Embracing Egyptianness in the Diaspora

Film and television help to reveal the continuing hold of the homeland on life and religion beyond its borders

Embracing Egyptianness in the Diaspora
Ramy Youssef at the Official Viewing Party of the 2020 Golden Globe Awards. (Rachel Luna/Getty Images)

No person on this Earth can call themself as patriotic as the Egyptian driver, who speaks about their love for Egypt in terms so poetic that one is struck at once by the sincerity and lyricism.

In Ramy Youssef’s eponymous Hulu show about his Muslim upbringing in New Jersey, Ramy takes a taxi in Egypt and his driver, apropos of nothing, shouts, “Egypt is the country of hope, Captain Ramy! … The people of Egypt, they’re a good people, a poor and pitiful people.” In the less well-known film, “The Virgin, the Copts and Me,” Egyptian-French filmmaker Namir Abdel Messeeh travels back to Egypt to interview witnesses of the 1968 Marian apparition at St. Mary’s Church in the district of Zeitoun in Cairo. As they drive through the city, his driver monologues, “Egypt is the mother of the world. You can cry in your mother’s arms. She will console you.” Egyptians are famous for their love of their country and for how often they say “Egypt is the mother of the world,” a phrase that always elicits eye rolls from non-Egyptians. But underneath the layers of this bon mot lies a bit of sincerity that frames how Egyptians abroad situate the country in the imagination.

This is something I’ve spent some time thinking about. As a 20-something Copt and Egyptian from New Jersey doing my doctoral degree, I’m still figuring out my place in the world. Being in the diaspora means that the question of “How Egyptian and non-Egyptian am I?” hovers over everything, because everything entangles with identity. About a year ago, I developed an obsession with films that started with Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express.” Ever since, I’ve developed an almost religious conviction about the power of film, that it can truly envelop every aspect of the human condition, no matter how out-there, eclectic or marginalized. Naturally, I’ve turned to the medium to gain insight about diaspora life: maybe some insight about myself, maybe about the way some Egyptians in the diaspora understand themselves. For this reason, I’ve been fascinated by “Ramy” and “The Virgin, the Copts and Me.”

On the surface, they couldn’t be more different. “Ramy” is a critically acclaimed 2019 American show that has made waves among all demographics, while “The Virgin, the Copts and Me” is a 2011 Egyptian-French gonzo documentary that counts just over 100 logs on the film-sharing platform Letterboxd. Why these two in particular? As a New Jerseyan, I love what Ramy has to say about urban life in the heart of the Egyptian-American diaspora and, as a Copt, I appreciate Messeeh’s film as being a peerless Coptic diasporic film. These are the media I’ve found most fruitful in my journey to understand myself. Operating from the (semi-)autobiographical mode, both works explore their relation to the West and to Egypt. Watching them back-to-back, I appreciated how Messeeh and Ramy frame their relationships to Egypt as mediated by their religious upbringings. As a Copt and Muslim in the diaspora, respectively, how do Messeeh and Ramy come to terms with religion? How does Egypt as a motherland play into this? How do I and other diasporic Egyptians understand these works? To put these questions in perspective, it helps to first contextualize the confluence of Egypt and religion.

When you’re in the diaspora, you always have to imagine what home and land mean to you. Egypt is fertile ground for imagination. It’s not just a nation, it’s a mythos. The Egypt of so-called Egyptomania — of pharaohs and pyramids — only magnifies its importance in all three major Abrahamic religions. Many are familiar with Egypt and the Exodus, but it pops up again and again in scripture. Egypt figures in the Quran: Verse 99 of Surat Yusuf reads, “Enter Egypt, God willing, in security.” This verse, inscribed on the walls of Cairo International Airport, greets millions of visitors yearly and establishes Egypt as more than just a country, as a holy land. Egypt’s Muslims are not alone, as Copts imagine Egypt in similar terms.

