During my first return to a Coptic Orthodox Church following a long pandemic-induced hiatus, a priest at a local parish in Ottawa, Canada, excitedly handed me a two-volume book titled Elements: The Transfiguration of Elijah, Earth & Water (volume I) and Wind & Fire (volume II) (Saint Patrick Press 2021); an addendum volume, Belovedness, was just released in July of 2023 by the same self-publishing press. Knowing I was a professor studying Coptic music and popular culture at Carleton University, the priest leaned in close: "I want to know what you think of this book." As I held both heavy volumes in my hands, several young parishioners also approached me during the coffee hour. They too shared what I later learned was a widely held secret: while the book was anonymously penned by a priest of "the Oriental Church," many readers personally knew the author, and many of the passages in the historical fiction were rumored to be based on the author's life story and experiences.
On the surface, there is much to champion about Elements: The Transfiguration of Elijah. Readers who have publicly shared their reviews on Amazon have noted that this is one of the first works to represent a Coptic Orthodox diaspora experience, and specifically a Canadian one. Namely, it captures the pained between-and-betwixt reality of many first-generation Coptic Orthodox Christians caught between the generational trauma of their parents, the systemic discrimination their elders experienced as an ethno-religious minority in Egypt, and their own identity crisis under pressure to assimilate into new homes, languages, and cultures as racialized and deeply devout Canadians. In a way, the author draws attention to the nebulous and often "painfully indeterminate social fields" of becoming both insiders and outsiders of multiple communities at the same time. In a video recorded review on Amazon, one popular Coptic-Canadian Orthodox priest urged young and old readers to pick up the books to find their own transfigurations within, as the work "speaks to the reality that most of us will have to deal with when it comes to growing up in the secular western world." Even I marveled: reading the book as an Ottawa-based Copt about a Copt based in Ottawa made me pause at the familiar land and soundmarks of my own layered experiences in the city, though now explicitly reframed through a devout Coptic lens. Given the mostly rave reviews, it is no wonder that this is one of the most widely sold English-language Coptic Orthodox publications to date.
As a scholar of Coptic cultural studies, critical race theory, and ethnomusicology, I can understand how, to borrow the words of many of the young reviewers, "life-changing" and "profound" such representation can be for a community that has long been rendered invisible and silent except in the cases of sectarian violence; this is often one of the few times that the images and sounds of contemporary Copts finally make it into “mainstream” popular literature and media, in and outside of Egypt. This phenomenon is so deeply pressed on Copts that, as sociologist Miray Philips notes, they have perennially and systemically leaned into violent deaths and martyrdom as a form of political agency, a phenomenon that bleeds into day-to-day life too. Transfiguration deftly draws on this martyr-centered framework and translates it for a diaspora audience that no longer experiences systemic religious discrimination in Egypt. Yet, as scholars like Mariam Youssef points out, Copts continue to strive towards embodying martyrdom in forms of selflessness, silence, and sacrifice to face the new and often unnamed social, racial, and classed exclusions and pressures in their new home. In a way, diaspora Copts replicate Coptic survival strategies from home, often leveraging martyrdom to strive for whiteness and fold into Western Christianity as (North) America’s Christian kin in their suffering for Christ. This "bloody kinship" often double binds Copts within a delicate matrix of racialization, orientalism, and imperial structures that further exclude them from a full sense of belonging in North America, all while Coptic diaspora culture is becoming increasingly ascetic to make this graphic kinship possible.
Transfiguration plays into this double bind: it richly details the spiritual journey, suffering, and struggles of the main protagonist, Elijah, as he chafed against his parents’ deep piety, conservatism, and asceticism that precluded his sense of belonging in Canada. By the end of both volumes and through several trials and tribulations throughout his life, Elijah finally arrives at his own spiritual and ascetic transfiguration as a modern-day saint. This includes his experiences of avowed long periods of silence, voluntary homelessness, telepathy, spiritual foolery, poverty, and finally, a holy death that is often essential in Coptic saint-making. In a way, the book reads as a contemporary hagiography in Canada: Elijah prays to take on the brain tumor of a potential convert, knowing full well it would end his own life at the young age of 40. His continual and weepy contrition, incidental and intentional suffering, and his own self-denial of pleasure, food, speech, desire, and comfort is a telling ethnography of Coptic Orthodoxy's continued emphasis on death and suffering as a deeply desired route to salvation, spiritual transfiguration, and community belonging, especially outside of Egypt.
