Category Archives: Non-Fiction

Coptic Voices #1: Lydia Yousief

It was a Friday, I remember. I was walking back to my dorm room from the college’s common center with food for my brother in a to-go box, ready to travel home with me.

“Lydia, there’s a reporter from The Tennessean who wants to know about the Coptic pope’s visit? Lydia?”

“Yes, I hear you, Stephanie.” I covered my ears from the students hovering about me. “Go on.”

The Tennessean wants to cover the Coptic pope’s visit. When will he be here?”

I hesitated, not knowing who “he” referred to for a moment, since Copts—Middle Easterners, for that matter—rarely use vague pronouns for elders, especially the pope himself. It was also hadriktak or ooddsaq or ya ustaaz.

“Oh, the pope? He’s coming tonight, Stephanie.”

“What! No one told us.”

Her tone sounded accusatory. She was the director of a non-profit I had interned at only a few months before the pope’s visit, and I was probably the only Copt she and the other employees knew well. This was the Coptic nature: while the Somalis and Kurds in Nashville had developed political leverage, the Copts were nestled in their own world, in Antioch—“Saint Paul started each journey in Antioch, and now we will too.” Copts are dreamers, made of larger stuff than most people. They fill their space with their dreams of libraries and scholars and shai; their liturgies draw near the heavenly upon the earth—it’s a presumptuous act, of calling God back to earth and eating Him more than once a week. They are, being dreamers, presumptuous, and being presumptuous, they have no need of this world. So they are isolated here not because they are immigrants (since their habits of isolation are the same in Egypt), but rather because this is their nature.

I wanted to tell Stephanie this, but I didn’t. Instead, I replied, “Yeah, we’re bad with media.” I bit my lip, hoping to take the words back. You don’t mock your family in front of others, Mama says after we come back from dinner at a friends’ house. You always defend your family.

“Okay,” she said. “Here, I’m going to connect him with you. Is it okay if I give him your number?”

“That’s fine.”

My steps in the cold, jolting air were calculated—I needed to make it to my dorm, away from the sounds, before this guy called, and before my dad picked me up to take me home for the weekend.

I made it there without stopping to greet anyone in the lobby, and I passed the bathrooms, holding it in, and managed to unlock and close my door behind. I rested my phone on my desk—I waited.

The call didn’t come, and I began to pace, opened my backpack and skimmed through its content. All my homework was done; I had spent most of the previous night in the library finishing it so that my weekend could be spent on family and Church. Friday nights were for preparing Sunday School lessons (in Nashville, the Copts are so many and can’t stop reproducing that Sunday School occurs on two days, Saturday and Sunday, for lack of space); Saturday mornings were for helping Mom clean, Saturday afternoons were for Sunday School, and Saturday evenings were for Vespers; Sunday mornings, from 7:30-11:30 am, were for Liturgy and then Bible Study, and Sunday nights were for aunts and uncles to visit.

The pope’s visit, though, ruined my schedule. Sunday School was canceled, and no one would be visiting us with the pope in town. This meant I had the weekend to myself—and if I were a good Coptic girl, I would spend it in Church, with my people, crammed, smelling something foul when the women next to me raised their arms to zagharat the pope as he walked down the center aisle of the Church.

The Pope’s visit had been the only subject of discussion among North American Copts in the preceding month, after the priests had finally received permission to disclose the plan for his Holiness’s arrival and appearance in their churches across the States and Canada. On campus, however, no one knew, so no one spoke. At one level it was comforting to find that relief of being unknown, being able to move without recognition, and on another level, it was disheartening to know that if a single tree falls in a forest and no one is around, no one hears it, no one sees it.

I paced in my dorm room, my eyes glazing over the mini-icons I had placed on my air conditioner and the photos of all my cousins I had plastered on the wall. I decided that today I would go home and relax. I deserved that.

My mother had mentioned that she had wanted to go and see Pope Tawadros pray in the Church she’s been a part of for decades since coming to Tennessee, but my father had said, “Mary, I’m not going to a place with a bunch of crazy Egyptians all congregated together. Sunday’s enough for me.” He said this in English.

And she said in Arabic: “Yousief, this is the pope we’re talking about! The pope! He’s come from Egypt! The pope!”

