By Carolyn Ramzy

Oceans away from their country, Toronto’s Coptic community strives to create a home away from home. Their musical heritage brings comfort and keeps them connected.

Just a little less than 6,000 miles separate the city of Toronto from Cairo. Beside the seven-hour journey over the Atlantic Ocean from Canada, it still takes an average of four more hours to finally arrive from one layover to the other. It is an exhausting distance that all Egyptian immigrants know too well. Yet, when walking into one of Toronto’s Coptic community centers, Orthodox churches, or even into an Egyptian residence, it is as if this entire distance vanishes and one is surprisingly home.

Among the many other  immigrant communities in Canada, Toronto’s Copts are distinct for their efforts in recreating a ‘home away from home’. What initially began as a handful of families in the early 1960s now overflows the small church and community center in one of Toronto’s suburbs, Scarborough. With an abundant number of volunteers, Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Church organizes many events throughout the year, including the anticipated and well-known Coptic-Canadian festival. There, a special booth serves ‘asir asab or sugar cane juice, while a young woman dressed like a fellaha serves teen shoky or cactus pears from a decorated cart. Other volunteers sell bags of balah (dates), gibna bida (white cheese) and other tasty goodies. Of all these Egyptian markers however, it is Coptic music that has become the most coveted emblem of home. In this year’s festival, imported CDs and DVDs occupied two large booths, not including the wide selection of music recordings produced in Canada. In Toronto’s Coptic Christian diaspora, these CDs of spiritual songs, known as taratil, are not only part of a Coptic devotional expression but also help newly arrived immigrants deal with their homesickness, strengthen their transatlantic ties to Egypt, and finally, redefine home.

Saint Mark’s Coptic Festival, Autumn 2007.


Taratil are Christian religious songs of praise found throughout the entire Middle East. Interestingly, there is also a Muslim genre named taratul, though this is the slow recitation of the Holy Quran. The closest equivalent to the Christian concept of taratil are Sufi anashid. Within an Egyptian Christian framework, taratil are specifcally non-liturgical folksongs performed during Bible studies or youth meetings or, simply as a part of everyday life in people’s cars, homes, and privately-owned businesses. Unlike the formal Coptic hymnody of alhan that are sung in traditional church worship, taratil are an Arabic colloquial genre.

Historically, the origins of taratil are generally unknown and most composers, with a few exceptions, are often unidentified. There is strong speculation that taratil have evolved from Coptic folk songs that were later translated to Arabic. Contemporary taratil have their roots in rural folk traditions, such as mawwawil and other popular songs from the early twentieth century. Taratil also incorporate musical influences from Sufi madayih or ‘praise’ genres as well as older Arab art music known such as muwashshahat. While keeping their original melodies, texts were simply replaced by Christianized poetry. Other songs were directly assimilated from Protestant and Catholic missionary traditions beginning in the late nineteenth century and translated into Arabic.

Within the larger scheme of Coptic music culture, taratil also complement the more formal genre of alhan. Alhan are hymns that make up the majority of the Coptic hymnody and are performed during church services. Unlike taratil, alhan are predominately performed by male cantors, deacons and clergy, as well as a mixed congregation. Taratil however can be performed by anyone at any time. Because of this, they create a unique environment for prayer and meditation and are known for facilitating community dialogue. Much of their texts are highly poetic and expressive, utilizing figurative words, imagery, and folk metaphor. These texts not only praise the divine love of God and evoke spirituality among participants, but also allow them to provide a way to communally address any hardship concerns they experience as individuals or as part of their larger community. Among immigrant communities, such as the congregation of Saint Mark’s Church in Scarborough, recurring themes of abandonment, separation from God, homelessness, and spiritual estrangement in the world, are frequently evoked in taratil to describe the various, and sometimes painful experiences of immigration and its impact on people’s lives. Frequent symbols and metaphors include birds, oceans, mountains, mothers, and orphans, among others. It is these texts and metaphors that significantly allow taratil to be efficacious in reconciling nostalgia and healing homesickness. Surprisingly, for the younger generation who have never set foot in their Egyptian homeland, many of these songs have been translated into English, and they too sing of a homesickness for an imagined home they have never seen.