All across the country, churches claim to be sites where the Holy Family stayed during their flight to Egypt. I have faint memories of these sites from the last time I visited, but I remember above all my visit to the Church of the Virgin Mary in Maadi. Within its walls rests an old, worn Bible in a wall-mounted vitrine. In 1976, this Bible floated down the Nile and came to rest at the church. It was open to Isaiah 19:25, which reads, “Blessed be Egypt My people.” I remember visiting the Church of the Virgin Mary in Zeitoun. The story goes that in 1968, the Virgin Mary began appearing on the dome of the church and that millions of Egyptians — including even then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser — came from across the country to witness the apparitions. A tapestry of the apparition sits on my wall. For Copts, this apparition is indispensable to their modern-day identity, and it’s this story that forms the center of Messeeh’s documentary. Everyone imagines their home to be sacred, but Egypt emanates a significance so grand as to seem cosmic.

All of this is to say: Both Copts and Muslims say Egypt is our mother because she gives us life, because she is our source, because she is so inextricably linked with religion and identity. When I hear “blessed be Egypt My people,” how can I not see religion through Egypt and Egypt through my religion? But being displaced from Egypt opens up the question of what faith really means — the diaspora often has to make sense of faith in an increasingly secularized world.

In “The Virgin, the Copts and Me,” Messeeh attempts to unravel this weighty question by returning to Egypt to talk to witnesses of the apparition at Zeitoun. During the opening credit sequence of the film, we hear a voicemail from Messeeh’s producer: “Is this a film about the Virgin? The Copts? Or you?” As the voicemail ends, the title card reveals itself. The answer is obvious. To talk about oneself as a Copt means talking about God, Christ and the Virgin. Even in our names, we refer to God — Abdel Messeeh means “slave of Christ.” Upon the film’s release, reviewers criticized what they saw as an unsure narrative: Messeeh never establishes whether his movie is about the Virgin, the Copts or himself, to paraphrase some reviews. Without a similar lived experience, critics lose sight of one of the key ideas of the film — that understanding the self implicates the entire faith and community. In one scene where he rides with a taxi driver, Messeeh explains why he’s returned to Egypt: The apparition “reveals something about Egypt I want to grasp.” Messeeh returns precisely because of this understanding of Egypt as a holy land: a place that offers clarity about what religion really means and, in turn, who he is.

Ramy describes the motivation behind his visit to Egypt with a similar logic. As he packs his bags, he explains to his friends: “I want to be somewhere where I’m surrounded by Muslims. It’s none of this confusion we have here.” For Ramy, this naive aspiration meets with disappointment when he finds that Egypt is far from the place of spiritual excess he imagined it to be. He returns to his homeland to find a cousin who drinks, bumps coke and says the N-word; a beautiful woman who turns out to be his cousin; and tap water that he should definitely not drink (and which he does, oops). If Egypt contains some underlying spiritual current, it doesn’t run through the hustle and bustle of Cairo. Realizing this, Ramy returns to his grandfather’s village, hoping that maybe his grandfather will grace him with some sorely needed wisdom, but in a cruel twist of fate, his grandfather passes away shortly after his arrival. Ramy’s cousin mournfully asks, “Dude, where’s my country?” The show counters a certain idealized, diasporic vision of Egypt that believes it to be perfect. Ramy returns from Egypt finding himself more confused than ever, and it’s this that indicts the very idea that brought him back. I return to the phrase “blessed be Egypt My people” frequently. If I feel Egypt is blessed, sometimes I feel it’s more prophecy than anything, to be realized in the fullness of time.

