How did you get started in the historical profession?

It would make more sense to ask how my interest in history began – and the answer is that I owe it to my parents. When I was growing up, my mother and father often told stories about their childhood and teen years in the 1930s and early ‘40s, and about their parents and other relatives. Their stories gave me a sense of having a personal connection to history. My mother described, for example, how she and her sister stood in food lines in New York City during the Depression to get government-issued sacks of potatoes. My father described things like how, during a camping trip along the Appalachian trail, he raised the hackles of white supremacists in a West Virginia town after he walked into the first barber shop he encountered – an African-American-owned barber shop – to get a haircut. We heard a lot about our grandmother’s family experiences in Germany, too, and especially the haunting story of our great-aunt Mary who was disabled, and whom the Nazis took away and never returned. My family in Germany was Christian but their experiences under the Nazis have informed my interest in modern Jewish history. The bottom line is that my parents instilled in me an appreciation for history, a desire to make sense of what happened in the past and why, and a curiosity about how ordinary people coped with adversity.

My own childhood experiences also stimulated my interest in how history happens in places – that is, in natural, built, and sensory environments. Sometimes when I was little, my mother would take my sister and me to Sunday morning services at a historic church near where we lived. This was Old Tennent Presbyterian Church in New Jersey, which had served as a makeshift hospital during the American War for Independence. After the Battle of Monmouth, which occurred in a nearby field in 1778, medics brought the wounded to this church and stretched them in the pews for treatment. So sometimes, while listening to the minister’s sermon, my sister and I would lift the dark red-velvet seat cushions to peer at the wood underneath, because we imagined that we could see bloodstains from the Revolution! Sitting on the pews in that historic church gave us a tangible sense of connection to the heritage of our town, state, and country.

You can see how my interest in everyday experiences and material culture carried over into my most recent book, A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2017). In this book I consider, for example, how things like shoes, carpets, and silverware offer evidence for shifting relations among Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Ottoman Middle East. Through changes that occurred in material culture – in the style of turbans, for instance – we can detect the impact that ostensibly bigger events, trends, or policies had – or, just as significantly, did not have – on how people lived and mingled. One example of an event that had far-reaching but ambiguous consequences was the Ottoman Tanzimat reform edict of 1856. This edict declared non-Muslim subjects equal to Muslims in the eyes of the sultan, and officially ended the practice (going back to the early Islamic conquests in the mid-seventh century) of identifying Christians and Jews as dhimmis, meaning protected people who were subordinate to the Islamic state and to Muslims. The evidence of clothing would seem to suggest that relations among Muslims, Christians, and Jews started to become more egalitarian after 1856 – that the edict did make or reflect a real change. Beforehand, for example, only Muslims could wear certain colors of clothing in public – such as bright green or red. But in the late nineteenth century, Muslim and Christian men who worked in government offices started to wear outfits in the same dark color and styles – a trend that would suggest a move towards social parity. In other areas of society, however, such as in the Ottoman military, the reform of 1856 changed little to nothing. Assumptions and policies persisted, built on the idea that Muslims – and only Muslims – could bear arms and fight for the Ottoman cause.

What drew you to the subject matter of your first book?

My first book, which grew out of my PhD dissertation, is called Living with Colonialism: Nationalism and Culture in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (University of California Press, 2003). It is as much a history of modern Africa and the British Empire as it is of the Middle East. People often ask how I became interested in a subject like this one. I think it all started when, as a child, I would pore over the maps in my father’s National Geographic atlas. The maps for Africa and the Middle East always mesmerized me because I knew so little about what they contained.

The first real seeds of my interest in Sudan began to grow in the year after high school, when I won a scholarship from the English-Speaking Union to study at a boarding school in Bury St. Edmunds, England. There, I made friends with students from many countries, such as Nigeria and Kuwait. When I arrived at Yale the next year, I decided to study a west African language, Hausa, and later started to learn Arabic, too; I also chose to major in Anthropology. Upon graduating from Yale, I won a Marshall Scholarship from the British government to go to the University of Durham in northern England, where I studied Arabic and Middle Eastern history and wrote an MPhil thesis on domestic slavery in the nineteenth-century northern Sudan. In fact, Durham was the perfect place to study the Sudan, because it contains an unrivaled archive of materials from the period of British colonial rule in the country (1898-1956). Sudanese history intrigued me so much that when I next went to Princeton to earn a PhD in History, I decided to focus on that subject for my dissertation.

