“I would resist the temptation of exceptionalising the times we are living in” – 5in10 with Kaoutar Ghilani

Kaoutar Ghilani is a EUME Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien during the academic year 2022/23. She received her doctorate in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford as an Ertegun scholar (2022) for her thesis “Discourses of Failure: Arabisation and Nation-Building in Morocco.” She also holds a Bachelor’s degree Cum Laude in Social Sciences and Middle Eastern Studies (2015) and a Research Master’s degree Cum Laude in Political Theory (2017) from Sciences Po Paris. She was a tutor of ‘Politics in the Middle East’ at Oxford and a visiting researcher at the Centre Jacques Berque in Morocco. Her work has been published in the British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, the Bulletin of Francophone Postcolonial Studies, Review of Middle East Studies, and the Journal of North African Studies. She is currently preparing a monograph on language politics and nation-building in the Maghreb.

© Kaoutar Ghilani

How would you explain your research to someone who is not an expert?

I study the circulation of ideas of ‘failure,’ especially related to notions of ‘modernity’ and ‘progress,’ in postcolonial countries. Specifically, I am interested in how people come to believe in the ‘failure’ of a project and how this idea of ‘failure’ becomes common knowledge. In my PhD thesis and my first monograph, I focus on a discourse of ‘failure’ in the field of education in Morocco that has become dominant after the 2010s. Following independence in 1956 from the French Protectorate regime, Morocco adopted a language policy aiming to decolonise the country both linguistically and culturally: Arabisation. Replacing French with Standard Arabic in schools, administrations, and courts, Arabisation was a major element of the construction of a national identity and community after colonisation. In the field of education, on which my research focuses, Arabisation consisted of the use of Standard Arabic as the language of instruction. Once a largely consensual, or at least a consensually non-opposed policy, Arabisation has nonetheless grown increasingly controversial in the last decade. Arabisation has been increasingly described as a “failure” and pointed to as the reason for the non-success of the education system. In 2019, the Moroccan Ministry of Education returned to the use of French as a language of instruction of scientific subjects at school, therefore acknowledging the ‘failure’ of Arabisation. Yet, no formal evaluation of the policy has been ever conducted. Moreover, Arabisation was introduced at the same time as the generalisation of schooling to all Moroccan children, the unification of school curricula, and the nationalisation of the teaching staff, making it difficult to prove historically that Arabisation was the cause of Moroccan education failure. My research shows why and how the discourse on the ‘failure’ of Arabisation has moved from a marginal to a dominant position in the Moroccan public space. In other words, I write the history of how Moroccans have come to believe that Arabisation failed.

What intrigued you when you started your academic journey?

Academia, I have to say, was what intrigued me the most when I started my PhD. Working on discourse production and circulation on the subject of language politics in postcolonial Morocco, academia was simultaneously the place where I stood and a social field with its own language and discourse politics. In other words, what I first conceived  as my secondary sources and the scholarship I needed to contribute to, slowly became part of my primary sources, in which  discourses on languages had been articulated and/or circulated.

In addition, as a young scholar, I was surprised by the extent to which language debates in multilingual environments were structured by what Tristan Leperlier described as “methodological monolingualism,” that is, the study of each language-related issue separately from the others. Not only were literatures written in different languages studied apart from each other, but each language promotion was also analysed distinctly. Typically, Amazigh (Berber) advocacy was examined separately from that of Darija (Moroccan Arabic vernacular), Standard Arabic, French, Spanish, and more recently English. This fragmentation of the academic field in linguistic terms, both with regard to the content and the medium, led to a fractured understanding of postcolonial societies and their language debates.

Finally, I was surprised as to how contemporary beliefs about languages in Morocco, notably about what happened in this regard during the protectorate period, originated in the nationalist narrative. Even in academia, several studies with an anti-colonial stance had reproduced the nationalist discourse as historical ‘truth.’ While opposing colonisation is our moral duty, approaching decolonial nationalist discourses as ideological productions of their time seems to me a historical necessity today to engage in genuine decolonisation of academic knowledge.

What were formative encounters or challenges?

The first of those encounters was with my PhD supervisor, Michael Willis, who trusted my uncommon project and oversaw it with a blend of intellectual rigour and care. Another formative encounter was with interdisciplinarity. Being affiliated with the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Oxford (previously the Oriental Studies Faculty) for my PhD at the time of vivid discussions about the faculty’s name change, I engaged in an internal conversation about my academic identity and the scholarly community I could consider mine. “Area Studies” as a field was, necessarily, at the heart of my questioning. I was perplexed by thinking through, and for, an object of study, rather than a discipline, feeling that our knowledge production was isolated, exceptionalised, if not exoticised.

My position changed drastically after reading political scientist Ian Shapiro’s article “Problems, Methods, and Theories in the Study of Politics.”[1] In it, Shapiro urges us to adopt ‘problem driven’ approaches, where a problem is taken to mean “a problem in the world” that is “specified independently of [a] theory” or a method. The ‘failure’ of Arabisation is indeed a problem, both in the social world where it is seen as the reason for education’s decline and in the academic world where its recent promotion by the Moroccan state challenges our current understanding of postcolonial nation-building. Seriously embracing the problem-driven approach, my PhD and first monograph are interdisciplinary by necessity. The material I examine and the intellectual resources I draw upon come from various disciplines (history, political science, but also sociology and sociolinguistics). Being at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies allowed me disciplinary freedom which I invested fully. While I remain aware of the limitations of area studies as to their imperial history and their segregating character in the discipline-structured academy, I have come to believe that they can be a place for starting an interdisciplinary revolution that would question our epistemologies. My interdisciplinary interests were further nourished by my belonging to the Ertegun Graduate Scholarship Programme in the Humanities. Beyond financially enabling my research, the Ertegun Programme provided me with a multi-disciplinary community with whom I worked, organised events, and most importantly talked.