I find that speaking of Egypt and it being the mother of the world feels tiring, as if I’m going about some tirade (I mean, who doesn’t imagine their country to be unique?), but I also feel vindicated to see these ideas regarding Egypt vis-a-vis religion find expression beyond just “Ramy” and Messeeh’s film. While looking for other Coptic diasporic media, I came across Viola Shafik’s “The Mother of Light and Her Daughters.” In this 1999 documentary, Shafik visits Cairo to interview women, to understand their lives and examine Egyptian gender politics at large. Shafik centers the frame of the film around the Virgin: Each interviewee begins by discussing her relationship with the Virgin Mary, because faith provides the basis for a shared identity. Only after that do Shafik’s interlocutors talk about their own lives. In one scene, Shafik interviews a woman outside a church named after St. Mary and asks why she attends so often. The woman responds, “She’s our mother. Don’t you long to see your mother?” I find it interesting that themes of motherhood and pilgrimage come up again and again. Why do Ramy, Messeeh and other faith-seekers return to Egypt when one can find God anywhere? The answer is simple: Wouldn’t you also long for your mother?

Motherhood represents comfort and, in that capacity, the religious community uplifts us. Messeeh folds quiet and understated depictions of the Coptic community in Upper Egypt into the film that show religion at its best. He cuts from “Zaffat El-Adra” (the Procession of the Virgin, an annual tradition during the two-week St. Mary’s Fast) to children receiving traditional tattoos of the cross, to idyllic scenes of farmers tending their land. Scenes of joy, contemplation and pastoral life blend together, capturing how religion imbues itself in every aspect of Coptic rural life. “Ramy” envisions the comfort of religion as solace from the world. Time and again in the show, Ramy finds that religion welcomes him back. In the episode “A Black Spot on the Heart,” Ramy wrestles with his hypocrisy and with heartbreak. Lost, he visits his mosque, where he finds connection with another believer and takes joy in the act of cleaning. He finds some peace from the world and his mistakes. Religion is comforting, and both shows converge on this truth. But if religion can be motherly, then there is more to talk about than just its ability to draw a community together.

We know that, since time immemorial, people have had trouble with their mothers. The potential difficulties of that relationship have provided an evergreen and constantly growing set of tropes within fiction (Ari Aster’s “Beau is Afraid” springs to mind). It feels appropriate to speak of religion in terms of motherhood because religion can be comforting and alienating at the same time. If religion does confuse our lives, there’s at least one reason: We moderate its valence in response to desire and expectation, often muddying our relations to others.

The first episode of season one of “Ramy” traces this idea through Ramy’s love life. At the start of the episode, Ramy’s non-Arab friend-with-benefits realizes he has lied about being nonpracticing, and he confesses all that he has been hiding. While he stands firm on religious prohibitions on drinking and drugs, he makes an exception for premarital sex. She stops seeing him, and Ramy soon goes on a date with a Muslim woman. On their date, he refuses a kiss and declines sex on the basis that, because she’s Muslim, he wants to take it slow. He gives in eventually, but with hesitation. Frustrated by his shifting demands of what’s OK, she kicks him out. When he is with a non-Muslim woman, Ramy hides his religious beliefs; when he courts a Muslim woman, he tends toward propriety and outward piety. Ramy often twists religion to suit his own ends, rather than changing himself for the sake of religion. Equivocating on religion troubles one’s relation to both religious and nonreligious communities.

Messeeh’s film speaks to this when he returns to Egypt and encounters myriad troubles with believers and church authorities who refuse to participate in his documentary. Though he asserts his Coptic identity, he has to explain the doubts that motivate his purpose, which only cause him trouble. This bears on the film, as Messeeh narrates that he came close to quitting, facing difficulties with interviewees and frustrated producers.

The Egyptian diaspora has no unique claim to the awkwardness of reconciling a foreign religion with a new land, however. In the wake of modernity, people across the world have grappled with making sense of disparate religious and national identities. One of my favorite writers, Shusaku Endo, a Japanese Catholic, devoted his career to his own problems squaring Western Christianity with his Japanese upbringing. When he was a child, Endo’s mother converted, and he was baptized as a boy, an act with which he would spend the rest of his life grappling. Endo describes Christianity using the metaphor of a “ready-made suit,” like one off the rack. In his article “The Anguish of an Alien,” he writes, “It was too long in some places, too short in others, too loose here and there.” Endo captures these complex emotions in his novel “Silence,” a haunting work of historical fiction set during the Portuguese missions to Japan. Endo fixates on humans’ weakness in the face of persecution and strife, and through examining the origins of Christianity in Japan, he elucidates the friction between the two sides of himself. I find the similarities between these different works fascinating, as they converge on the difficulty of situating a religion outside its original culture.