While saint hagiographies like this one are celebrated and critical mediums to preserve Coptic religious and cultural traditions as a religious minority (2011: 69), historian Febe Armanios also reminds us that they are boundary-making rather than inclusive phenomena. Transfiguration mirrors these hagiographic boundary-making exclusions, though poignantly, even painfully and perhaps even unintentionally targeting Coptic Orthodox women from among their own ranks. In short, through its two volumes, Transfiguration’s deep valorization of Coptic asceticism excludes Coptic women from the deeply gendered routes to the spiritual transfiguration so central to the book's themes. As Armanios notes, female characters in male martyrological hagiopics are often unidimensional characters who are usually cast in submissive, silent, and obedient roles in support of a male saint's route to spiritual transfiguration. In Elements, almost all women in the two volumes are put to service towards Elijah's salvation. On the other side of this narrow binary, women whose agency, beauty, and sexuality tempt his desires are cast aside as dangerous to his own spiritual progress and growth, mirroring the tempting female figures in traditional hagiographies. As Black feminist scholars such as bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins note, such narrow binaries of women solely as pure and virginal mothers or deviously promiscuous jezebels are an extension of a western heteropatriarchy that has long inflected Western Christianity, and through continued experiences and encounters of coloniality, institutions like the Coptic Orthodox Church often replicate, bind, and assimilate to these stereotypical tropes.
As a rich ethnography of the community's gendered experiences, this story's narrow depiction of Coptic diaspora women also highlight an impossible double bind; caught between female virgin-sainthood or, to use the wording from the book, as "adulterous wives," this story parallels the role of women in many saint films coming out of Coptic "holywood cinema" in Egypt. In her work, Youssef adds how martyr paradigms are a controlling rhetoric for women (2020: 105). She writes:
Despite the courageous decisions these women make, in their narrative representations they are stripped of their agency and used as model figures for the subordination of Coptic women.
While male saint hagiographies praise men's agency and courageous decisions to die for their faith, women saints are often commended for their modesty, sexual purity, sacrifice, and submission. This is especially evident in the recurrent familial and maternal tropes in Transfiguration: the Virgin Mary as the Mama who protects Elijah, Esther as dutiful wife-to-be who even in death looks out for Elijah and brings him to Christ, and the presence of the "adulterous wife" who inspires a non-Coptic convert and friend of Elijah to consecration as a Coptic Orthodox priest (and later transfigures as a repentant wife and pious tasoni, the Coptic term for sister that is bestowed on a priest's wife in the community after his consecration as an priest and an abuna, literally meaning "our father"). In a sense, Transfiguration inadvertently outlines the dichotomous expectations that form not a double but a triple bind for first-generation Coptic women. They are not only stranded in the liminal third spaces of diaspora experience but are left out of the Coptic community’s rhetoric of belonging in an increasingly asceticizing diaspora culture. In other words, Coptic women are dialectically positioned as critical to men's salvation while problematizing their very presence based on their gender and sex. In one candid moment with a fellow reader, a young woman confided in me that she struggled to finish the book, because she simply could not live her life as a monk in Toronto.
As the book progresses, these gendered exclusions take on explicitly violent forms. In one passage, as Elijah narrates his fear of losing the ascetic lessons he learned in Egypt, a Montreal-based priest comforts him by evoking a well-known proverb. He narrates the story of an orbana, holy bread, as it achieves its special place as the Holy Eucharist. Gendered as female, the priest advises Elijah to fully submit his will to God, as the orbana dough submits herself to the baker.