Finally, my fieldwork in Morocco during one of the country’s most significant language controversies was a transformative experience. Like any other scholar of postcolonial North Africa, I was faced with the difficulty of accessing state archives. I was, for example, repeatedly told that the Ministry of Education did not keep archives. In other words, to write an educational history of a strongly bureaucratised field in independent Morocco, one had no option but oral history. Librarians specialised in education were, like me, in perpetual search for proceedings from key conferences held in the 1960s and 1970s that had marked the country’s educational path and are lost today. I would not have been able to overcome these structural challenges if it were not for the help and generosity of scholars in Morocco, at the head of whom Mohamed Zernine, who opened their brains to me, allowing me to dig into their memory to identify newspaper articles, unpublished theses, and forgotten studies to gather parcels of the inexistent archive. Curiously, while trying to overcome this scarcity of material on language policy in official documentation, I was met with the opposite challenge in the cultural and social fields. Many people, if not too many given time constraints, wanted their language advocacies to be recorded, their experiences to be remembered, their writings and cultural productions to be carried along in the public sphere.

Committed to non-extractivist research that does not approach interviewees from the Global South as a resource to be best exploited but as serious interlocutors, I re-articulated my research project so as not only to contribute to the literatures I viewed as important following my training in European universities, but also to engage with the more specific debates and concerns of Moroccan academia. For example, while I first conceived my PhD thesis as a post-independence reflection on language politics in Morocco, my many meetings during my fieldwork made me realise how Moroccan academia would view my research as incomplete without addressing the protectorate period. As a result, I amended my initial plan, including a chapter on the colonial paradigm of languages. I believe it was the right choice to make, not only in terms of principle but also for the sake of the argument.

What do you consider to be the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?

I would resist the temptation of exceptionalising the times we are living in. Publics have always been fragmented. Authoritarianism, when not our bitter reality, is a serious threat always ramping under us. As for upheavals, is it helpful to think of them as outside of the social and political time, as moments when time is suspended, when political rules are outside of the ‘normal’? I am not sure. I think it would prevent us from understanding their causes, their functioning, and their consequences. What I am most worried about is that it would encourage their romanticisation. This being said, as critical lenses that examine the social world to provide us with meaning, I think that the humanities and social sciences have five key roles in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) today: to archive, to question, to deconstruct, to construct, and to care.

First, archiving, that is saving present voices, dreams, hopes, and fears for future remembrance and scrutiny. I believe that, as a research community, our collective struggle in accessing archives in the MENA makes it our duty to collect and save what we have been forbidden to access. Of course, this suggestion distorts the conservative meaning of the archives as a state institution and moves them towards a collective project of material memory. While dissensus, at the heart of the political, tends to fade away in times of authoritarian transgressions and progressively be forgotten as state-sanctioned history is written, spontaneous archiving would break this systemic silencing and allow diverse voices to resonate into the future.

Second, questioning dominant narratives and being mindful of the pervasiveness of discourses. While the recent profusion of fake news and conspiratorial narratives has highlighted the strength of discourses in shaping world views and motivating action, I think it would be naïve to consider academia outside of the social world and impervious to discursive power. A posture of attentive resistance seems to be a crucial initial step to providing meaning to the world.

Third, deconstructing mechanisms of power by exposing their premises, contextualising them, and challenging the narratives they rely on. Whether it is authoritarianism, racism, sexism, or any kind of ideology of systemic violence, we, as scholars, should contribute to the public sphere by uncovering the terms of subjugation experienced by the dominated. This deconstruction effort should be both conceptual and empirical, rethinking both our instruments and the spaces to which we apply them.

Fourth, constructing new lenses and providing alternative perspectives. In reality, deconstructing and constructing go hand in hand. Edward Said, for example, deconstructed the West’s exotisation and discursive domination of the East by constructing the concept of “Orientalism.” The same can be said about the fields of gender studies or race studies, where the articulation of new objects of study has provided the public sphere with novel approaches to understanding domination processes and achieving justice. To put it simply, by creating instruments of analysis, we are providing tools of resistance to society.

Fifth, caring about the people our work is about. That means resisting an extractivist, clearly colonial-driven, attitude that considers people to be “objects” of study. Rather, a more ethical approach would entail framing research in the humanities and social sciences around the idea of “relationship,” which acknowledges the status of all involved parties as subjects. I think that making academic research reachable and understandable by a more general public is part of our caring responsibility.

What book, article, film, exhibition or song would you recommend, and why?

I am very happy to recommend the artistic proposition of Cheb, a young Moroccan singer-songwriter and video-maker who shakes up our understanding of Moroccan popular music. One can hear the deconstruction and construction effort going on in his music. While the end of the 1990s and the 2000s were a time when “alternative music” expressed a major way to rethink what Moroccan music was, especially through signing lyrics in Darija (the Moroccan Arabic vernacular) on foreign rhythms, Cheb offers yet another approach, where traditional Moroccan rhythms are combined, speeded-up, re-articulated, and on which sits poetry of a new age in Darija. The result is a beautiful, critical, and inventive expression of Cheb’s perception and experience of Moroccan life. I would struggle to single out one song, but just for the sake of the exercise, I would highlight the last one I listened to, عن الماعن” [About the Dishes].


[1] Ian Shapiro, “Problems, Methods, and Theories in the Study of Politics, Or: What’s Wrong With Political Science and What To Do About It” in Problems and Methods in the Study of Politics, ed. Ian Shapiro, Rogers M. Smith, and Tarek E. Masoud (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 19 and 23.


“I would resist the temptation of exceptionalising the times we are living in – 5in10 with Kaoutar Ghilani ”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 25.04.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/46794

Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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