This dissonance figures in “The Virgin, the Copts and Me” through Messeeh’s relation to his interlocutors. During the course of the film, he moves the setting from hyperdense, urban Cairo to rural Upper Egypt. His delicate portrayals of Upper Egyptians and their deep convictions position them as keepers of a long, unbroken and Egyptian-to-its-core religious tradition. Yet Messeeh finds himself outside its confines as a result of his doubt, which generates tension between him and these same Copts. This distinction seeps into the visual language of the film, as Messeeh wears a field cap that he almost never takes off. It serves as a marker of his foreignness, in spite of his connection to Egypt. On the other side of the world, Ramy experiences a similar otherness. In the show, he wears a galabiya (a traditional garment worn by farmers along the Nile) during Ramadan in his attempt to be more pious. His galabiya doesn’t fit, and both his family and friends poke fun at him. Despite their conscious efforts to become integrated with those around them, both Ramy and Messeeh find themselves strange and othered. Like Endo, they face the predicament of trying to condense their identity into a “pre-made suit” — in Ramy’s case, a missized galabiya.

For Messeeh, this necessitates carving out his own path. One of the most interesting elements of “The Virgin, the Copts and Me” is his fixation on staging a reenactment of the Virgin apparition in his mother’s former village in Upper Egypt. Unable to get detailed eyewitness accounts of the apparition, he spends the back half of the film putting this enactment together. Why he does this, beyond the practical rationale of needing to finish the film, is left to speculation. The villagers lend their aid to Messeeh’s project, and at a final screening of the edited reenactment, they cheer, hug and smile. Satisfied, Messeeh closes the film on a scene of him and his mother leaving the village. Having brought the community together as one in unity and joy, maybe the constructed apparition is just as good as the real one. In light of the film’s thematic concerns with family and faith, I found this scene to be a poignant visual metaphor for the presence of faith, which often feels like chasing the unreachable. To operate as a Copt, either within or without Egypt, maybe you just have to live as if it all really happened that way, even if you don’t believe.

Taking a step back, maybe you can see why I’ve felt swept up in these two pieces of media for the last few months. Ramy and Messeeh explore the complications and less visible side of religious life. Seeing these religious narratives with all their rough edges feels intimate. Their intertextuality brings them into conversation with even more areas than I’ve just indicated here: with music, history and ethnography. Even if I have qualms about certain narrative choices made by Ramy and Messeeh, I’m nevertheless fascinated. The first time I watched “The Virgin, the Copts and Me,” I spent the entire weekend watching it in bursts of a few minutes. I wanted time to savor every bit. Seeing the realization of an authentic Coptic story in film reaffirms my conviction that cinema has the capacity to span the entirety of human expression. “Ramy” feels at once foreign and uncanny. Its cast of characters vaguely recalls the idiosyncratic personalities I met in my adolescence in New Jersey. Even if the contours of our lives look wildly different, both “Ramy” and “The Virgin, the Copts and Me” reflect unique, personal narratives that carry the power to resonate with other Egyptians in diaspora.

At the same time, these depictions can divide that very same community. Liberal discourses that push for representation miss the nuances with which diasporic communities view representation. After I watched Messeeh’s film, I wondered what my mom would think of it, so I convinced her to watch it. While she enjoyed the film, she noted that filmmakers should take care in how they depict religion and Copts in order to not create a bad impression. In the Middle East and North Africa, this is tied to the larger notion of “adab” — a small word that connotes grand notions of etiquette and the admissibility of speech in the private versus public sphere. For my mom, the film painted a lighthearted picture of Egypt and its Copts, but its thesis seemed unclear: Does Messeeh find his faith or not? While she pointed out the things she liked, her praise felt more subdued than anything. The same night, a friend from out of town invited me to a shisha lounge to meet his friends. We talked about the Palestinian film festival that was running that weekend, and we came to talk about “Ramy.” As I poured mint tea, my friend explained that he felt that the show is “too much,” especially in light of its position as one of the first with a largely Muslim cast. I understand completely. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Ramy does horrible things — he cheats on his fiancee, he homewrecks and he uses religion to justify his misdeeds, all while remaining blind to his hypocrisy. In my conversations about “Ramy” with other Arab friends, I found that if they didn’t praise the show, they reiterated a similar sentiment about how terrible his character is.