In Living with Colonialism, I examine how Sudanese nationalism emerged within, and not merely in opposition to, the colonial system which the British established after their conquest of 1898, among a generation of Arabic-speaking men who became petty bureaucrats for the regime. I consider how nationalism developed above all as a literary undertaking through Arabic poetry and prose, how Islamic culture informed it, and how it reflected the cultural limitations of this cohort of colonial-era elites who articulated ideologies that excluded non-Arab Muslim and non-Muslim Sudanese peoples. If you wonder why Sudan suffered so badly from postcolonial civil wars, and why there are now two Sudans (the Republic of South Sudan and the residual Republic of Sudan) where there was until 2011 just one, then my book can provide you with the necessary historical context.

How did you become interested in Egyptian history?

Growing up in New Jersey, I watched with keen interest, on television news, when Jimmy Carter brokered the Camp David Accord between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat in 1978. Sadat made a very positive impression on many Americans at the time: he looked cheerful and dignified. I was only eleven years old then, and my family had no connection to Egypt and little knowledge of Egyptian affairs, so I was unaware of how ordinary Egyptians – including, significantly, Copts – were experiencing Sadat’s regime. Years passed before I began to appreciate those issues and to understand more fully what the Camp David Accord had meant for Egypt, Israel, the United States, and the Palestinian people.

In the aftermath of Camp David, as U.S.-Egyptian relations grew stronger, the “Treasures of King Tutankhamun” exhibit made its way to New York. That was in Spring 1979. I had the privilege of going to see it with my fifth-grade class on a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Visiting the King Tut exhibit sparked my desire, at the time, to become an Egyptologist. Seeing the 1978 movie version of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile probably helped as well! In the end, I did not become an archaeologist (partly because I realized that digging under the hot sun in an encampment was not the life for me), and so I have never excavated pharaonic tombs. Nevertheless, my interest in Egypt has persisted and evolved!

In 1989, as an undergraduate at Yale, I won a U.S. government-supported Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship to study in the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) program at the American University in Cairo (AUC). That was my first trip to Egypt, and the hot news that summer was that General Omer Beshir had just staged a coup d’état in Khartoum. Our CASA student group visited al-Azhar, and a short clip of our formal reception with the Rector appeared on the Cairo television news. We also had the privilege of an audience with Pope Shenouda III, who told us about the Coptic Orthodox Church, blessed us, and – as I vividly recall – gave us Jordan almonds. One of our Arabic teachers at AUC, a devout Copt, helped to arrange that meeting, which was a remarkable opportunity for us all.

I went back to Cairo again for dissertation research in 1995, supported by a Fulbright-Hays fellowship. Later, in Summer 2001, by which time I was an assistant professor at Trinity College in Connecticut, I returned to Cairo for the CASA III (faculty-level) program and studied Arabic paleography. That summer marked a turning point in my research career. Wandering around the library stacks of AUC, I stumbled upon a section of early twentieth-century books about Christian missionary overtures to Muslims, some written by early associates of AUC, like the British Anglican missionary of the Church Missionary Society (CMS), W.H.T. Gairdner (1873-1928). These books about missions stood on the shelves among several mid-to-late twentieth-century works, in Arabic, by Muslims who critiqued or attacked the same missions as imperialist ventures. I went on to write an article about Arabic anti-missionary treatises and soon thereafter discovered the archives of the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, including papers of the American Presbyterian mission which worked in Egypt between 1854 and 1967. This material inspired my second book, American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton University Press, 2008), which considers how the American mission in Egypt affected Muslims and diverse Christians, more often than not in the absence of conversion, and how Egyptian encounters reciprocally affected the American missionaries and the culture of American Protestantism.

The second chapter of American Evangelicals in Egypt considers how both the American mission, and the Egyptian Evangelical Church it fostered, interacted with the Coptic Orthodox Church. Although most converts to the Evangelical Church were Copts, I argue that the Coptic Orthodox Church did not “lose” in this process. On the contrary, competition with Protestant and also Catholic missions compelled the Coptic Orthodox Church to become clearer about its position in Egypt and more active in shaping cultures of devotion, education, and social service. The Coptic Orthodox Church emerged stronger and more robust.

My interests in the history of Christian missions, Middle Eastern Christianity, and Coptic studies arose from this book. This book also signaled my growing interest in the history of Muslim-Christian relations.

Considering the state of Middle East History more generally, and Egyptian History more particularly, what topics and issues would you like to see addressed?

