Class of 2023 Graduate Takes Her Engaged Scholarship to City College

May 17, 2023

Omnia Khalil, currently a lecturer at City College, continues to publish widely on topics related to Egypt despite the risks.

Omnia Khalil Portrait, photo credit: Alex Irklievski
Omnia Khalil (Ph.D. ’23, Anthropology) (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

At the end of her last research trip to Cairo, Omnia Khalil (Ph.D. ’23, Anthropology) realized she couldn’t return to her home city again. By 2021, her various writings on Egypt’s geographic transformations, securitization, and their effects on the country’s urban poor had made her too well known, and in danger of arrest.

Khalil has remained active as a public intellectual, publishing in Arabic on topics related to urban change, violence, and life in Egypt after the 2011 revolution. Since 2023, she has taught in City College’s Anthropology, Gender Studies, and International Studies program. She recently spoke to the Graduate Center about her research and the importance of being an engaged scholar.

The Graduate Center: How did you become interested in the topic of your dissertation?

Khalil: I’m very interested in questions of urban geography, the counterrevolution violence, and what it means to do participatory work with communities to upgrade the areas that are poor in Cairo, where I come from. My work as an engaged scholar came in the time of the revolution from 2011 to 2013. And while doing my research — I was doing my M.A. in anthropology at the American University in Cairo — it became not a story about gentrification or urban redevelopment, but a story about the complications of the social relations between the police and the neighborhood residents themselves, which became the question of my Ph.D. project: to question how urban geographic transformations make and give possibility to counterinsurgency in a city that witnessed a revolution.

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GC: Is it risky for you to investigate that topic? And to discuss it?

Khalil: It’s a risky topic, yes. I’ve been publishing in Arabic since I was doing my M.A. For the last 10 years, I’ve published public writing in Arabic in certain Egyptian and Arabic platforms — some based in Lebanon — that are for the entire Middle Eastern/North African region.

And many of my writings are about what’s going on in the lower-middle-class neighborhoods, and also the urban transformations that are being carried out by the government, and the many violations against the residents in terms of forced eviction, securitization, what the police are doing to the residents, how they are threatening them.

Some of those pieces [were published] in the years when I was going back and forth. But then, at a certain moment, due to the high surveillance — many people are already in prison, people who are my friends. People are getting interrogated all the time. And on my way back to the U.S. after doing my research, I was interrogated in the airport. And a few months after that, I wrote something that went viral on social media, and the government released a statement against what I said. There is a very high risk of me getting arrested if I go back.

Being a Ph.D. scholar is not only about getting a job somewhere, and that’s it — it’s about being engaged with the communities that we work with.

GC: You’re currently teaching at City College. Do you think your public writing — that you are known as a public intellectual — helped when you were searching for a position?

Khalil: I think it’s important for some programs that have an element of public engagement, especially for a place like CUNY. I have never met anyone within the CUNY system who doesn’t care about being publicly engaged. Many of us are engaged scholars already. Especially, when we are committed in one way or another to the place where we came from. Being a Ph.D. scholar is not only about getting a job somewhere, and that’s it — it’s about being engaged with the communities that we work with.

In my cover letters, I always highlight the idea that I’m an engaged scholar, that I write in Arabic, and that I have a network in the Middle East/North Africa. I believe it enriches my profile in many ways.

GC: Were there particular ways that the GC helped prepare you for this position?

Khalil: I think there were two main things. The first was definitely the experience of teaching, starting in the second year of the Ph.D. program. I learned a lot by being a student and a teacher at the same time. As an international student who didn’t get my undergraduate education here in the U.S., I learned a lot by being in the CUNY system, being exposed to all those students at different colleges, and learning from them about their own journeys.

It’s a sphere of exchange about politics, about culture, about how they think about topics. That’s something I’m really grateful to CUNY for. The diversity which we have in all the colleges definitely enriches the teaching process.

And the second thing is that the CUNY system is, I think, one of the most radical institutions in terms of discussion, in terms of learning, in terms of thinking about what it means to be a scholar. It doesn’t only put us in the theoretical realm, in terms of being scholars, but asks: What does it mean to be an activist? What does it mean to be an engaged person? What is the praxis of thinking, writing, and being radical? The Graduate Center is one of those unique places that was always open to me. No one told me to shut down my activist life, or that I’m taking more of an activist position, not a scholar position. There was always a place to be an engaged scholar within the Graduate Center.

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