Atelier de recherche CEDEJ/IFAO
/IFAO Research Workshop

Schooling a New Elite: Class and Belonging in Contemporary Egypt
21st of february 2022 at 4 PM

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Across Cairo’s upscale sites, Egyptian children don’t speak Arabic anymore.  This talk addresses this remarkable turn in the socialization of Cairo’s privileged youth through an ethnographic account of the broader shifts in elite schooling with which it is associated. Although fluency in European languages has been a longstanding marker of elite belonging in Egypt, many in Egypt believe that the expansion of for-profit international schools in the early 2000s has undermined cultural belonging in the socialization of upper-middle and upper-class youth and intensified elite segregation. Paradoxically, this view was widely shared across the international school communities that I traversed during more than two years of ethnographic research in and around Cairo’s international schools. Notwithstanding significant financial and social investment in international education, many of my interlocutors within these communities expressed deep ambivalence about international education. While parents worried that international schools were threatening their children’s national belonging, teachers were concerned that international education was a vehicle for social distinction that helped isolate their students within lifestyle enclaves.  Drawing on these narratives as well as on in-depth participant-observation research inside an international school in New Cairo between 2016-2017, the talk will show how exposure to international education is in fact reconfiguring issues of identity, culture and belonging in the socialization of elite youth.
Through an examination of the international school culture, I argue that educational discourses and institutional practices mediated a dualistic understanding of “national” and “international” that reproduced essentialized and fixed conceptions of Egyptianness and foreignness. Students were, in turn, caught in a cultural bind between competing conceptions of community and belonging that ignored their globally oriented class socialization. In telling this story, the talk will highlight the unexpected ways in which cosmopolitan spaces, such as international schools, can become key sites in the reproduction of national frames of reference and identification in a postcolonial transnational context.

Discussant: Dr. Daniele Cantini  (University of Halle, Germany).

Noha Roushdy is a cultural anthropologist who works on the culture and politics of class and classism in contemporary Egypt. She received her PhD in anthropology from Boston University in 2021, and an MA from the American University in Cairo in 2010. Her doctoral work examined the production of elite and national belonging in and around private international schools in Cairo. A recipient of the Cedej-IFAO 2021 Common Field Scholarship, she is currently working on a book manuscript titled Learning to be Egyptian: Class and Belonging in Cairo’s International Schools. The book is an ethnographic account of the making of elite youth that is based on her doctoral dissertation.