A dear teacher, Maged Atiya was reposed to the Lord on March 1st, 2020. Born in 1953, Maged emigrated from Cairo with his family in 1969 to join his beloved uncle in Salt Lake City, Utah. Moving next to New York, his father was one of the pillars of the Brooklyn parish. The passing of Maged Atiya is a huge loss for many of us. Throughout our dissertation fieldwork, Maged was an astute interlocutor; someone at the ready for hardy debates on Coptic politics, American interest in their suffering and the future of the Church in North America. The nephew of the great Aziz Sorial Atiya, Maged was not a traditional academic himself, but wrote prolifically under the pseudonym Salama Moussa—a modern Coptic writer who described himself as “secular,” yet was conflicted by his relationship to the Church and the community; an apt moniker. Maged was always at the ready to welcome us with honest conversations over sushi or tea in Manhattan on the contradiction-laden positions many Copts politically find themselves, particularly in the US. Parsing out how Western politicians have used the Copts and the difficult positions Coptic activists have found themselves, Maged was always one to lay out arguments beyond polemics. His company was at all times a moment of intellectual rigor and camaraderie.
Maged had a storied history with the Church. Open to discussing and debating the past, present and future of Egypt’s Copts beyond the nation’s borders, he once confided a vivid memory. Attending a protest by the American Coptic Association outside the Egyptian embassy in the 1980s, he watched with curiosity as an official “in a cheap suit” walked out of the main doors. The Egyptian official began snapping Polaroid photos of the protesters. He set the photos on the sidewalk to dry as always. A petty form of “intimidation.” On this particular day there was a terrible wind that blew the photos about, the official having no choice but to chase after them and pick one up at a time off the ground. It was a story that perhaps captures his feelings of both sides: a humorous and “ineffectual mess,” as he described it.
Despite his distance from most religious services of the Church, Maged still held a deep concern for its future. He once said: “The Church would do itself good if they defined a Copt not simply as Egyptian, but rather as someone who held a broad interest with the Coptic situation in Egypt.” Throughout our conversations, Maged tried to think of strategic ways to expand the limits of Copticity, to include others that have been excluded, because he believed that a different community was possible. Though brief our time with Maged was, he had an enormous impact on the way we look at migration, Coptic identity and Egyptian history; and quite frankly on the Coptic Church and community and our relationships to each.
A scientist and businessman, the Maged we came to know was foremost a storyteller. He joined us in Toronto for the second annual CCHP conference. He began his talk that day saying, “I am not a scholar, or at least not a scholar in the areas represented by this conference. So, I am way out on a limb and thus tempted to ask you to join me on that limb.” We joined you, Maged. Everyone in the room, through every story and word, joined you and with bated breath hung not on that limb, but instead on your witty commentary. It was our sincere and heartfelt pleasure to know you, to hear you speak and to read your thoughtful prose as you recounted with nuance the social history of a Coptic people in diaspora. You will be missed. In you we found the feeling of possibility—sharing hope for the future in an otherwise troubled present. Memory eternal, dear teacher.
Michael Akladios and Candace Lukasik