Attempting to decolonize pedagogy in CILAS Alexandria

“… to begin always anew, to make, to reconstruct, and to not spoil, to refuse to bureaucratize the mind, to understand and to live life as a process — live to become…”  -Paulo Freire

South-South collaboration was a present and significant aspect of macro-political life not so long ago, when the leaders of 29 countries decided to meet in Bandung, Indonesia for the famous conference in 1955. One of the leaders’ goals was to find a common way of behaving which was neither aligned to capitalist nor communist agendas, and to prevent neocolonialism. In that sense, the summit was a way of attempting to find new forms of creating, thinking and acting, from which new values would then come into being.

In addition to the important premise of the conference, the act of such countries collaborating and “being together” is in itself, for me, among its most valuable results. It was bringing this number of nations and cultural frameworks closer that eventually led to a generative outcome: the Non-Aligned Movement, which came into being six years later after a follow-up conference in Belgrade. With the movement, a new set of ideas and conversations was born, bringing a more developed sense of collectiveness to collaborations among southern countries, both on the macro and micro scales. This period is thus defined by some as a historical grounding of the decolonial movement.

This year, a similar idea on a very different scale took place in Egypt: in CILAS Alexandria, a kind of collaborative pedagogy was initiated, with the intention of creating a place of learning that would bring closer very different backgrounds and contexts that nonetheless share a similar historical and structural past. 

In 2013, the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences was founded by scholar Karim-Yassin Goessinger as an autonomous, independent organization that brought together students from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds to study various fields of knowledge (mainly arts and culture, humanities, social sciences and natural sciences) in a horizontal, pedagogical set-up highly dependent on discussion-based courses (a method popularized by the Brazilian scholar Paulo Freire). In addition to its year-long study program, CILAS also offers individual thematic courses spanning the four main fields of study, which are open to the public and not restricted to students enrolled in the year-long program. 

From the beginning, the people behind CILAS were intent on fostering a spirit of cultural and pedagogical collaboration by inviting scholars from different parts of the world, including, of course, other countries of the Global South. In each of its first two academic years in Cairo, CILAS hosted fellows from India and Latin America, who coordinated coursework and sometimes taught courses of their own.

In 2018, Hussein El Hajj and Batool El-Hennawi, two former CILAS students who went on to join the staff, started an extension of the institute in Alexandria, where I was invited to facilitate a course in the spring semester of 2019. Two other scholars, from Ecuador and Brazil, were also set to participate in the program as facilitators. They were eventually unable to come because CILAS was short on funds, unfortunately a persistent issue for the institution (I managed to make it because I was already working in Jordan and could therefore afford travel expenses to Egypt). 

In the discussion-based course I facilitated, titled Mate مصر Tropicália, we explored a wide selection of texts, films and poems written in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s — a political period that shares many similarities with today’s Egypt. This material worked as a point of departure for creating a dialogue between the two places’ past and present. This organic attempt served to demonstrate the many possibilities of autonomy; organizing collaborations which go from the south to the south without having to pass through the north nor seek recognition from it (since the perspectives that come with them counter the very standards Western culture is based upon), and of composing a dialogue that creates and embraces the risk of emancipatory praxis — that is, the risk of not aiming for direct, straightforward results but acknowledging the fact that we might lose ourselves in the process of learning and that is just fine.

Working on the points of intersection between two regions (Latin America and the Arab world), this pedagogical experiment was in its essence fundamentally different from standard educational practices. For starters, the program was formed and run by two former CILAS students. Moreover, it was founded on alternative approaches with regards to themes, methods, and agendas, as well as a radical openness towards the employment of time, and a central focus on the construction of close relationships between students and facilitators, made possible by an emphasis on availability as well as a horizontality of language within the classroom.

“If we want to decolonize ourselves we have to act and behave differently,” a student announced during one of the sessions in which we discussed decoloniality.  “We’re always talking about the term but no one wants to act and embody it.” 

That student’s statement encapsulated the essence of the course, as well as the point I’m trying to make in this text. The discussion that followed centered on one question: How can we enact ideas like decoloniality, which are very much in vogue today? Not only in terms of appearance (by resorting to visual “markers” expressed in fashion choices, for example) and not even in terms of what we read and watch or the curricula taught in schools, but — more importantly, in terms of our own structures of thought — the so-called certainties on which our ideas are founded.