For Arab Americans who have had to tolerate decades of negative (or, at best, neutral) media depictions, representation can feel high-stakes. Partly to blame is the politicization of our identities, which means we can only ever have “ideal” depictions. On top of this, there exists little room for heterodox relationships to religion, which can cause trouble both inside and outside the community. Messeeh’s film is not something I can imagine a church showing in an official capacity. In the case of “Ramy,” much of the show deals with the taboo — to wit, sex, drugs and sin. I wouldn’t dream of watching “Ramy” with my parents. Both taboo and candidness run counter to adab, and Egyptian Americans worry that these portrayals can influence outsiders’ view of the community. What do these stories say about us?

That’s precisely where the rub is with these works. There exists a telos to Ramy’s faith journey, but it feels out of sight. Whenever he makes progress in his journey toward God, we know he’s going back to square one in the next episode. It’s fiction, but each episode feels true to some real story in Ramy’s life. As for Messeeh, he obscures his own journey. He never clarifies where he stands at the end of his story. To leave room for interpretation is to leave room for doubt. This is not the only reason the film has been contentious. In an interview with Unifrance, Messeeh discussed the film’s reception in Egypt. “Catholics and Muslims felt they were shown just the way they are. This … created resentment,” he said. Whether or not we connect with Ramy and Messeeh’s stories is our prerogative as Egyptians, critics and members of the audience. But the personal reflects something greater that exists in the human condition: in this case, that the journey with faith rarely takes a linear trajectory. Both the taboo and the candid challenge hegemonic ideas of which narratives deserve to be portrayed.

Should we tell these stories? The answer depends on who you ask; the diaspora, after all, isn’t a monolith. I only speak for myself, but I believe film has transformative power because it has the capacity to contain the entirety of human expression. All stories are worth telling, as long as they’re sincere. This doesn’t absolve them of criticism — and certainly there is a lot to criticize. But if all we do is tell stories that represent only the most basic elements of diasporic experience, what are we doing? If the people and narratives we depict are those without flaws, they become hagiographies. Apart from the films of Shafik and Messeeh, the only Coptic films out there are exactly that: Church-produced hagiographies about saints. I remember growing up watching these, and though I loved them (and still do!), I found them alien to my experience growing up in America. Film must be more than just aspirational, providing a window into different aspects of human experience. I want films that showcase diaspora in its multiplicities, that challenge our views of ourselves and the community, that ask us to pause. There is beauty in the immersion and intimacy of cinema that few other artistic endeavors approach. I pray for more sincere and rich stories that will only add to the cinematic tapestry of our people.

Returning to the scene where Ramy cleans his mosque in the middle of the night, one of my favorite elements of the scene is the music that plays “Ahwak” by Abdel Halim Hafez. It’s a short scene, so the music is easy to miss. Hafez endures as one of the greatest Egyptian musicians, alongside Arab legends like Fairuz and Umm Kulthum. In “Ahwak,” one of his most popular songs, Hafez sings about the push-and-pull of a lover and the heart that vacillates between forgetting and being annihilated in love. Hafez cries, “I find my tears remember you, and so I return again.” Religion, at once, represents our great comfort and our frustration, in part at our failures to live up to the standards it sets for us and our attempts to negotiate the values we abide by (for better or for worse). For the Egyptian in diaspora, with so much tradition, culture and language wrapped up with religion, what can we do but return? Wouldn’t you also long for your mother?

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