In the last forty years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of Coptic immigrants to Canada, the United States, and Australia. In Canada, the city of Toronto is the site of the greatest influx of Coptic immigrants, which, in large part, is due to the presence of major Coptic Orhtodox Church communities in the area. In 2002, there were twenty-one Coptic Church communities in Canada alone, not counting the eighty churches in the United States. Historically, the most significant church in the region and the oldest Coptic community in Canada is Saint Mark’s Coptic Church of Scarborough, Toronto. Having outgrown their small parish, the community is now currently funding an expansion project entitled ‘St. Mark’s Coptic Canadian Village’. Among many other new buildings, the project will include two large churches for seating over 4,000 people, a community center, a school, a day-care, a museum, and a theatre.

There is an old Egyptian saying that goes, ‘Do you know what happened to the saeedi (Upper Egyptian) who arrived to Canada? He never learned English and he forgot his Arabic!’ Sometimes, in response, many immigrants will howl in laughter at the joke. At other times, there is an extended silence, an empathy with this poor saeedi. Many immigrants struggle with feelings of emotional severance and separation from their native cultural and social networks. Just as the saeedi’s experience had changed his language, so that neither completely belonged to him, many immigrants are culturally distinct from fellow Egyptians counterparts living in the motherlands, as well as from their surrounding Canadian society because of their experiences as immigrants. To compensate for such a rift, many have turned to the Coptic churches and communities in their area, not only for their religious and social functions, but also for their emotional, psychological, and spiritual support in dealing with homesickness and cultural isolation. Many of these venues, as well as private residences, become safe and familiar places amidst a foreign world, where unlearned English and forgotten Arabic is everyone’s dialect. In such a place, immigrants can feel a bit more at home against the backdrop of familiar sounds: the sweetness of Egyptian Arabic, the clatter of dishes and tea glasses, and the singing of taratil.

Literally meaning ‘an invitation’, ozumas are social gatherings that take place among close family and friends in their private homes. As ozumas regularly rotate from one house to another, they are an integral aspect of immigrant Coptic social life. Through the nostalgic performances of taratil, many immigrants interweave their personal and collective memory of ozumas and life in Egypt and recreate a lost sense of time and place.
During my field research, I attended one ozuma on the eve of Saint Mary’s feast in August of 2006. After a scrumptious meal, many people began recounting family preparations and celebrations of the feast in Egypt. One person wistfully commented, ‘Da telai Masr il yomen dol hayssa ashan il id…’ which translates loosely to, ‘I bet you, these days, Egypt is really festive because of the celebration [of Saint Mary]…’ Everyone agreed and nodded quietly in reflection. As the conversation continued, someone requested a tartila entitled ‘Ya Mariam il Bikr’, and as I watched in awe, conversation slowly gave away to song:

This tartila plays on many metaphors that underpin Coptic religious beliefs, particularly the notion of one’s true spiritual home in heaven. Within a larger religious context, Mary symbolizes the Church, which, as scholar Ghada Botros points out, has quickly come to represent a ‘piece of home’ away from home in the diaspora. In turn, the Church, many times, is symbolized as heaven on earth. In the second verse, there is a request that Mary not only enlighten the singer’s intellect and senses, but also enlighten ma’abidina, ‘our places of worship’. Churches are not only metaphors for both the spiritual and earthly heaven, but also for the inner sanctuary found in the self. Within this framework, the self becomes its own place of worship, and by evoking prayer and song, a place that generates self -renewal, consolation, and spiritual healing. Essentially, just as Mary, the Church, Heaven, and God, are a refuge for the human spirit in time of need, so is one’s self when it has been transformed by taratil singing and prayer.

Scarborough’s Coptic community, among many other immigrant communities, is continually active in evoking its past through collective remembrances and nostalgic reminiscences. In a sense, genres such as taratil have helped them become ‘a community of memory’, or one that is influentially defined by its past and strongly linked to its heritage by encouraging its members to openly discuss their experiences, their histories, and their lives back in the homeland. While singing their parents’ songs, the younger generation has also begun to incorporate Western Christian genres such as Power, Praise, and Worship, and to use Christian Rock to represent their interwoven identity as Coptic-Canadians. Though home is no longer anchored to a certain locality, the future of many Coptic immigrants, similar to many inherently immigrant communities all over the world, is inextricably linked to their memories of the past, their new experiences in the diaspora, and, finally to taratil that enliven a distinct “home away from home.”

This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 6, 2014

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