Arab or Copt? Rami Malek Oscar win sparks debate

Arab or Copt? Rami Malek Oscar win sparks debate
3 min read
25 February, 2019
An Oscar win for American-Egyptian actor Rami Malik's has seen his identity as a member of Egypt's Coptic minority come under the spotlight.
Rami Malek's family are Coptic Christians from the Upper Egypt province of Minya [AFP]
Egyptians on Monday hailed Rami Malek after he took home the best actor Oscar for his performance as rock singer Freddie Mercury in the film Bohemian Rhapsody

Malek, an American of Egyptian origin, received the award on Sunday for his portrayal of the lead singer of iconic British band Queen.

He highlighted his background as the son of immigrants to the US in his Oscar acceptance speech.

"I am the son of immigrants from Egypt. I'm a first-generation American, and part of my story is being written right now," he said.

Malek, whose family are Coptic Christians from the Upper Egypt province of Minya, also showed off his proficiency in the Arabic language when speaking to the press backstage.

Fans quickly took to Twitter to celebrate the actor's win.

"It's really a beautiful thing that an Egyptian and Arab is the Oscar's best actor," a Twitter user said.

"Rami Malek is taking home the Oscar for Best Actor. A huge congratulations to Rami, the first Egyptian and Arab to win an acting Oscar. So well deserved!" another twitter user said.

Refences to Malek as being an Arab quickly prompted debate over the identity of Egypt's Coptic population.

Copts are a Christian minority in Egypt, accounting for approximately 10 percent of the country's 98 million Egyptians - making up the largest native Christian population in the Middle East.

The Coptic language, derived partially from the Demotic script of Ancient Egypt, was once the everyday language of the Copts and was widely used in religious rituals a millennium ago.

Coptic was slowly replaced by Arabic after the 7th Century, following which many famous Copt's from Egypt's past wrote in Arabic and served important functions in the different dynasties that ruled Egypt.

The Coptic language fell out of use in the 17th century, though efforts at reviving it were led by Patriarchs of the Coptic Church from the 19th century onwards.

Copts have repeatedly complained of marginalisation in the mostly Muslim Egypt, and broadly rejected efforts led by the Egyptian President Gamal Abdel-Nasser to impose an Arab identity for all Egyptians. Many Copts choose not to identify as Arabs.

Many on Twitter took to highlight the importance of Malek's Coptic identity.

"Very proud moment for my Coptic Egyptian brothers and sisters. Rami Malek is a son of the Coptic Egyptian community, who have long been persecuted in Egypt," author and law professor Khaled Beydoun tweeted.

"Rami Malek would've never been given the chance in Egypt had his parents stayed because he's Coptic. But now those same people that would've denied him the opportunity are jumping on his wagon," a Twitter user said.

"Ugh! Sorry. He's not Arab. Rami Malek's Coptic. Such a wonderful win, and such a beautiful acceptance speech," another user said.

Meanwhile, others chose to focus less on the question of identity and more on the achievement of the American-Egyptian actor.

"You're an inspiration. Can't express how proud you've made your community," a user said on Twitter.

While the question of Coptic identity remains contentious, in a country that has witnessed sectarian attacks by extremist groups, severe state repression of civil-society and rampant financial mismanagement, Malek's Oscar win will serve as a unifying beacon.

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