal Saqr is mostly populated by Coptic Orthodox Christians. As many other neighboring villages, this village suffers from unemployment, illiteracy, and poverty. Many of the inhabitants of the village used to work in a limestone mountain located a few kilometers away from their households. Their job was to break rocks and to sell them to individual traders who used to pay them on a daily basis. However, a few years ago this work was privatized to a ruling state institution, leaving the people of Tal Saqr in a precarious situation between jobs that need skills they lack or others that would require them to work under abject conditions.
“The problem is that Tal Saqr is located far away from the agricultural land…so people do not own their own fields,” Sameh, one of the Village’s inhabitants, told me. The inhabitants of the village used to own their tools, and if they would move to cultivate someone’s land they would have to depend on their employers’ ax, soil, and fruit to earn a living. Moreover, the people of Tal Saqr do not have the skills to work in open workshops such as carpentry, metalwork, or auto repair.
In this regard, I was told that some of the people of Tal Saqr migrated to Libya to mainly work in clothing stores or gas stations in Tripoli or Benghazi. Although the salaries were better than their days at the mountain, they had to return to Egypt after the fall of the Qaddafi regime in February 2011. Here, it is important to mention that Tal Saqr is not very far from al-Our Village from where 20 Coptic Christians were beheaded by ISIS militants in Libya in February 2015. Thus, afraid to meet the same fate, many Copts left Libya.
From the money they earned, some of the villagers of Tal Saqr bought vehicles and turned them into taxis or small transport trucks to carry fruits and vegetables from the agricultural lands to traders, while others opened different kinds of shops and boutiques. Some invested the money in real estate, and built houses of 3 or 4 floors, taking one floor for their family and selling the rest. However, those who were not able to travel to Libya, or traveled and weren’t able to save money, continue to struggle to make a living amidst these difficult conditions.
One way to earn money is to take advantage of St. Mary’s fasting period. I learned this phenomenon when I was sitting with Youstina, a woman in her mid-twenties, at the canteen (the sweets shop) that is connected to one of the official Coptic Orthodox parishes in Tal Saqr. Around 7 in the evening, while Youstina was very busy selling candy and soda drinks to the kids, a man – who appeared to be in his late-forties – asked Youstina: “howā māfish farsh esanādy?”
It is difficult to find a precise translation for this phrase. The man was wondering if he could make a living by selling his merchandise (which would be placed on a carpet, a piece of cloth, or a cart) during what is popularly known in Arabic as mūlid. The unknown man is not from this village, and he did not know what the villagers of Tal Saqr were already informed a few months before St. Mary’s fasting period: there was no “farsh esanādy” because there were to be no celebrations outside the official parishes.
This cancellation came as a result of the bus massacre in May 2017, when dozens of Coptic Christians from Minya (mostly children) were killed while in route to St. Samuel the Confessor Monastery in Beni-Suef. Based on regulations issued by the Coptic Orthodox Church in agreement with the Egyptian state, swings, shooting games, carts of sweet potatoes, and tents were banned this year. Their absence left a lot of empty space protected and bounded by extensive security measures. Such absence was imagined to protect the villagers of Tal Saqr from both terrorist attacks and ‘inappropriate’ (read: sinful) practices that should not be present during St. Mary’s holy time.
According to the 5th chapter of Mathew’s Gospel, “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”
To be sure, if cutting ‘sinful’ jobs from the scene of the mūlid appeared to be ‘successful’, it allowed other ‘stumbles’ to be more ‘visible’ to me during my fieldwork. The removal of these jobs that once surrounded the parish during St. Mary’s fasting period pushed me to search for other spaces where people gathered beyond the now empty ‘protected’ spaces of the mūlid.
The temperature was close to 55 degrees Celsius during one of the days of St. Mary’s fasting period in August. I had just arrived in Tal Saqr. Everything was closed, so I began navigating the empty spaces left by the cancellation of the mūlid. I was searching for a place to drink something cold during the hot sunny afternoon hours, and to relax before the church bells rang signaling the beginning of the daily prayer around 6 in the evening.
