Collaborative Learning in History & Anthropology between Cairo & Bern

Hussein El-HajjNariman MoustafaAnne Clément-Vollenbroich

A bit of context in Cairo: the humanities in (post-)revolutionary Egypt

In 2014, historian Khaled Fahmy took part in a roundtable organized in the framework of the Columbia Global Humanities Project. In his intervention published two years ago, he lamented the dismal state of the humanities in Egypt (Fahmy 2017). While his assessment carries some truth, it starkly contrasted with what we encountered that same year, as we began engaging with the humanities at the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CILAS), an alternative higher educational project based in the Egyptian capital since 2013 and in Alexandria since 2018. What we experienced then allowed us to draw a strikingly different picture: a multiplicity of reading circles dedicated to works as varied as Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, or Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddimah; a dozen alternative educational projects (including CILAS) aimed at promoting the humanities and social sciences generally and from a wide variety of perspectives; and a few additional projects focusing on one discipline, such as the “history workshops” (“Ehky ya tarikh”) created to encourage Egyptian citizens to challenge the nationalist master narrative of the state by re-appropriating and creatively reinterpreting archives. For all of us engaged in this movement, the moment of “crisis” of the humanities was, and is still, a moment of “opportunity.”
Between 2014 and 2016, the three initiators of this project worked within the framework of CILAS on a revision of the core curriculum deemed too Eurocentric, a broad translation project that eventually led to the creation of a translation lab, and an experimental course entitled “connected humanities” inspired by Subrahmanyam’s “connected histories” (Subrahmanyam 2004). The three of us were also involved in the creation phase of Mubtadaa’, an initiative launched in 2016 with the aim of “introducing high school students to critical humanities and social sciences in Arabic, and to have them experience how beneficial the theories and methods associated with these disciplines can be on their path to acquiring knowledge about themselves and the world”.

A bit of context in Bern: The THoR Initiative and the Co-Lab “Engaged Connected Practice”

Since 2016 and Anne Clément-Vollenbroich’s taking up a position of assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Bern, our collaboration has taken a new form. Co-hosted by the institute of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies the project joined the initiative Taking the Humanities on the Road (THoR) at the Walter Benjamin Kolleg Bern, where we co-founded the Co-Lab Engaged Connected Practice. In this Co-Lab, we believe that it is our responsibility as scholars not only to recognize but also to engage with the vibrant revival of the humanities that is currently taking place “under the radar” at the margins of the established university system in Egypt and many other places of the so-called “global South” and North. We emphasize however that to do so requires a change of perspective and an “engaged connected practice.”
Through the expression “change of perspective”, we want to shed light on the need to shift the scholarly focus towards the “margins” of the established university system, where the interest in the humanities and social sciences lies at the moment and where learners/teachers can escape the stifling atmosphere that currently prevails in both public and private higher educational institutions. With the term “engagement,” we want to underline the necessity (more than ever) to engage with issues of concern to the communities in which we are embedded (“engaged humanities” as opposed to “public humanities” which sometimes includes the problematic idea of “educating the broader public”). We also want to highlight the necessity to recognize and challenge the politics of knowledge production, including the specific role that we play in those politics. With the term “connectedness,” we draw our inspiration from Subrahmanyam’s “connected histories.” Our “connected humanities” (rather than “global humanities”) are an invitation both to initiate a conversation about and with a variety of (non-Western) humanistic traditions, in particular the Arab Islamic one (Makdisi 1981, 1990; Patel 2015), and to rethink the porous boundaries between the humanities, the arts, and the sciences. Finally, with the term “practice,” we want both to emphasize the need to integrate this engagement and connectedness into our research and teaching practices (notably through participatory and decolonizing methods) and to highlight the crucial importance of turning ideas into action.

“Collaborative Learning in History & Anthropology between Cairo & Bern” (“Collaborative Learning”)

In this regard, our first concrete project is an original teaching experiment entitled “Collaborative learning in history & anthropology” (visit the event page to read more about the 2018-2019 edition). The main idea underlying it is to facilitate courses simultaneously for two groups of students, one based in Bern and the other in Cairo. All participants are invited to read the same texts and exchange perspectives through the weekly sharing of critical and creative responses to the readings and common Skype sessions. At the end of the semester, this collaborative learning process culminates in a one-week workshop through which the participants produce reflective pieces on the various ways in which the experiment has affected their approach to learning and researching in the disciplines of history and anthropology in general and in the field of Middle Eastern Studies more specifically. Within this framework, all participants are regarded as co-producers of knowledge. The facilitation languages of the courses and the workshops are English and Arabic. While the students in Bern are officially registered for the courses at the University, the students in Cairo answer a call for participation and meet in various co-working spaces of the capital. In both settings, the tools of Self-Directed Education and alternative/emancipatory pedagogies are introduced and their use is encouraged.


The 2020 Edition of “Collaborative Learning”

In February 2020, the “Collaborative Learning” project started into its 3rd round with a kick-off workshop at CILAS Alexandria in Egypt, where 12 participants registered to join the collaborative learning project with the Institute for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Bern. As it was done in the 2018-2019 edition, the project was set up to connect two groups of students (Bern- and Alexandria-based) and collaboratively engage them in a discussion around the course work of an MA Seminar taught by Anne Clément-Vollenbroich, entitled “Between Utopias and Dystopias: Towards an Anthropology of Imagination in the Middle East.” 

Visit the event page to read more about the 2020 edition of “Collaborative Learning”

The 2019 Edition of “Collaborative Learning”

In a second phase of the project, namely in the Spring semester 2019, Anne Clément-Vollenbroich offered two courses at the University of Bern which covered the core topics that inform the broader idea of the “Collaborative Learning in Anthropology” project: a BA seminar entitled “Alternative Education in the contemporary Arab World” and an MA seminar entitled “Emancipation, Freedom, and Agency in the contemporary Middle East.”

Visit the event page to read more about the 2019 edition of “Collaborative Learning”

The 2018-2019 Edition of “Collaborative Learning”

The first edition of the project took place between September 2018 and February 2019 and it offered the following two courses: a BA seminar entitled “Being Young in the Middle East and North Africa” and an MA seminar entitled “Anthropology & the Colonial Encounter: from Talal Asad to Decolonizing Methodologies.”

Visit the event page to read more about the 2018-2019 edition of “Collaborative Learning”


Andrea Birrer (project member)

Anne Clément-Vollenbroich (project leader & contact)

Hussein El-Hajj (project leader)

Ahmed El Serougui (project member)

Sarah Ibrahim (project member)

Noura Helmy (project member)

Eman Maarek (project member)

Ahmed Medhat (project member)

Nariman Moustafa (project leader)


History Workshops:
Mubtadaa’: https://mubtadaa.wordpress.com
Boring Books:


Anne Clément-Vollenbroich

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