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.”
The first seminar critically examined the
notions of “youth” and “generation,” their various socio-political uses, and
their relevance (or lack thereof) to analyze the transformations that the MENA
region underwent over the past decade. We explored the social construction of
youth both as “peril and promise” and the multiplicity of discourses around a
“youth crisis” in different geographical and historical contexts from the 1930s
to the present (Bennani-Chraïbi & Farag 2007, El Shakry 2011, Pursley
2013). We then analyzed more specifically the renewed interest in the MENA
“youth” in international organizations, NGOs, and academic circles in the past
ten years, with an eye to identifying the various ways in which the recent wave
of revolts and revolutions in the region has led scholars to rethink both their
object of study and their methodologies (Herrera & Bayat 2010, Bonnefoy
& Catusse 2013, Herrera 2014, Schwarz & Oettler 2017, Ayyash &
Hadj-Moussa 2017, Roellin 2018).
The second seminar offered both an exploration of the intellectual project of “decolonizing anthropology,” in its methodological, theoretical, and epistemological dimensions, and an opportunity to reflect on the implications of the adoption of such a perspective for one’s individual research project. Our journey through the literature took us from Talal Asad’s famous edited volume (Asad 1973), one of the first to clearly articulate the primordial connection of the discipline to the colonial enterprise, to the various interrogations raised and answers provided by successive generations of scholars, notably the association of black anthropologists around Faye Harrison (Harrison 1991), different indigenous communities (Fahim 1982, Smith 1999, Alatas 2005, Mwenda, Mills & Babiker 2006, Denzin, Lincoln & Smith 2008), and the proponents of “world anthropologies” (Escobar & Ribeiro 2006) and “decoloniality” (Mignolo & Walsh 2018). Throughout this journey, we focused more specifically on themes of special relevance to the MENA region (for example with Patrick Wolfe’s work on anthropology and settler colonialism, Wolfe 1999) and we looked at innovative research conducted to address directly those issues (for example counter-mapping in Israel/Palestine, Segalo, Manoff & Finea 2015).
We received 116 applications to our call in Egypt. About 60 students eventually participated in the courses and more than half of them joined the one-week workshop in Cairo. The project offered all participants a unique opportunity to develop the skills of exchanging ideas and debating methodological, theoretical, and epistemological issues in a congenial intercultural academic environment. It also enabled them to reflect on the questions raised by the adoption of a “decolonizing” approach to their learning and research work and to design their own set of answers. They collectively created both an alternative curriculum and a guide to decolonizing learning entitled “Learning to Unlearn”. In addition to this collective effort, Noura Helmy, Ahmed Medhat, and Hussein El-Hajj translated bell hooks’s 1990 text “Marginality as site of resistance” into Arabic and published it online (https://boringbooks.net/2019/01/عن-الهامش-بوصفه-ساحة-للمقاومة-بل-هوكس.html). Ahmed El Serougui also wrote an original essay entitled “The ‘fountain of youth’ and the insurgent subject of history” and published it in the Egypt-based independent media organization Mada Masr (https://madamasr.com/en/2019/04/26/feature/society/the-fountain-of-youth-and-the-insurgent-subject-of-history/). For the participants’ invaluable contributions to the success of the project, we would like to express here our deepest gratitude. Our heartfelt thanks and profound appreciation also go to Debora Ulrich (scientific collaborator of the Institute for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Bern), Robine Kellerhals (former Arabic teacher at the same institute), Myriam Ahmed (MA graduate from that same institute), and Andrea Birrer (student at the institute). Without their hard work and dedication, this experience would not have been possible. Finally, we would like to thank the Faculty of Humanities and the Institute for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Bern for having provided financial support to that first experiment.
Since last February, the Bern and Cairo groups have remained in contact and they continue their own collaborative and now fully self-directed learning journey through two informal reading groups. Following the success of this first edition, we are planning the second one for the Spring of 2020 and would like to consolidate the project to be able to offer collaborative learning courses each semester.