How did you get started in the discipline of History? What drew you to your research topic?
In Egypt, my grandfather Farag achieved prominence within the Coptic Church and Christian communities through his relationships with Coptic Orthodox patriarchs and his long career building churches, retreat centres and monasteries across the country. My fascination with history began with his story. The youngest of twelve children, Farag (1905 – 1996) was born to a landowning Coptic family in Al Qusiya, Asyut. The family villa was down the road from the Monastery of the Virgin Mary and their education was primarily at the hands of its monks. Farag’s formal education ended in primary school, and thereafter he went daily with my great-grandfather Akladios Bishara al ‘Arif to pray and to support the upkeep of the monastery. Copts of the village came to rely on my family because of their established social capital, passed down generation after generation. The faithful would gather outside our villa every Sunday and follow Akladios and his children to the monastery to attend the liturgy.
Following the First World War, Farag and his brother, Charoubim (1901-1991) immigrated to Alexandria and in the early 1930s applied their combined skills to open a contracting firm. Their largest client was the Coptic patriarchate—communicating directly with the papal representative in St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria. The contracting firm of Farag and Charoubim, al-Muqawilin (the contractors) became synonymous with difficult church building projects in Egypt. A deeply religious man, Farag was constantly sketching homes and churches, often sitting in solitude to work and listen to recorded taratil (hymns) and sermons. Farag and Charoubim built over thirty Coptic Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian places of worship. My father and his siblings, who emigrated to Canada at different times and for a variety of reasons, often reminisce and celebrate the stories of these towering giants.
I began my doctoral studies under the direction of religious and immigration historian Dr. Roberto Perin at York University to study the immigrant experience of the Coptic faith community in Toronto, Montreal, and New York after the Second World War. My extensive explorations into what it means to be a Copt in the diaspora and an Egyptian in North America, and the significance of practicing a faith so rooted in Egypt in the lands of immigration, grew from an enduring need to unpack the contours of my very identities.
What is your dissertation about? What is it’s broader significance?
When I started my doctoral dissertation, I knew that I wanted to tell a different story of Egypt’s Coptic populations. The existing literature rarely spoke to my experience or the stories I grew up with in my family. Filiopietism—an often excessive veneration of the community and its traditions—lent coherence to a collective narrative of survival and continuity. This approach has significant power: to define the parameters of the narrative and to offer flat, moving images of people’s otherwise complex lives. As I conducted research in Cairo and interviewed early immigrants to North American cities, I discovered how truly varied and rich our history is.
In my writing, I offer a reconceptualization of the objectified category Aqbat al-Mahjar (Coptic émigrés) in light of the confessionalization of Egyptian society and acculturation in Toronto, Montreal, and New York. I argue that contextualizing the experiences of Coptic immigrants within broader Egyptian and Middle Eastern population movements challenges past homogenization and political instrumentalisation by scholars in both Coptic Studies and Middle East Studies. Copts are divided by skin color, gender, class, region, religious affiliation, dialect, and place. People often emigrate for a variety of personal, religious, as well as socio-economic reasons and their everyday lives are particular, contingent, and reflect multiple associations. By explicating the historical trajectory of social and cultural life in Egypt and its diasporas (a form of politicized ethnicity with a home-oriented gaze), this history is of particular relevance to all diasporic populations that suffer under threat of persecution in the homeland, cast dissidents as disgruntled outliers, and increasingly retreat to a defensible position of insularity reinforced by the expansion of clerical control in North American cities.
I deal directly with the heteroglossia of immigrant recollections and the manifestation of multiple identities across Central Canada and the North Eastern United States. Inter-ethnic and intra-communal relations colour the histories of all immigrant communities. For the Copts, moments of collaboration and of tension configure a range of parish and associational debates across North America. There are many actors in this transnational story: church activists who defend the religious identity of the Copts, clergy and intellectuals who perpetuate communal myths of exceptionalism, and political activists who see it as a collective obligation to defend Coptic rights and denounce state injustice. I believe that as scholars of the Middle East in the world, we must make a concerted effort to welcome and embrace heteroglossia—of varied and opposing voices.
Some of the challenges early immigrants faced continue to arise, particularly regarding trusteeism (contestation between the laity and clergy over control of the parish), and new intergenerational debates as immigrants from Upper Egypt demand services to meet their needs while North American born generations seek to define a Coptic identity without Egypt. Although national experiences configure the language and actions of historical actors in powerful ways, peoples’ transnational imaginaries exhibit an expanding rhetorical repertoire that may at times contend with, and at other times embrace, living ‘in-between’ cultures.
