Learning on wings

An Egyptian tower of alternative education

In old Cairo, an innovative learning centre provides a free-thinking alternative to both conventional schools and elitist, inaccessible education.  

It’s 5.30 in the evening and, as part of his daily routine, a man on top of one of Cairo’s open rooftops sets his pigeons free. In a twenty-something flock, they flutter above the streets, navigating in circles which grow wider and wider as their wings catch the beams of the sinking sun. While they fly as they wish, their caretaker nevertheless guides them from a distance, waving a handmade flag. Meanwhile, a couple of neighbourhoods away, in another, self-proclaimed, pigeon tower known by its acronym CILAS, students flit through the front door. Floor cushions are fluffed, backpacks thrown aside and pens are about to touch paper: a new class has begun.

Floor cushions are fluffed, backpacks thrown aside and pens are about to touch paper: a new class has begun.

The Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences, or CILAS, first appeared on Egypt’s educational map in 2013. Originally the brainchild of Karim-Yassin Goessinger, an eighties kid with Egyptian-Austrian roots whose educational path led him across the globe, it has evolved in both spirit and practice since its inception. Metaphorically profiling itself as a pigeon tower, CILAS aims to be an alternative to the ivory towers that still characterise current-day academia globally. It is part of the larger international movement of alternative education, and significantly remains one of the few pioneers in liberal arts education in Egypt.

Liberal arts of today encompasses a vast variety of disciplines, ranging from languages to natural sciences. Still, it is hard to define. Goessinger, in a talk he gave in Cairo, described it as a type of scholarship that “feeds the soul and nurtures interconnectedness among academic disciplines, across cultures, across time.” He called it “a form of education that promotes critical thinking, self-reflection and civic responsibility rather than clear professional certifications.”

Metaphorically profiling itself as a pigeon tower, CILAS aims to be an alternative to the ivory towers that still characterise current-day academia globally.

CILAS just recently relocated to a brightly lit apartment on the first floor of an aging building, surrounded by some of Cairo’s major historical monuments. The same wind that blows past the minarets of the Sultan Hassan,Muhammad Ali and Sultan al-Nasir Muhammad ibn Qalawun mosques and the towers of the Salah al-Din al-Ayouby citadel, whirls through Haret El Labbana, the alley where CILAS is located. The balconies have wooden chairs and plants, distinctly marking CILAS’s presence in the building, and offer an intimate look at the al-Rifaʿi Mosque and a far-reaching view across the capital. Meanwhile, inside, the lack of school desks and the presence of dining tables with chairs, carpets and floor cushions of all colours give the space a homely feel.

Tracks and labs

Students who embark on a journey with CILAS have two options: they can either enrol for the one-year programme from September to June or tag along as visiting students by choosing from a range of thematic courses later in the year. “We specifically focus on courses which neither private nor governmental universities in Egypt show interest in,” tells Hussein El-Hajj, a core team member who moderates the translation lab on Saturdays and set up the library as a project when he was studying at CILAS. “No money is spent on academic research in these fields and they are absent from their curricula,” he says.

“We specifically focus on courses which neither private nor governmental universities in Egypt show interest in.”

The year-long programme is threefold. First on offer is a core curriculum covering humanities, natural sciences, arts and culture, and social sciences. After this intellectual incubation period, students dive into their own selection of thematic courses, cherry-picking two courses in the second and third trimester. These flow out of the four previous fields of study as tracks.

“The students’ input is very important in the first part of the programme, when we gather the ideas they have and the things they are interested in,” explains El-Hajj after another translation lab session has come to an end. “Based on that we select the keywords from the core courses that attracted their attention and launch an open call for people who could teach the courses in the second and third trimester.” Examples from this year’s courses are ‘The Single Individual: Quality Time with Søren Kierkegaard’, ‘We Are What We Eat: A Critical Approach to Food Consumption in Egypt’ and ‘To Stand With the Dreamers: On Utopia’.

Parallel to these courses, each one-year student participates in one of five labs: the translation lab, the space lab, the media lab, the research lab or the pedagogy lab. These laboratories, which evolved from an earlier community service component, are project-based and therefore more practical and workshop-like. “The idea of labs is new,” El-Hajj points out. “We consider them a community service. To us that means the academic community and the community in a wider sense, the community of Cairo.” In the translation lab for example, students work together on the translation of one article. “They can have the lab even if I’m not here some time,” says El-Hajj. “They learn from each other instead of someone telling them what is right and what is wrong.” As CILAS has moved towards the concept of bilingualism, its written communication, classes and readings are in English and/or Arabic.

Food for thought

Khadiga Mohamed, a CILAS graduate who now studies political science at AUC (The American University in Cairo) describes the institute as a place where different cultures are respected. “Studying at CILAS felt very comfortable because it was not like a traditional class,” she says. “We would sit in a circle around one table. Like having dinner, with food for thought.”