This question makes me uncomfortable because any “wish list” feels like an indulgence – a vanity – in a region where historians work under persistent constraints. They face limits on free expression and access to libraries and archives, and sometimes also on access to entry in the form of visa restrictions. Posing obstacles, too, are surveillance, conflicts, and persistent social taboos. I have not even mentioned here funding restrictions, and how pressures of fads and fashions push scholars along certain tracks.

Research on Egypt feels difficult right now. Whereas Egypt was a common destination for PhD students when I was a graduate student in the mid-1990s, many PhD students now opt to go instead to places like Morocco, Dubai, or even Beirut. The brutal murder of the Italian PhD student from Cambridge, Giulio Regeni, which occurred in 2016, has left researchers more anxious about conducting research in Egypt. Against this context, I wish we could feel greater security – security in the sense of calm assurance, not in the sense of more oversight from a surveilling apparatus. I wish that researchers could feel freer to travel and to address challenging historical questions.

Given your current or past interest in Egypt’s Coptic populations, how would you frame the issue of Coptic belonging in Egypt and its diasporas? 

Copts belong to Egypt and in Egypt. They can take pride in their connection to the country’s heritage during the two thousand years of the Christian era, following the mission of Saint Mark the Evangelist. Many Copts understandably like to say that Coptic history also links Egypt to what came before Christianity – to the country in the age of its pharaohs.

And yet, during the Islamic era, Egypt’s Christians have occupied ambiguous social positions. For centuries, they were officially dhimmis: again, protected but subordinate people who could persist in their religious difference provided that they respected the Islamic state and Muslim domination. For much of history, Egyptian Christians lived amicably within the Islamic milieu, although there were periods of strife when tolerance frayed. Consider, for example, the Mamluk era, which gave the Coptic Orthodox Church grounds for grieving more martyrs.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the “modern” era, circumstances for Egyptian Christians appeared to improve. The regimes of Muhammad Ali Pasha and his son Sa’id Pasha eased some longstanding restrictions on Copts – even though they simultaneously pursued repressive policies for military recruitment and forced-labor projects. Muhammad ‘Ali and Sa’id Pasha stopped, for example, the practice of requiring Copts to pay the extra tax called the jizya, which was associated with dhimmi status for Christians and Jews. The 1919 revolution arguably represented the peak of Coptic belonging in an Egyptian civic sense, as Copts partnered with Muslims in pursuit of national sovereignty. But the luster faded thereafter.

What changed? I attribute some of the shift to new Islamist organizations of the 1920s – groups like the Society for the Defense of Islam (not so well known today) and the more populist Muslim Brotherhood. Partisans of these groups called, inter alia, for the return to an Islamic order which reasserted Muslim hegemony. In such a context, it is hard to see how Copts could feel a strong sense of belonging to the political order – even if they could continue to feel powerfully attached to Egypt itself.

After the 1952 revolution, Gamal Abdel Nasser and his associates proclaimed a vision of an Arab Egypt which many observers, at the time and even now, have described as “secular”. But Nasserite secularism – and Sadat- and Mubarak-style secularism, too – was not as inclusive and egalitarian as secular rhetoric may have implied. For many reasons, the Egyptian political and social order continued to work on the premise of Muslim hegemony, even if secularists shunned the dhimmi-style language that Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood openly continued to endorse. These observations point to the fact that we need to reassess more critically the history of secularism in Egypt. (Going back to your earlier question of research agendas, I should perhaps put Egyptian secularism on a list for what I wish scholars should study!)

In late 1950s and ‘60s, the Coptic diaspora started to form. Some departures occurred as Egyptian students – Christians and Muslims alike – left to pursue higher education abroad. As an example of one emigrant from this period, think of Iris Habib al-Misri, the distinguished historian of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who left Egypt for Philadelphia in the 1950s to pursue a Master’s degree at Dropsie College. This non-sectarian institution for biblical studies is now part of my home institution, the University of Pennsylvania, although it has changed to become the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. Some Egyptian emigrants from this period returned to Egypt – like, again, Iris Habib al-Misri – while others settled permanently in countries such as Canada and Australia.

Among the factors that prompted Egyptians to emigrate in the mid-twentieth century, Nasserite nationalizations were important as well. Many Egyptian Muslim, Christian, and Jewish families – Arabic speakers as well as Greeks and others – left when the Egyptian government seized their businesses and properties. We need to remember, too, the pulls that created Egyptian diasporas. The United States, for example, passed the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, which enabled more Egyptians to enter, settle, and eventually become citizens. This act reversed legislation from the 1920s – the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 – which had tried to block Asian, and especially Chinese, migrants, and which had for decades, halted the entry of most non-western-European immigrants in general.