The trajectory of my dissertation is similarly a product of my own transnational existence and education. I see Egypt from a vantage point at the cross-roads of the fields of North American Immigration and Ethnicity, Middle East Studies, and Coptic Studies. I delve into the localization of immigrant cultures at the same time as I explore the broader interconnected histories of colonial and post-colonial societies. I connect and make references to British rule in both the Egyptian protectorate and the Dominion of Canada, and draw on the impact of US imperialism following the Second World War. I do this in order to explain the movement of peoples and ideas which have necessarily shaped how Egypt, Canada, and the United States became linked in a rapidly evolving and shifting world.
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?
I believe in ethical and accountable scholarship that engages in community-based participatory research in a transparent and inclusive way. My turn to public history through founding and managing the CCHP reflects both my commitment to acting in partnership with the communities I study and democratizing access to historical knowledge. I have heard from second- and third-generation Canadian- and American-Egyptians that they would like to see race, ethnicity, class, disability, gender, sexuality, and mental health openly discussed and explored in relatable and relevant ways. The community should have input into research priorities, and the research should address their concerns and inform community organizing to enact sustained change.
The lack of accessible archival material and growing censure in Egypt create barriers that make the advancement of historical knowledge difficult. The patriarchal archive, Dar al Kutub and Dar al-Watha’iq in Egypt, are notoriously difficult to access reliably. As I began researching in North American archives rare were my discoveries of even a single file on the populations I study. Individuals and organizations across Egypt and North America have amassed troves of archival records that are not well maintained and are in some cases partially destroyed. When I could not find an archive, I decided to build one. The CCHP emerged as a means to bridge the gap between public archives, immigrant communities, and academic scholars. The project promotes the value of ‘ordinary’ Copts and the importance of preserving their experiences and will remain a continued repository for information, accessible for educators, researchers, students, and the general public.
I work in collaboration with early immigrants to record their stories and preserve some of their records at the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections (CTASC) at York University. Three years on, the CCHP has a growing collection at CTASC and I am now turning my attention to developing a relationship with a US archive in order to preserve records on the other side of the 49th parallel. Alongside this important archival work, I engage in community outreach and believe it necessary to foster dialogue among scholars, and between researchers and the populations they study. The CCHP is a network (perhaps even a family) of dedicated junior and senior academics who connect at our annual conference to share their latest research with Coptic populations all over the world.
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?
After delivering a lecture on conflict and historical inequality in the Middle East to a second-year class in 2017, two students approached me and said: “thank you.” Both of Lebanese descent, they felt that for the first time a discussion of the region and its history focused on the real struggles of ordinary people. That day, I had sought to contextualize the legacy of colonial subjugation and economic imperialism in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, and to contest orientalist assumptions of backwardness attributed to supposedly primordial and sectarian populations. Before walking away, one of the two students commented: “I have tried so often to explain to people just this, but it’s tough.”
This is one of my fondest memories. I could not have captured my own sense of frustration better than he did in that moment. The everyday lives of Middle Eastern and North African immigrants in North American cities were not represented in either my undergraduate or graduate course work. My research, teaching and public history initiatives connect the stories of underrepresented groups and provide all students with narratives they can relate to and build on, while promoting mutual understanding.
In Egypt, escalating violence against Christians after the investiture of president Anwar Sadat in 1970 has since reached unprecedented heights with the 2011 revolution which overthrew the government of president Hosni Mubarak. Only two years ago the Islamic State and its Egyptian affiliate called Copts their “favorite prey” and bombings, torture, murder, and random acts of violence are routinely carried out against ethno-religious minorities. Education, community outreach, and a renewed emphasis on advocating for a language of inclusion will, it is my hope, reverse a state of society where inequality ferments sectarian violence that is abetted by state inaction.
Senseless attacks on places of worship, ongoing persecution of religious minorities globally and intolerance toward followers of faith are neither random nor inexplicable. Hatred and division have a history, and a historical trajectory. Yet several scholars, activists and policy analysts remain insistent in their writing on a dichotomy that privileges orientalist understandings of an inherently sectarian Middle East: a dhimmi Coptic Church and community accepting of a position of communal subordination and an antagonistic numerical minority of émigré dissidents swayed by western ethical values and beliefs. This formulation reifies national borders, absolves the capitalist world system, and occludes systemic state corruption and the many failures of human institutions in fermenting division, thereby perpetuating what are in essence useful discourses of power that distract with the spectacle of the arena. In my dissertation, I show instead that such a narrow vision essentializes people’s lived experience and fields of action, distorting the picture of diverse populations navigating material constraints. Whether writing about the emigration of a family from Sohag in Upper Egypt or taxi drivers in Cairo’s working-class Shubra district, I measure my language, and with utmost sincerity, speak truth to power and will continue to do so.