CILASians (those studying or teaching at the institute) have their own set of vocabulary, reflecting the alternative ways of exchanging knowledge that the institute is famous for. Teachers are fellows, the syllabus becomes the less rigid course flow. The final capstone project marks the students’ graduation, and each class is opened with a prompt. “Classes start with a short video or a brief reading, which leads us to brainstorm and come up with questions about the topic,” Mohamed describes. The fellow then goes on to give the students a bibliography or a set of videos, and/or podcasts to go through at home, before next class. “Then we build on the previous lecture. We try to discuss and ask questions. The fellow just moderates the discussion, the biggest input comes from the students themselves.”

“Classes start with a short video or a brief reading, which leads us to brainstorm and come up with questions about the topic.”

Discussion-based learning is the institute’s main learning methodology. Limiting the number of students to small groups of an average of eight to ten per class has therefore been a conscious decision. Classes follow the pedagogy of discovery, an inquiry-based learning strategy often accredited to Jerome Bruner, which begins with brainstorming about a certain scenario or problem, and posing questions.

“Critical thinking” is the first thing that pops up when Khadiga Mohamed thinks about the advantages of studying at CILAS. “Even at AUC, which is supposed to have liberal arts and be the best formal education in Egypt, it’s not that critical. Studying at AUC still forces you to think or believe in a certain way. At CILAS however, you can be critical. You can even be critical of CILAS,” she notes. “The downside would be how to deal with that. You can criticise but how do you go on after that? Or why were you being critical in the first place?” The former CILASian goes on to stress how studying at CILAS has changed her as a person, and how that, at times, can be a struggle. “This is also what I meant by ‘they tell you how to go about things, how to be critical’. But they don’t teach you how to deal with the clashes that will follow because of that. Sometimes you don’t have to discuss things.”

By stimulating curiosity and playing with questions or ideas raised by students, knowledge creation becomes a joint effort among students and fellows. Just like the feathered river pigeons form in the sky, CILAS lacks structured hierarchy. During discussions, roles are in flux. In the absence of offices with professors behind hefty desks which may intimidate the students, students can chose to speak from the heart during weekly tea hours. The core curriculum is continuously revised with them, a guarantee that the courses will matter.

Just like the feathered river pigeons form in the sky, CILAS lacks structured hierarchy. During discussions, roles are in flux.

This trickles down to the thematic course level as well. Rahma Bavelaar, who took courses at CILAS in the past and now offers ‘Oral History Theory & Practice: Family, Community and Migration Histories in the Khalifa Neighborhood’, explains that fellows and students can collectively create the course as they go along. The initial course flow is therefore fluid and temporary. Bavelaar’s course is set in the Khalifa neighbourhood, adjacent to CILAS: an area with narrow streets, dilapidated housing, plenty of craftspeople, and monuments associated with Sufism. “I didn’t have a complete syllabus when starting the course, and I still don’t,” she says. “The rough outline was that we would focus on theory and methodology in the first half of the course. In our first lesson, I introduced a few oral history projects in the Middle East to give an idea about the kinds of projects that are going on, especially in Palestine, Egypt and Libya. In the second session, we talked about the theory of history and memory, and how this impacts the way people remember things.” From the second half on, the course’s focus shifts to the family history project as students go into the Khalifa area and talk to families there, focusing on migration histories and people’s relationships to the neighbourhood.

“The whole notion of grading creates a sense of competitiveness and focus on the end result. We really focus on the process instead.”

Grade sheets marked with A, B, C, D and unfortunate Fs are notably absent at CILAS. Students receive more individual guidance from their fellows than is usually the case at universities. Constructive criticism and appreciative feedback is the key, whether in writing or in the form of one to one dialogues. “CILAS,” says its website, “assesses students’ ability to de-construct and re-construct phenomena, categories and theories; their ability to communicate across disciplines in written and spoken form; their ability to raise original questions, cultivate curiosity, and pursue personal interests along their respective paths of self-discovery and self-knowledge.” Assessments take the form of written assignments and oral exams. “These were really nice,” says Khadiga Mohamed. “We would sit on the floor and the usual stress of an exam wouldn’t be there.” Bavelaar thinks that the learning atmosphere of CILAS would become different if grading were to be introduced into the system. “The whole notion of grading creates a sense of competitiveness and focus on the end result. We really focus on the process instead. You can go with the flow and see where things take you. Conversations often take all kinds of directions,” she says with a smile. “People share a lot. And I find myself sharing a lot of myself with the students.”

