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My PhD Journey: Year 1

Published June 24, 2016 by Amine El Yousfi

Cambridge Commonwealth European And International Trust, Department Of Sociology University Of Cambridge, Doctoral Research, Morocco, PhD, Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarship

Amine El Yousfi, awardee of the Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarship, reflects on his first year on the PhD programme at the University of Cambridge.

Before arriving in Cambridge, I imagined everything except being the first Moroccan supported by the Cambridge Trust and the Woolf Institute to undertake a PhD at the University. One week after my arrival, I was invited to a reception organised by the Cambridge Trust in order to welcome and congratulate its new scholars. I entered the hall and found many students of various backgrounds. I grabbed an orange juice and turned to the list of 2015/2016 scholars that was on my left. Surprisingly, I discovered the line reserved for Morocco with one name only: Amine El Yousfi.

I had to step back and take a second look to be sure! Then I went to ask the Director of the Cambridge Trust: "Would you tell me please how many Moroccan scholars do you have this year?" She responded excitedly: "Oh! You are the only Moroccan scholar the Trust is supporting this year… you are a trail blazer!"

It is undeniable that such news brings a huge responsibility; however it has helped me discover fully and deeply other cultures and backgrounds, not defaulting into closed cultural circles. This has surely enabled me to be more motivated and driven to do my best over the course of this PhD. Living in the oldest postgraduate college, Hughes Hall, near to the most cosmopolitan street of Cambridge, Mill Road, also helped me to feel comfortable with the new PhD lifestyle.

I grew up in Morocco, in Casablanca, a city where despite its modern way of life, remains deeply embedded by traditional archetypes, namely the non-centrality of time. Time has no coercive power on people: they can spend half an hour trying to help someone who lost his way in the street and they can spend an hour outside the house saying goodbye to someone with whom they have spent at least three hours inside. It is not that time is unimportant, but it cannot dictate their lifestyle. The Moroccan as well as the Arab lifestyle is generally characterised by an "untemporalisation".

Malek Bennabi, the Algerian reformist thinker made a brilliant comparison between the Muslim Arab character, Hay Ibn Yaqdhan [1] and Robinson Crusoe. He demonstrates clearly how loneliness can be faced differently depending on cosmologies and worldviews. While Robinson Crusoe overcomes loneliness and frustration through "work", Hay Ibn Yaqdhan engages in a progressive spiritual ascension comparable to Nietzsche’s Zarathoustra. Bennabi concludes that this image is similar to the temporal modern way of life versus the spiritual Islamic and Arab one.

It is obvious to say that enrolling in a PhD at Cambridge means automatically adopting Crusoe's stance of work and material production. However, my PhD loneliness was always a moment for self-reflection.  Being caught by my past, I could not adopt a Crusoe's stance unless I engaged in a progressive spiritual ascension similar to Hay Ibn Yaqdhan. I had to find a balance between "temporalised work" and "untemporalised spirit"; I had to work hard to get away from the modern notion of time.

During the first months, loneliness was not that hard! The Woolf Institute represented a warm home for all its new students. It was the place where I could easily seek guidance and help. But it was also the place where I could meet people of other faiths! The multiple talks and seminars organised by the Institute around interfaith dialogue were an amazing opportunity to meet other researchers from different fields. The most important one was an MPhil course given by Dr Shana Cohen and Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner in Michaelmas and Lent terms, critically discussing concepts such as "Dhimmitude", "Convivencia", "Crosspollination" and "Millet" with Mormon, Shi'i and Sunni Muslim students.

During Lent term, I spent three weeks in France where I talked to numerous people from Muslim, Jewish and Christian backgrounds who are either leaders or activists at grassroots level. My cultural background and knowledge of the French society has enabled me to build an empathic immersion (which is different from sympathy). Such an immersion does not help me only to effectuate my investigation easily, but also to carry on my spiritual ascension and self-reflection. I was pleased to be involved in the organisation of a conference entitled Urban Religion and Public Policy: Paris and London in Paris (in partnership with Society, Religion and Laïcité Group-GSRL). The topic of the conference fitted completely with my research. It was the occasion to listen to great presentations about the role and the impact of religion in the public sphere and to meet notable academics from both France and UK.

Besides working on my First Year progress paper, I had the occasion to chair the HSPS Graduate Seminar in the Department of Sociology (University of Cambridge) titled Identity Formation and Governance, as well as the panel on Re-Examining Muslim Youth in France and Britain during the third annual conference of the British Association for Islamic Studies in London (University of London). I had the opportunity also to teach at the Cambridge Muslim College and to follow the British Association of Islamic Studies and the Cambridge Muslims in Europe Postgraduate Forum, where I met scholars and PhD candidates coming from different disciplines and universities in the UK.

Being the first Moroccan PhD student supported by the Cambridge Trust and the first Muslim PhD scholar at the Woolf Institute has not just motivated me and helped my PhD take vast strides forward, but it also made it easier for me to continue my academic journey in light of my spiritual quest for meaning.

[1] Hay Ibn Yaqdhan is a novel written by Ibn Tofayl six centuries before Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. It tells the story of a child, raised by a gazelle and living alone on a desert island in the Indian Ocean.

This article is written by Amine El Yousfi who was awarded the Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarship to commence his PhD studies in 2015-16. His project, which is supervised by Dr Shana Cohen, focuses on the role and identity of local Muslim leaders within the French and British political contexts of secularism and security.  

Applications for the Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarships entry 2017-18 will open in September 2016. Scholars will be co-funded by the Woolf Institute and the Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust and selected from amongst applicants in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences whose research must be relevant to the focus of the Woolf Institute – the multi-disciplinary study of relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

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