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?
I am excited at the prospect of true interdisciplinarity in the study of Egypt and its diasporas. Scholars of the Middle East routinely ignore Coptic Christians in political, social, or cultural studies of Egypt. One need only open the index of the latest monograph to discover a cursory mention of a Coptic intellectual or politician. The Copts are nonetheless well documented by historians, sociologists, and anthropologists with rich interdisciplinary studies of their community experiences. Yet such monographs in the broad field of Coptic Studies far too often approach the Church and community as if Coptic populations exist in a vacuum. This imbalance is compounded by condescension in Middle East Studies: Coptic populations are ‘left to’ Coptic scholars and the topic of Eastern Christianity has long been the domain of scholars of ecclesiastical history and theology. Instead, my dissertation offers an integrated history to counter the marginalization of Egyptian Christians’ historical experience. This interdisciplinary synthesis allows for a holistic approach and a longer time perspective.
Far more can and should be done to expand on the study of Egypt, its Coptic populations, and especially its growing diasporas. Turning to the spatial-temporal dimension, what are the roles of places of worship as ethnic spaces? In studying the socio-economic and gendered experiences of families in Egypt and then within immigrant communities globally, what roles do women take on in the family economy? What impact do clerical sermons, recourse to legal protections, and communal sanctions have on family formation, and how do they differ between one environment and another? What are the experiences of food vendors, factory workers, Uber drivers, among others, and how do they differ from the oft recounted stories of the exceptional Coptic professionals whose success has come to define our collective narratives? Ethnic Studies, Food Studies, Refugee, Transnationalism and Diaspora Studies, Critical Race and Gender Studies, among others are valuable lenses and can offer fertile ground for future research.
Are you planning to pursue a career in academia? What topics and themes do you hope to address in future work?
Mine is the first and to date only book-length study of Coptic immigrants from a historical perspective. My archival, curatorial, and oral history research generated more questions than I could adequately answer in the dissertation. One particularly fascinating line of enquiry that I plan to pursue is the history of ongoing tensions between clergy and laity within the immigrants’ church. Researching trial records and parish board minutes, I will connect the immigrant experience of Coptic Christians with issues of trusteeism documented in the historiography of North American religious history as I continue to build on my efforts to show the heterogeneity of Coptic immigrant communities.
My interests reflect my commitment to interdisciplinary and comparative approaches to the study of immigrant communities all too often discussed in isolation. In exploring the link between the associational lives of Egyptian immigrants and Middle Eastern communities more broadly, I uncovered previously unexamined archival sources and I aim to produce a second book-length project on Arab associations in Central and Atlantic Canada. The existing literature is equally sparse in this context, with only three monographs on the topic of Arab Canadians more broadly construed. Building on insights gleaned through my dissertation research, future projects share a common goal: to contend that though national, ethnic, and religious identities have shaped people’s lives in powerful ways, immigrants based their actions on a selective reading of such ideologies that was most often expressed in choices to live their own kind of transcultural lives. Think of an immigrant from Egypt in late-1960s Montreal who is living in a boarding house in Ville St-Laurent with Lebanese and Jordanian recent arrivals, frequenting the local Armenian bakery and Syrian Orthodox church and working at a factory along the Lachine Canal with Francophones debating housing prices and the Parti Québécois. Studies that account for what I call mundane transnationalism—a banal, often routine realm of social interactions and habits reflected in flags, food, furniture, and media consumption—are rare, and my analysis of immigrants’ identity formation in North America will propose that ‘home’ was less so bounded by geopolitical borders as by social relations.
I am excited at the prospect of devoting my career to the comparative study of underrepresented immigrant populations. Through my historical research, inclusive teaching and public outreach I will continue to share stories of real people doing real things.
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Michael Akladios is a PhD candidate in history at York University, working under the supervision of Dr. Roberto Perin. Michael’s dissertation is entitled “Ordinary Copts: Ecumenism, Activism, and Belonging in North American Cities, 1954-1985.” His study is an examination of the transnational, pluricultural, and ecumenical history of Coptic Christians in Egypt, and then later in the first and largest immigrant communities in Toronto, Montreal, and New York. He charts this groups’ immigration, settlement, integration, and associational activities. In addition to his doctoral research, Michael is a course director in the Department of History at York University and the founder and project manager of the Coptic Canadian History Project.