Finding community strength

In a classroom with open doors sits one of the year-long students, practising Arabic calligraphy on his own. Another student says hi on his way to a weekly reading group on postcolonialism. Cairo’s street noise, which usually forces its way through the windows, somehow becomes milder here. “We are located in an urban space that is rather touristy because of the notable buildings surrounding us, and it also happens to be a poor neighbourhood,” says El-Hajj about CILAS’s surroundings. “This is important, as we didn’t want to move into an inaccessible closed compound.” The institute usually functions as an in-between space, attracting students from all walks of life. “Our main interest is that CILAS broadens the knowledge horizons of those who are interested, whatever their background may be,” El-Hajj says. “CILAS simultaneously works as a bridge for those who are thinking of moving into a new field of expertise, whether at a university in Egypt or abroad. For instance, people who have studied engineering or medicine and want to switch to social sciences, history or arts, or those who want to engage in a career shift.”

Finding their strength within the flock, CILASians are expected to support their peers, listen to and care for each other. “We’re at a moment in Egypt that is very difficult for a lot of people. On the one hand, there is the memory of the revolution which is still very near, and on the other hand there’s the situation we’re in now,” sighs Bavelaar, referring to the politically repressing and tough economic state the country is in now. She thinks of the institute as a ‘home away from home’ herself. “The present scenario brings out a lot in people. I feel there’s a lot of sadness. But, and that’s the beautiful thing, there’s still a lot of hope and ambition, and expectations that things will ultimately improve.”

“We’re at a moment in Egypt that is very difficult for a lot of people. On the one hand, there is the memory of the revolution which is still very near, and on the other hand there’s the situation we’re in now.”

Maha Bali, associate professor of practice at AUC’s Center for Learning and Teaching, stresses the importance of CILAS as a safe space. “Nowhere in Egyptian education, except at AUC and a few other schools that are limited to a privileged few, do people have the opportunity to experience a liberal arts education. I don’t necessarily think liberal arts is a panacea or perfect for all contexts, but any opportunity for young Egyptians to think critically in a relatively safe environment with a small time investment – one year, not their entire university life – can help them to develop into more critical citizens. And that is really needed in Egypt today. If it helps young citizens learn to listen to the ‘other’, CILAS will have achieved something important.”

”There’s also the absence of censorship or state control,” Bavelaar adds. “So far, I think, they have managed to stay under the radar so CILAS remains a free space. The trust is definitely there. People feel comfortable talking about politics and personal issues. This is very much needed at this moment: spaces where you have a sense of community that are free from surveillance by all kinds of authorities. There’s a lot of trauma in the country and you can only work through that in a safe space.”

“If it helps young citizens learn to listen to the ‘other’, CILAS will have achieved something important.”

By collaborating with local organisations, CILAS is steadily integrating itself deeper into the community it is rooted in. One of the former community service tracks for instance, got students involved in teaching refugees at St. Andrew’s Refugee Services. Bavelaar’s class on family histories in Khalifa makes ties with Megawra, an Egyptian non-profit organisation that seeks to strengthen the sense of community among practitioners, academics and students of architecture and urbanism, and the Women and Memory Forum, a group of academics, researchers and activists who fight against negative representations of Arab women in the cultural sphere. “Sometimes we work with organisations such as Nafas, which is an agro-culinary school which organised some courses for our students. We also held courses at the Contemporary Image Collective, and maintain a good relationship with Safarni, an organisation that tackles xenophobia and intolerance through travel workshops for children,” says El-Hajj.

The silver lining

With little to no prospects in the near future of any positive government-backed or university-driven educational reforms to meet the needs of Egypt’s students, the country is in dire need of more grassroots initiatives such as CILAS. The team behind it dreams of seeing similar schools spread over Egypt, in cities such as Alexandria and Aswan, and towns in the Delta. As CILAS only admits 24 year-long students per academic year, and groups are kept small for the thematic courses, the institute is, however, operating on a very limited scale.

Pigeons are capable of the unimaginable – especially when they join forces.

In al-Khitat, Egyptian historian al-Maqrizi reportedly retells the story of the wondrous capacities of the pigeons of Yaqoub ibn Killis (930-991), a Jew from Baghdad who moved to Cairo and became vizier under the Fatimid caliph al-Aziz Billah. One day, the caliph craved a particular kind of cherries which grew in Baalbek and were known to be sold in the streets of Damascus. As the caliph prepared himself to follow his taste buds, ibn Killis sent a letter to Damascus in which he ordered to wrap the cherries and attach them to the messenger pigeons from Cairo, which lived there as part of a vast postal communication network. The birds were released the same day the letter arrived. According to al-Maqrizi, about 120 pigeons reached Cairo within a mere two or three days, balancing under the heavy weight of the paper-wrapped cherries, which were ready to be tasted before the caliph had even set off.

As al-Maqrizi’s account comes to show, pigeons are capable of the unimaginable – especially when they join forces. Even if CILAS can only offer a pitstop for landing and recharging to a handful of students at this moment, once they put their heads together paper-wrapped knowledge and ideas will only spread further from there on, across borders and time.

This article is part of the Web Arts Resistances project and platform, coordinated by Babelmed in collaboration with Inkyfada, ONORIENT, Radio M and Tabasco video.

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