The only available place was Bolbol’s Coffeehouse. It was my first visit. Bolbol is a 24-year-old man who works for the coffeehouse at Tal Saqr, though he is not originally from there. During St. Mary’s fasting period each year, Bolbol and other local villagers work at the coffeehouse to serve the visitors of the mūlid.
Bolbol sleeps at the coffeehouse when it closes around midnight. The walls are adorned with words and images with the message that Jesus is present in all that we do. Bolbol did not write these words himself; they had existed before he first moved to Tal Saqr. With a tattoo of St. Mary that covers a big part of his right arm, I think Bolbol is happy with the displays of Jesus on the walls surrounding him during his working hours and throughout the night. Whenever he passed by, he always touched the image of Jesus hanging in front of the shisha (hookah) and its flavors to get baraka (blessings). He planned to write his name next to Jesus’ name on the wall.
On the day that I first met Bolbol, the church bells were exceptionally loud. After making the sign of the cross on his body while preparing shisha for a guest, Bolbol told me that he does not usually pray or fast, although he can always hear the bells ringing. He felt guilty for serving shisha at the coffeehouse, and for selling liver and sausage sandwiches even though he knew that meat is forbidden during any fasting period in the Coptic Orthodox tradition. He hoped that his last days would be “good enough” to go to heaven.
Until the 1950s, some priests and monks smoked before it was gradually declared as a ‘sin’. Especially during the papal period of Pope Shenouda III, smokers were strictly prohibited from getting any clerical ordination and they were not allowed to join the Coptic Orthodox seminary school. Moreover, some theological opinions have indicated that smoking might ruin the communion that the people intake at the holy mass. In his book The Demon Wars, Pope Shenouda wrote that habits like smoking disturb our relation with God because it makes the Christian person a ‘slave’ to an object that destroys ‘God’s temple;’ that is, the human body that is already blessed through the blood and the flesh of Jesus.
I wonder if serving and/or smoking Shisha in conjunction with other jobs that entail ‘sins’ might be a point of departure to broaden the scope of how and, more importantly, where we should study the lives of Coptic Christians. In the beginning of my research, I thought that the mūlid, official parishes, and the homes of villagers were the only spaces where I would be able to speak with my interlocutors about their religious and their social and economic anxieties and aspirations. Initially, I completely overlooked that Bolbol’s coffeehouse would add ‘positive’ value to my fieldwork.
After finishing my fieldwork however, I asked myself: where would I have been able to find Bolbol if I did not meet him in the coffeehouse? He is not from the village, and he would never attend St. Mary’s Nahda. Instead, he would be preparing shisha or sandwiches for his clients. Thus, rather than cut that which would ‘stumble’ the body of the ‘perfect’ Coptic Christian or the image of the ‘perfect’ Coptic community, I thought about how gatherings like the ones formed at Bolbol’s coffeehouse guide us to stories that are absent and rejected from visible Christian spaces.
Put differently, what is negated due to security or theological reasons at the visible spaces can be gates to other invisible stories about how Copts struggle to find a ‘good’ job and/or to cultivate a ‘good’ faithful relation with St. Mary or Jesus. Bolbol’s presence at the coffeehouse might lead us to think about those people whose labor pushes them to be absent from the academic and non-academic writings about Coptic Christians in Egypt and in the diaspora. If the martyrdom of the Copts who used to work in Libya made them and their faith visible to the media and to researchers, there are other Copts whose employment settings willingly or unwillingly exploit and disrupt their ‘faith’ at coffeehouses, bars, nightclubs, casinos, streets, and brothels. The latter should not be ignored, and deserve our attention.
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Mina Ibrahim is a second year Doctoral Student at Justus-Liebig University, Giessen-Germany & The international Graduate Center for the Study of Culture (GCSC). He is currently based in Beirut for a fellowship at the Orient Institute Beirut (OIB). His work ethnographically searches for ‘negated’ and ‘rejected’ spaces in academic and non-academic writings about the lives of the Copts.
 All the names of people and locations are pseudonyms to protect my interlocutors.