This dough felt the Baker's hands shape her, turn her over, fold her over... she felt such a closeness to the baker. The dough loved being held by the baker, pulled by the baker. She was willing to undergo anything the baker did, as long as she felt the baker close...But then the baker did something she could not understand. He took a sharp stick and poked five holes in her. She felt like he was torturing her. He was piercing her!... She would not have become such a beautiful orbana! She would have missed out on being offered, chosen, blessed, broken, and given as the body of Christ! She was being prepared to be broken and given for the life of the world. (382 - 383)
It is hard to miss the sexual metaphors present in this proverb. Yet, to read this passage in light of the sexual and gender-based violence recently uncovered by the #CopticMeToo movement and launched by Coptic Survivor, the passage highlights just how endemic and normalized rape culture and sexual violence is in Coptic Orthodoxy’s religious proverbs, saint hagiographies, and now this popular fiction circulating within the community. While female saints are often praised for protecting their faith, modesty, and purity, they are in fact habitually doing so in the face of violent rape, sexual violence, forced marriage and conversion. Coptic female saints achieve their martyr status for their refusal to submit to this fate. Yet, as this proverb highlights, Transfiguration dichotomously advocates that the only way to experience a spiritual transfiguration is to submit, to be broken, and given agentless to God, Christ, and here, the baker, all of whom are gendered male; almost all significant female characters in this book either die (p. 135), tearfully repent (p. 343), become nuns (p.442), or priest wives (p. 356) after their encounters with Elijah. Coupled with the Coptic Church's dangerous stance against consent training and sex education in public schools, claiming that consent is solely given by God (through his representatives in a male clerical class), it is no wonder that Coptic culture can be ripe for gender-based violence that regularly targets Coptic women and children.
Finally, it is important to highlight that Transfiguration’s gendered exclusions not only target Coptic women, but also entangles other forms of colonial epistemic violence, white-settler racism, and the intersecting misogyny of heteropatriarchy. Namely, I want to draw attention to the use of neo-orientalist tropes to whitewash Coptic affiliations as Arabic-speaking North Africans in service of a European civility, enlightenment, even spiritual transfiguration. There are several telling moments, namely when the author mocks the accent of Egyptian immigrants by highlighting grammatical mistakes made by aunties in Church or capitalizing the heavy rolled Rs of a potential Egyptian convert (p. 101; p.290). When one older man mistakes Elijah for a non-Egyptian, he is amused that "Egyptians, who emigrated to Canada would call non-Egyptians foreigners...one can see the irony. Foreigners calling natives foreigners," (p. 379). This distinction highlights the vast gap between Arabic-speaking homeland Copts and first-generation diaspora Copts who intentionally distance themselves from the “messiness” of Egypt, its complex position in Northern Africa, and the ambivalent relationships with an Egyptian Arabic vernacular. Instead, Transfiguration suggests that many first-generation Copts emphasize their Copticity solely in Canadian terms and as Canadian "natives." This speaks to the recent rise of 'missionary churches' who offer English-only services and are praised for their efforts to minimize and separate Indigenous Egyptian culture and identity from Coptic Orthodoxy, all while deterring newly-arrived Arabic-speaking immigrants from joining these parishes. This ambivalence to all things Egyptian even has a name in Arabic: 'odit al-khawaga or "the foreigner's complex“—a leftover colonial legacy known to value a sense of "white foreignness." For example, the desires for lighter skin, straight hair, skinnier bodies, and lighter coloured eyes, that are often written on Coptic women's bodies as superior to "local" counterparts, exemplify ‘odit al khawaga thanks to hundreds of years of Greek, Roman, French, and British colonial rule. In diaspora parishes, Coptic women have recently reported hearing Coptic men openly prefer and desire Greek and Russian Orthodox women, due to their triple proximity to whiteness, Western Christianity, and the exclusive auspice of Orthodoxy.
