In May 2014, the Cairo Institute for Liberal Arts and Sciences was granted a hefty fund by the Ford Foundation. Yet the Egyptian government refused to accredit the grant to the institute this year as foreign funding restrictions tightened. Taking matters into their own hands, the Institute is crowd funding as we speak.
When you ask around Wekalet El Ghoury, the place is known as المعهد (‘The Institute’). Straight, second to the right, first to the left, straight through the blanket shops. Descending into the beehive the Wekala is, the entrance door is challenging to find. Over the course of time however, the Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences has grown into a well-known place for knowledge exchange in the heart of Islamic Cairo.
As soon as Abdulaziz, the bawwab (door man), who seems fused with the building and with whom the building seems fused, opens the door CILAS breaths out a welcoming atmosphere. After climbing the stairs of the 19th century building you can get a glimpse of the library, the spaces that serve as class rooms and finally the rooftop. High ceilings, photographs reminding one of a time that went, maps, schedules, plenty of cushions, and enough tea cups – if not we’ll share – turned this peaceful house into the perfect encounter space. CILAS is to be found on the second floor, right above the Center of Egyptian Civilization Studies (CECS) founded by Nawal Hassan, who sublets the upper floors.
“This building has an interesting history,” the CECS’ driving force points out. “It has the same structure as a karavanserai, so I’m guessing it was built on that. As time passed by it took the shape of a family home, a clinic, and the office premises of an association for Qur’an studies. It is also known as the El Tarabishy building.” Up until now, the house is administrated by the Ministry of Awqaf.
A small fish with a goal
“CILAS operates under a pedagogy of discovery; not a pedagogy of consumption. You have to find out what you don’t know. The only difference between the teachers and students is that the teachers know how to be students. They are not the ones who know the answers, but the ones who know how to find out.” (CILAS about CILAS)
CILASians have a refreshing educational mindset. The Institute could be seen as a small fish in the big education market.
“CILAS is trying to reinvent our education. We’re trying to provide alternative spaces for learning,” one CILAS fellow describes the basic idea. The Cairo Institute of Liberal Arts and Sciences offers students a yearlong programme, provided they have completed secondary school. This consists of a core curriculum in the first trimester, and thematic courses and community service in the second and third trimester. Four interdisciplinary fields of studies are covered: Arts, Culture, Social Sciences, and Natural Sciences. Encompassing courses such as ‘Art and the City’ and ‘Nature-based Tourism’, the CILAS curriculum consists of classes that are different from those taught at other, mainstream universities.
An ever returning method of instruction within this all is discussion based learning. In contradiction to a sight often seen at universities, hiding behind other students is impossible at this Cairo institute. Needless to say, actively participating during classes is a must. Teachers dubbed as fellows are assigned several roles: not only co-creating, moderating, and tutoring courses, but also organising and hosting guest lectures, field visits, and workshops, and enhancing self-reflection and civic engagement.
On Tuesdays, CILASians read. On Tuesday evenings, CILAS opens its doors for anyone willing to join a lecture or rooftop film screening. Egyptians, foreigners, students, graduates, friends, friends of friends, and others fill the building during these events. Jonah, currently enrolled in the full program, sees the Institute as a place where an international body of students are encouraged to think critically and “to invent things”.
“You will never fly if you fear. You need to engage or you will stay the way you are forever,” he quotes ‘The Curious Enlightenment of Professor Caritat’ by Steven Lukes when asked about a memorable CILAS moment. His colleague student Batool has a personal vision of the Institute. “CILAS is a safe place to be lost questioning when you find yourself at a junction. To me it’s one of the safest places in Cairo, where people accept you and your changes, and where we create empathic academic relationships,” she tells with ease.
As CILAS collaborated with the Heinrich Böll Stiftung in Germany last year, the Institute is looking to strengthen collaborations with institutions in the global South in the near future. Plans to export the CILAS model to Alexandria are in the making, dreams about expanding even further are being dreamt.
In order to continue what they are doing CILAS aims to collect $30.000 through Zoomaal, a crowd funding website setting forth initiatives from the Middle East. “There are actually a lot of foundations that want to fund us. But because of the laws, we are not able to channelise that funding,” a CILAS fellow explains.
After the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to issue the permission to accept the Ford Foundation funding, CILAS needs the support more than ever to plainly sustain their programs. With the total sum the CILAS team is able to continue to admit twenty-four students per academic year and grant scholarships to students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. “Another reason why we decided to do this is to stay independent. Because we also understand that once you start getting funding, there’s a certain politics that is attached to the kind of curriculum you have and the programs you do,” the CILAS fellow adds.
You can support CILAS financially through their page on Zoomaal.
Would you like to get to know the place you are planning to support financially first? Or do you feel like sipping some CILAS tea too? The Cairo Institute for Liberal Arts and Sciences is located on 36, Al-Muiz Al-Din Allah Al-Fatimi Street, Wekalet Al-Ghoury, Islamic Cairo. For opening hours and contact information, check the Institutes’s website.