Copts in the diaspora have flourished, not only because the educational and professional opportunities have abounded, but also because Copts have not run into the barriers that frequently block Christian mobility in Egypt. Think about building new churches – something that has been notoriously hard for Christians in Egypt to do, but which is relatively easy to do in a place like Canada. In the diaspora, too, Coptic Orthodox Churches have gained the ability to evangelize freely. In this way, they are becoming more like Catholic and Protestant communities were a century ago. When I visited Cairo in November 2017, I was particularly struck by a new fresco in St. Mark’s Cathedral, showing a map that illustrates the diffusion of Coptic Orthodox missions in the world, to sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and elsewhere. This trend of sending missions reflects the growing confidence, prosperity, and global mobility of Copts in the world.

At the same time – and thinking of individual people, and not of churches and their congregations – Copts in the diaspora are increasingly facing challenges that earlier immigrant groups have had to negotiate. These challenges include such things as intermarriage with non-Copts, the introduction of new customs and lifestyles (including in sexual identities and behaviors), and inter-generational tensions. By welcoming converts who are not Egyptian, Coptic church communities are also opening themselves to new cultural influences. I suspect that if we were to attend a potluck dinner organized by a Coptic Orthodox congregation in, say, Los Angeles, we could detect some of these changes in the food that people bring. Next to the dishes of macaroni béchamel and basbousa, we might find guacamole, chili, and corn chips – maybe even tofu lo mein! These shifts may seem minor – how significant can it be, after all, to bring guacamole to a church supper? – but as they accumulate they are likely to mute the connections of diasporic communities to Egyptian culture while creating new hybrid practices and identities.

Again, Copts have deep and intimate ties to Egypt, and powerful links to its heritage. But given the movement of Copts in the world, and the opening of Coptic Orthodox churches to converts abroad, the connection of what we could call “Egyptianness” to “Copticness” is likely to grow thinner in the next century.

Speaking personally, I am optimistic about the future of the diasporic Coptic communities. One happy development that I see is that Coptic studies is now thriving as a field of academic inquiry in North American and European universities, with scholars taking creative, interdisciplinary approaches. Look at the upcoming program of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference to be held in San Antonio, Texas: Coptic studies will be well represented. Think, too, of this very forum – the Coptic Canadian History Project (CCHP) – which Michael Akladios has founded. A brilliant undertaking in public history, the CCHP is sustaining and cultivating broad interest in Coptic studies while showing how Coptic immigrants have contributed to the making of Canada and North America at large.

2018-03-02 14.05.21
(left to right) Candace Lukasik, Gaetan du Roy, Michael Akladios, and Hiroko Miyokawa with Weston Bland and Heather Sharkey in stormy Philadelphia for Modern Coptic Studies: A Symposium, hosted at University of Pennsylvania on March 2, 2018.

As scholars, what sort of impact do you believe we should have in the increasingly xenophobic and Islamophobic climate in North America?

Merely posing this question on the Coptic Canadian History Project forum implies that Copts and those who are interested in Copts (like me!) have a commitment to foreigners and to Muslims – partly because of common histories of immigration, and partly because of connections to Egypt, through which we have many Muslim friends and neighbors. I agree with this premise. We do have this commitment.

Practical responses to xenophobia and Islamophobia can start in the classroom. We must try to set a tone of mutual respect, and allow students to engage in discussions that test ideas. Tone counts. If a person stands at the front of a classroom (or a country) and makes statements that disparage particular people on the basis of their religion, national origin, gender, or otherwise, then that person sets a negative tone that allows others to disparage or harm others in turn. On the other hand, setting a positive tone can help to change things for the better, by opening conversations, enabling people to become colleagues and friends in spite of differences, and building concord.

Class conversations can be awkward, to be sure. A few years ago, a student raised his hand in one of my lectures in a class surveying Islamic civilization: he asked how the violence manifested by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or Da’esh) amidst war in Syria and Iraq reflected Muslim teachings. This student said that he believed Islam to have an innate propensity to violence. I had a few observant Muslims in the class, and as you can imagine, the student’s question left them feeling visibly uncomfortable, even distressed. I found myself in the difficult situation of trying responsibly to address the one student’s honest question and the others students’ discomfort. I am not sure how well I did in my response, especially since the question – at least, as the student phrased it – caught me off guard. But I tried. Within the classroom, I always try to treat students with respect while thinking of them as members of my family. We may sometimes annoy or offend each other, but we have to stick together.

