The Stigma of 'Arab-ness:' Coptic Immigrants' Self-Orientalism in Toronto, 1954-1981

By Michael Akladios
Submitted to Session P4983 (Diaspora and Political Participation, 2017 Annual Meeting
North America;
Ethnic Groups;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Even before officially taking office in June 1956, Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser began a series of social and economic programs which threatened the autonomy and prosperity of urban middle-class Coptic Christians. In response, many emigrated to North America, Australia, and Europe. The Church followed its North American immigrants as early as 1954. Bishops and priests visited medical students in New York and New Jersey to serve their spiritual needs and supported the eventual creation of the Coptic Association of America in 1963. Transnational cooperation made possible the establishment of the first Coptic Orthodox parish on the continent in Toronto in 1964. In charting the settlement of this ethno-religious minority in Toronto, the aim of this paper will be twofold. First, I present a methodological framework to develop Orientalism as a discursive tool of historical analysis to study both western representations of the Orient and the liminal spaces occupied by Middle Eastern Christian immigrants in Canadian society. While Edward Said's Orientalism clarifies the legitimizing concepts informing a fixed binary of difference, it leaves little room for negotiation. As Joan Scott said of gender, understanding Orientalism as a useful category of historical analysis may offer historians a means to conceptualize perceived differences between East and West and extricate constant, yet contested, unequal relationships of power. Second, I apply this framework to a study of the significance of Coptic immigrants' refusal to be identified as "Arab." Analysis of institutional records, transnational correspondence between clerical and lay elites, and oral interviews with members of the earliest Coptic immigrant communities reveal the centrality of parish festivals and community outreach to immigrants' self-Orientalism. I argue that, Copts' active contestation of simplistic orientalist discourse - the rejection of the stigma of 'Arab-ness' and the sensationalization of an "authentic" Copto-Pharaonic heritage - supported their legitimate integration into Canadian multiculturalism.