Faith and food: 30th annual King Tut Festival emphasizes Egyptianness of Coptic Identity

Elizabeth Neoman/Staff

The smell of freshly made basbousa filled the air as Umm Kulthum’s music boomed over hundreds of people chatting in Arabic and English. At Saint Antonius Coptic Orthodox Church’s King Tut Festival in Hayward, Egyptian food and music are essential in sharing culture and forming community. The three-day festival has been held for 30 years and functions as both a church fundraiser and a cultural celebration open to the local Hayward community.

As one of the eight Coptic Orthodox churches in Northern California, Saint Antonius was established by Coptic Egyptian immigrants in 1976. According to tradition, the Coptic Orthodox church was founded around 50 CE in Egypt after Mark the Evangelist introduced Christianity to the Egyptians. The congregation prays in a mixture of Arabic, English and Coptic (the latest stage of the ancient Egyptian language). After the Arab conquest of Egypt in 642 CE, Coptic eventually died out as a spoken language, but it is still preserved through Coptic hymns. Currently, Copts make up the majority of Egypt’s Christian population, and it is estimated that over 500,000 Copts are living in the United States today.

Many Egyptians immigrated to the United States after the 1971 Egyptian Constitution was adopted, which lifted several legal barriers to emigration. It was during the ‘70s when churches such as Saint Antonius began forming in the United States. As a way of preserving churchgoers’ identities both as Copts and Egyptians, churches throughout the Coptic diaspora started hosting cultural festivals such as this one. Suzy Malek, a member of the congregation and an Egyptian immigrant, explained that she “used to do a festival like this in Egypt. This is different from the festivals in Egypt, because we are a smaller group of people here now, and we want to bring our culture to the outside community.”

As a way of preserving churchgoers’ identities both as Copts and Egyptians, churches throughout the Coptic diaspora started hosting cultural festivals such as this one.

As a way of introducing local communities to the ancient civilization and religion, the festival featured an interactive ancient Egyptian simulation that allowed participants to go on a virtual tour of ancient Egypt. A few church members also hosted a tour of the church to explain the significance of the church’s ship-shaped architecture, the historical roots of the church and Coptic language, and the meaning behind the elaborate icons adorning the walls of the church.

But as a culture that is often only discussed in the context of ancient history, the festival also served as a space where local communities could learn more about modern Egypt and interact with Egyptian Americans. Besides serving traditional Egyptian foods such as hawawshi and falafel, they sold galabeyas (a traditional ankle-length garment), papyrus bookmarks and prayer scarves.

“(The festival) can help pave the way for a better future,” said Lisa Ghobrial, a longtime member of the congregation and a clinical health educator. “While kids from the local community are looking at the hieroglyphic alphabet, they’re also meeting Egyptian kids at the jumpy house and eating Egyptian foods. So, in a way, it helps to break down barriers and misconceptions about our community.”

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But the festival also serves a more internal purpose: to unite all those in the Coptic and broader Egyptian diaspora. Because of the Coptic Church’s Egyptian roots, many Egyptian Christians in the diaspora flock to Coptic churches not just to worship, but to find a community. Malek said that the church community “enjoy(s) preparing for the festival together during the weekend, because we became a family here.”

For many Coptic Egyptians, gathering at church is a way of preserving their culture. Egyptian history is ingrained into the fabric of the church’s rituals and traditions. Most Coptic hymns were derived from Pharaonic tunes and ancient Egyptian pagan prayer rituals.

“Our church goes back to our ancestors … it’s our heritage, it’s our community. When we use the Coptic language in church, we are expressing a unique place in the Egyptian community,” said Joseph Touma, a member of the congregation and an accountant.

For many Coptic Egyptians, gathering at church is a way of preserving their culture. Egyptian history is ingrained into the fabric of the church’s rituals and traditions.

Still, the Copts’ relationship to their Egyptian heritage is strained and complicated by the Egyptian government’s continual persecution and religious discrimination against Copts. Candace Lukasik, a convert to the Coptic Orthodox faith and a doctoral candidate at UC Berkeley researching the migration of Copts from Egypt to the United States, explained that festivals such as this one are a way of asserting the “Egyptianness of Coptic identity … it’s a way of show(ing) that they are part of the Egyptian nation, even in diaspora, and that there’s no way they can be erased from the Egyptian nation, because they are its imagined foundation.”

In a time of growing anti-Arab sentiment and Islamophobia, the festival provides a way to mend the fracture between Copts and Muslims in the diaspora and unite them around a shared culture. Ghobrial acknowledged this tension and noted that it was great to see Muslim Egyptians at the festival, saying that “the bonds (between Muslim and Coptic Egyptians) are really strong and run deep. We share food, music and the Arabic language.”

Lukasik agreed, saying, “In Egypt, Copts and Muslims are separated for a number of reasons.” She further explained that during the 2017 Feast of the Virgin Mary in Assiut, the Egyptian state “did not allow Muslims to come (to the festival), despite the fact that Muslims usually attend since both faiths revere Mary. In the diaspora, it’s great that Egyptian Muslims attend such festivals and connect with Copts.”

Festivals such as these provide a space where Copts and Egyptians can celebrate their connection to Egypt regardless of where they live.

“We are learning and trying to keep this tradition alive from generation to generation,” explained Phillip Ghattas, who has been organizing the festival for the past five years. “It’s all about love and our spirit and our church … it’s the key to this cultural and religious preservation.”

Contact Elizabeth Neoman at [email protected]