Are you working on a new project? What topics and themes do you hope to address in your future work?

I am starting to write a book that focuses on the lives of diverse 19th– and early 20th-century figures whose experiences connected the Nile Valley to global histories. My examples involve Egypt, Sudan, South Sudan, and Ethiopia. For this book, I have published several articles already, in journals and edited volumes. I intend to collect and revise them while adding new chapters. For example, I have already published one study of Ahmed Fahmy, an Egyptian Muslim who converted to Christianity in 1877. I trace Ahmed Fahmy’s career as he fled to Scotland to escape from his family’s rage, and later, as a certified doctor (trained at the University of Edinburgh), when he went to China. There, as a member of the evangelical London Missionary Society, he founded the first hospital in Zhangzhou.[1] To give a second example, I published a study of a female giraffe – a non-human biographical subject! – who traveled from what is now Sudan to France in the 1820s. I consider her “career” when she was alive in Sudan and Egypt and then when she entered the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, France. I also study her after she died, by assessing what happened to museum displays of her skeleton and stuffed skin, and by considering how her capture reflected the expansion of hunting that caused giraffes to go extinct in Sudan.[2]

This summer I have immersed myself in researching a new segment of my book: I am studying a battalion of about 400 soldiers who came from what is now South Sudan. These men entered the Egyptian army, mostly as military slaves, in the 1850s, and went to Mexico in 1863. Fulfilling a promise to Napoleon III of France, the Khedive Ismail sent these “Egyptian Sudanese” soldiers to Veracruz, to support the bid of the Habsburg, Maximilian I, to establish a French-backed monarchy in Mexico. I will focus above all on two characters in this story: one of the veterans of this Mexican campaign – a man named Ali Gifoon, for whose life story we have a record – and the prince-historian, ‘Umar Tusun (also known as Omar Toussoun), who was the grandson of Sa’id Pasha of Egypt and great-grandson of Muhammad Ali on his father’s side, and a grandson of the Khedive Isma’il on his mother’s. In 1933, ‘Umar Tusun wrote an account of the Egyptian Sudanese battalion in Mexico which remains an important source on the episode. By juxtaposing the careers of ‘Umar Tusun, the prince-intellectual, with ‘Ali Gifoon, the slave-turned-soldier, we can better understand the bonds that tied Egypt and Sudan together during their lifetimes.

I am glad to have the opportunity to study Mexican history – another part of North American history! – through the life stories of ‘Ali Gifoon and ‘Umar Tusun. We are living in a moment when elements of the U.S. government malign Mexico as a nation of criminals and rapists, and when U.S. border agents have divided undocumented Mexican families by sticking children in detention facilities and injecting them with sedatives and other psychotropic drugs to keep them subdued. For me, at this juncture, engaging with Mexican history feels like one more small way to resist the xenophobia that is poisoning parts of American society.

It has become fashionable for scholars to study what they call “transnational history” – the history linking two countries, such as Egypt and the United Kingdom between the British Occupation of 1882 and the Suez Crisis of 1956. What I am trying to do in this new book goes beyond that. I want to show how the Nile Valley, through its individuals, has stretched out in many different directions at once, for example, to France, China, Mexico, Palestine, the United States, Uganda, and so on. By tracing where individuals went, what they did, and whom they met, we can see the webs of connection that have anchored the Nile Valley in the world. We can see, too, how the Nile Valley and its people added to the push-and-pull of global history before the late twentieth-century migrations that produced, among other things, the now-flourishing Coptic diaspora!

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Heather J. Sharkey is Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania. She previously taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; MIT; and Trinity College (Connecticut). She received a BA from Yale and PhD from Princeton. Her books include Living with Colonialism: Nationalism and Culture in the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan (University of California Press 2003); American Evangelicals in Egypt: Missionary Encounters in an Age of Empire (Princeton University Press 2008); and A History of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Middle East (Cambridge University Press 2017).

[1] Heather J. Sharkey, “An Egyptian in China: Ahmed Fahmy and the Making of World Christianities,” Church History, 78:2 (2009), pp. 309-26.

[2] Heather J. Sharkey, “La Belle Africaine: The Sudanese Giraffe Who Went to France”, Canadian Journal of African Studies/La revue canadienne des études africaines, 49:1 (2015), pp. 39-65.

3 thoughts

  1. A remarkable academic career with a variety of areas of study ranging from history to anthropology to languages to religion and politics. It is very interesting and intriguing. Hope to establish durable contact to discuss different issues concerning all above areas.


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