The relationship between decolonial thinking and pedagogy seems fundamental at this point to reaching and constructing a place of structural change; in order for words to create environments where, most importantly, professors and facilitators — not just students — have to eliminate old certainties, putting their own lives and behavior in perspective while attempting to discuss and produce knowledge, and thus enabling a shift in the edifices that govern their own thinking as well as the subjects of their focus. Secondly, educational institutions must attempt to create autonomy and recognition based on non-Western principles, by concentrating on subjects that deviate from the usual Euro-centric narratives of thought development — in other words, to engage in the construction of ideas that relate to us (along with all the particularities that this us can bring) in a direct, empirical way, de-centering culture and inevitably de-centering onto-epistemological concepts in the process, putting occidental and universalist ideas of thought and experience in perspective.

From such discussions, a comprehensive space was born between the participants. By looking back to look forward, we tried to develop new forms of interpreting, narrating and constructing (hi)stories. Attempting to escape the format of a usual course, the participants themselves brought a large portion of the references and materials that were used. The awareness that we were doing something collective was a fundamental factor, and therefore we constantly made decisions as a group. Throughout the duration of the course, it became clear how certain questions can create a dialogue between different regions; how the past echoes here and there; how forms of erasing, controlling and silencing manifest in similar ways; and, perhaps most importantly, how domination works, taking over our minds and behaviors. Ultimately, our main inquiry began to crystallize: How can we undo past ways of doing while attempting to enact new forms of thinking?

In one of our early encounters during the course, in a discussion after a screening of the film Concerning Violence (a 2014 documentary by Göran Olsson based on Frantz Fanon’s seminal work of the same name), one of the participants said: “Here we are, discussing colonial violence while using the English language, and I think this is very problematic.” (I was the only one who did not speak fluent Arabic). After a quick glance at me, the conversation shifted to Arabic (one of the students sat next to me to translate), and to questions of language, class and colonialism. This incident is a perfect illustration of the larger shift I am speaking about: to transform the subjects of books to subjects of existence, and from there study how they take shape and form.  

A quick survey is enough to conclude that the majority of college departments, courses, seminars, colloquiums and fairs dealing with postcolonialism and decolonial studies are to be found in the global north, and so the processes of narrative examination and construction are confined to these very strange settings. Who exactly are these events and programs addressing? 

It is similarly bewildering when Western academics go to teach in a southern country (feeling like such great philanthropists who have displaced themselves for the sake of spreading their knowledge), enjoy massive salaries and high standards of living, then complain about basic cultural differences. There is nothing more infuriating than a British professor, for example, coming to Cairo and complaining that students are late and that it’s unacceptable. I have seen this many more times than I wish I had.

“In retrospect, I see that in the last twenty years I have encountered many folks who say they are committed to freedom and justice for all, even though the way they live, the values and habits of being they institutionalize daily, in public and private rituals, help maintain the culture of domination, help create an unfree world.” -bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress

Teachers, as this quote from bell hooks elaborates, should not replicate the cruelties of the world. They need to take part in a process of self-actualization with their students: embracing doubts and creating collective environments that one exits feeling different. They need to change how they relate to bibliography and other course material, avoid mini-kingdoms or cults within classrooms, and deeply engage with their students by fully immersing themselves within that process. The objective, for the most part, should be to truly abandon epistemic privilege, in class and outside.

This pedagogy of collaboration we attempted at CILAS wasn’t only intended as a means to learn from and with each other, de-center narratives, twist the axis of perspective or change our points of departure and forms of thinking. It was also a means to try and find a way to “interrupt the satisfaction we have with the perceived enjoyments, securities and entitlements afforded by colonialism.” A more humanist approach, beyond the hierarchical, patriarchal establishment, that takes into consideration the processual, unknown aspect of this new attempt at learning, embraces mistakes and doubts (especially by the facilitators/teachers/professors) and takes participants on a path of transformation where we all learn from each other over a period of time. 

This attempted shift can be initiated by (and can also culminate in) unpredictable actions, the impact of which is not readily measurable, such as reading Freire in Tahrir Square, drinking mate (chimarrão) with students in Alexandria or, simply, studying Edward Said, Jota Mombaça, Glauber Rocha and Ghassan Kanafani in conjunction with one another — pairings capable of creating dialogues that surpass economical borders and construct a new geography of collaboration.


1 Mignolo, Walter. Geopolitics of Sensing and Knowing: On (De)Coloniality, Border Thinking, and Epistemic Disobedience
2 Andreotti, Vanessa. Multi-layered Selves: Colonialism, Decolonization and Counter-Intuitive Learning Spaces
Gian Spina 

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