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.”
The topic of this course was inspired by Amira Mittermaier’s “call for an anthropology of imagination that is open to other understandings of the imagination, particularly ones that do not equate the imagined with the unreal, and ones less centered on the human subject.” She further notes: “In the context of my fieldwork (and in many texts of the Islamic tradition), the imagination (al-khayal) is a realm that lies between the spiritual and the material, the Divine and the human. My call for an anthropology of imagination is inspired by creative and critical engagements with the imaginary and the in-between […], [and] anthropological and post-colonial work on alternative modes of rationality […]. The uprisings in 2011 suggest that an engagement with different registers of the imagination is not only a philosophical but also a political exercise.” (Mittermaier 2015, 109).
In a sense, this course sought to answer that call by taking the participants on a three-stage journey, first by critically examining the prevalence of utopias/dystopias in the Arabic literary landscape of the last decade (Ahmad Khalid Tawfiq, Ahmad Naji, Basma ‘Abd al-Aziz, Deena Mohamed) and then by interrogating the poetics and politics of utopias, drawing on the works of Fredric Jameson, Ernst Bloch, Ruth Levitas, and Davina Cooper. By looking back at the “Tahrir moment” and other more contemporary social experiments, the course sought to pay special attention to the links between utopia and prefigurative politics. Finally, the students were invited to broaden their theoretical reflection by exploring the nascent field of the anthropology of imagination through the works of Samuli Schielke, Roxanne Varzi, Amira Mittermaier and Vincent Crapanzano.
Throughout the semester, team members Nadira Soraya Haribe and Ahmed Mongey facilitated group meetings in Alexandria as well as regular interactive exchange between the two groups on digital platforms. Due to the limitations posed by the Covid-19 crisis, the common workshop which was initially planned to take place in Alexandria in April 2020 had to be cancelled. Nevertheless, the project’s initial outlook for the integration of digital exchange between the two groups proved to be a valuable resource. Then, exchange moved beyond discussions on readings to include everyday dreaming and utopian imaginaries as strategies of dealing with the uncertainty of the current times.