My mother is a religious fanatic. She has over a hundred spiritual books in Arabic, at least twenty of which were written by the previous pope, Pope Shenouda III (may the Lord repose his soul). Pope Shenouda had been ordained in the 1970s, when my mother was about to enter high school; she remembers attending his Wednesday sermons in the Alexandrian Cathedral, remembers his poetry, remembers his exile by President Sadat, the American ally. She cried when she found out, in America, in 2011, that he had passed away. It was a Saturday, our cleaning day, and my sister and I stood on each side of her, not knowing what to say or do as she cried, her breathing heavy, her eyes reddening.

My phone flashed.

“Hello?”

“Hey—this is Andy with The Tennessean. Thank you so much for reaching out to me. I’ve been trying to get in contact with someone to cover this story, but haven’t been able to. Thanks so much.”

“No problem. I’m glad The Tennessean is covering this. It’s a great honor for us.”

“Yes—well, I won’t waste your time. Can you tell me a little about the event?”

“It’s today and Saturday. Today the pope will serve in Vespers, and tomorrow, his Holiness will ordain two new priests and consecrate Saint Pishoy Church.” I tried to curb my enthusiasm, but I could hear myself getting really high-pitched.

“That’s great.” His voice paused as though he were not done, didn’t want me to speak as he jotted something down.

But I spoke anyway: “Although, to be honest, I shouldn’t be the point of contact for this event. I’m just a college student. There are plenty of servants in the Church who can get you connected. I’m not even going.”

When I had said those words to my mother, she looked up from slicing wedges of fat from the corners of the beef Baba had brought. “What you mean you don’t want to see the pope? This is the pope, Lydia. The pope.”

“You know, Mom, no matter how many times you say “the pope,” it won’t change my mind.” I paused to eat some celery, waving it around when I came to speak. “And you know, I know that you only want me to come so I can drive you because it’s going to be awful parking.”

“You don’t need the pope. I don’t need you.”

“Sounds good, Mom.”

“Oh, yes, what’s your name and tell me about yourself, so I can tag you.”

“Oh.” My Coptic self-denial kicked in then. “Right—well, I’m just a college student.”

“Like name? Age?” he said instantly.

“Oh. Lydia. College student.”

“Great.” I supposed he decided not to press further. “So tell me about the Copts.”

Our conversation lasted fifteen minutes, and this was the statement–the assertive non-question those in stations of knowledge refuse to ask, believing that questions are merely for those who don’t know. And this was the statement I didn’t know how to answer. At the time, I rattled off some historical and ethnic definition and listened for his next question. I offered him other leaders to contact for more information, but in the end, the pope was given a corner in the magazine with only my quotes to hold up a brief mention of his visit here, among us.. In the end, when thousands of Copts poured into Nashville to see what they couldn’t see now, living in a foreign land, all others remained baffled, wrote a simple article and let the moment pass.

“So tell me about the Copts” is a statement for those who want the job done, those who want to write something sensational and move on like the American Christians who ask my parents to describe persecution in Egypt, how evil Islam is, but never want to hear about the Coptic Church—the Church they deemed heretical.

In the end, I can’t describe who the Copts are. I can only offer a last image of a people hidden from view, shrouded in darkness from centuries of red blood overtaking salty tears. I can only offer an image of what my people are.

“I kissed his hand, you know,” my mother says when she comes back at midnight Saturday morning. She had left the house at five pm to make it in time for Vespers with the Pope. “I kissed his hand, and it was all worth it, Dodi.” She shows me the gift the pope handed to each member, letting the thousands line up for acres to receive his blessing. “He’s larger than you’d expect—his eyes are so soft! Like angels under those glasses!”

“I’m going then,” says my father. He wakes up four am to make it to the Liturgy. He stands in the back, watches the pope walk past him with incense crawling out of the censer in a vapor. The pope is whispering something to God and no one can hear, only marvel.

“I saw him from inside the altar,” my brother says. “He was right there, consecrating the altar in front of me. It’s too bad I was stuck with the little boys.”

And I sit on a couch from five am to ten am, watching the pope hold Liturgy in my Church, the people by the thousands already there, skipping work and sleep and the world for him. He prays in Arabic, and they chant along—no English today.

I watch the two new priests being ordained, beardless now, but donning the royal garments that seem too big for them. The crowd—for it is a crowd—cheers.

No one hears them.

Image design by Megan Wassef
Image design by Megan Wassef