Transfiguration's "foreigner’s complex" runs throughout and is further compounded by orientalist and racist depictions of First Nations and Indigenous peoples from North America. In the same way that Elijah depends on the labor of women to shepherd him towards his own spiritual transfigurations, his trip to a First Nation territory in the first volume and where almost all Indigenous members have previously converted to Christianity, recapitulates the well-documented violence of European hegemony, colonial Christian missionaries, and the residential schools that extended a colonial genocide through gendered, sexual, and cultural violence. Even as Indigenous communities in Canada continue to grieve and unearth mass graves of children, Transfiguration proceeds to position Diaspora Copts as the next set of missionizers, emulating, aligning with, and offering to expand white-settler power structures. Further entrenching the Coptic Diaspora imagination into the violent narratives of colonizers, Transfiguration leans into white missionary tropes that framed Indigenous peoples as "noble savages;" Elijah turns to the "soft" (p.174) and "Red people" (pg. 156) who are "closer to the earth" (p.168) to help him achieve his spiritual transfiguration. This romanticized impression of Indigenous peoples as more “natural” Christians only extends the narratives of white superiority, replaying political and spiritual violence against Indigenous people, while confirming a need for conversion, not just into Christianity, but specifically into a Coptic Orthodox Christianity. Duplicating original missionary narratives that “naturalized” genocide into the folds of “civilizing” white-savior narratives, in Transfigurations, it is through the death of the Nation's Chief that Elijah is nudged further towards his spiritual transfiguration, re-mapping Coptic politics of death, asceticism, and victory upon Indigenous bodies and replicating narratives of western colonialism. This moment comes to the fore as Elijah buries Chief Billy in an unnamed cross-shaped grave in the middle of the woods (p.191-2).
Given the popularity of this book and its representational power for Coptic diaspora youth, I understand that the critical analysis here may stir discomfort. Specifically, I am thinking of online trolling of virtual" Orthobros," largely young and male Copts who target women and anyone who may express or challenge Orthodoxy’s mainstream views and cultures. Some of the trolling, intentionally or not, even occurs at the hands of Orthodox clergy and bishops and often recapitulates the gendered hegemonies I have outlined here. Yet, in a radical form of empathy, bravery, and openness, it was a local and diaspora Coptic priest who first handed me Transfiguration to read. I want to thank him for his trust in my review, given his knowledge of my work as a critical scholar. As someone who often depends on in-person ethnographic research, I found this book embodies a rich ethnography and deep reveal into a Coptic-Canadian gendered experience that one simply could not have achieved alone. It takes a village to challenge the misrepresentation of diaspora Copts in scholarship, popular media, and even among homeland Coptic Christians in Egypt.
The popularity of this book is also a testament to the power of being "seen," centering the etymological root of the Arabic word for martyr, shahid, and its referential term shahed, as a "witness." As a fictionalized hagiography, Transfiguration is a witness to the challenges of an immigrant community navigating post-traumatic responses to the pains of serious religious discriminations incurred back home, the inherently displacing experiences of migrating, and the pressures of assimilation into a white-settler nation with its own established histories of systemic exclusions, heteropatriarchy, and racism. How this, and future generations of Copts will challenge and disrupt boundary-making in diaspora is yet to be seen. Yet, against all odds, so many already have crafted space for the fullness of their intersectional and multidimensional lives and identities in diaspora. Will churched Copts continue to align themselves with systems of violence and power, eschewing the subsequent rape culture, racism, and hetero-misogyny that have emerged in the Orthodox Church’s institutional exclusive boundary making in the Coptic diaspora? Or will more diaspora Copts move towards a different kind of community transfiguration, one that imagines, aligns, and grows with many of the Coptic anti-oppressive and anti-colonial spaces that are already agitating openly online and building liberation-minded communities and movements offline? Given these conversations and critical discourse that books such as Transfiguration have engendered in real and digital life, I am filled with hope about the rich debates that continue to shape Coptic diaspora identity-making.