GTU Alum Profile | Dr. May T. Kosba (PhD, 2022)
Dr. May Kosba graduated with her PhD in Historical and Cultural Studies of Religion from the GTU in 2022. As an esteemed Presidential Scholar, Dr. Kosba’s work at the GTU focused on race, religion, and literature in Africa and the African diaspora with a specific focus on Egypt.
Her dissertation is titled, “The Race Question: Egyptian Intellectualism on the Periphery of the African Diaspora,” which builds, indirectly, on her master’s thesis, “From Ikhwanophobia to Islamophobia: Post-Colonial Cultural Nationalism in Post-Revolutionary Egypt.”
Following her studies with the GTU, she was appointed as a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Program in African Studies (PAS) at the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS) at Princeton University. One year after receiving her doctorate, we took time to catch up with Dr. Kosba to learn more about her work, research, and reflections on her time with the GTU.
GTU: Congratulations on your appointment at Princeton! Can you tell us more about what you are working on in this role? How did your time at the GTU prepare you for the work you are now doing?
Dr. May T. Kosba: Thank you for the attention and this interview. It is an absolute pleasure to be a part of this conversation. The Program in African Studies (PAS) at Princeton is a multidisciplinary program that invites scholars working on cultural, political, economic, environmental, scientific, and historical issues centering Africa. As a postdoctoral fellow, I have the opportunity to continue to expand on my dissertation project with the goal of publishing the work as a book. My responsibilities include engaging in scholarly discussions, research, and collaborations within the PAS community; teaching,- and advising students; presenting at Princeton and academic conferences.
To establish an academic grounding in these topics over the course of my studies, I spent my time between GTU and UC Berkeley campuses, attending classes in different departments and area studies as part of my doctoral coursework. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of my project, I found myself navigating between the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies (CIS), our neighbor and consortial partner, the Pacific School of Religion (PSR), as well as UC Berkeley’s Departments of African American and African Diaspora Studies, Geography, Ethnic Studies, Middle East Languages and Cultures, History, and Comparative Literature. While the GTU does not offer an Africana Religious Studies program per se, I found a refuge for exploring my interests in some of the departments mentioned at UC Berkeley, and had the opportunity to work closely with wonderful scholars, including Professors Munir Jiwa and Devin Zuber at the GTU, as well as Keith Feldman, Jovan Lewis, and others whose exemplary scholarship and mentorship helped shape my own.
Being able to access knowledge in all of these ways has been instrumental in shaping my thinking of race and global anti-Black racism, and it helped inspire creative ways to employ that knowledge in understanding racism in the context I am studying.
GTU: What initially led you to the GTU for your PhD studies?
MTK: Towards the end of 2012, I was considering a career switch from the non-profit world to academia. At the time, I was working in human rights and youth and community development in Egypt. I had just finished a year-long visiting fellowship in Washington, DC, and was ready to return home to Cairo. However, during that fellowship, I met my husband who at the time was in the final stages of completing his PhD in Computer Science. We then found out we’d be moving to the Bay Area, and so I immediately started exploring options to pursue an MA program.
I was interested in studying Islamophobia in the West, and looking at all the potential programs in the Bay Area, the GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies stood out. I quickly reached out to the program director, Professor Munir Jiwa, and visited the GTU campus. Meeting with Prof. Jiwa on campus as a prospective student helped me appreciate GTU as a place that is welcoming of different backgrounds, encouraging of diversity, and supportive of interreligious dialogue. More importantly, it reinforced my desire to follow my dream of academia and pursue scholarship in the issues that I am most passionate about. I applied and enrolled in the MA program in 2013.
As a woman who experienced immigration, motherhood, and graduate school all at the same time, I believe the GTU crossed my path at a time when I was going through multiple changes on personal, career, identity levels and offered me a venue to explore their intersection from a scholarly context.
GTU: What are the key concerns and themes of your work today? Have those concerns and themes changed since your time at the GTU? If so, how?
MTK: I came to the GTU concerned with studying Islamophobia in the West, as a young post-9/11 Egyptian Muslim woman, who consumed American culture and politics from afar, mistakenly, and naively thinking anti-Muslim sentiments in the West to be the most lingering form of hate triggered by 9/11. My knowledge of US culture and history then lacked a realistic and informed perspective on the centrality of race and anti-Black racism in the US context. It took me a while to separate reality from fiction caused by the US misrepresentation of race relations in Hollywood and foreign policy. Before the eruption of social media which provided new platforms for self-expression and mediums of knowledge and reality checks, I thought by seeing Will Smith in Independence Day, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell mapping and transforming the Middle East with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney through the enduring War on Terror, and electing Barack Hussein Obama as the first Black President, that America had finally overcome its racist past.
When I started the MA program in 2013, I was grappling with these issues while coming to terms with the failures of the Arab Spring revolutions, particularly the backsliding in Egypt, and the ensuing paradoxical Islamophobia in a Muslim majority society, which I wrote about in my master’s thesis.
This project cultivated the urge to delve deeper into the question of race and anti-Black racism, but in the Egyptian context. The struggle was where to start. As the GTU didn’t offer a dedicated track of study focused on Africana Religious Studies, I realized that I could begin in the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley, especially as I became preoccupied with investigating the role of religion in shaping race consciousness and racial dynamics.
Later my dissertation project excavates the construction of Arab-African and Black epistemologies in forms of literature—especially the novel—to identify how religion, culture, and politics inform nineteenth and twentieth century African writers’ representations of Egypt, and how such literary representations negotiate discourses on race and ethnicity, slavery, Arabness, and Blackness. Arab and African diasporic epistemologies, particularly W. E. B. Du Bois’ hermeneutics of Black “double-consciousness,” allow me to investigate how colonialism, conquest, religion, and slavery have influenced Black and non-Black African perceptions of race in the Middle East and the African diaspora. The novel, in my research, is an archival site that produces knowledge, preserves cultural and historical memory, negotiates spirituality and piety, and generates anti-colonial counter narratives.
GTU: What recent work are you especially proud of? With whom are you hoping this work will connect? What difference do you hope this work will make?
MTK: It is probably fair to say that my dissertation is the most recent work of which I am especially proud.
I am grateful for being fortunate enough to complete a doctoral degree. Being a knowledge-seeker is a personal drive and choice, but being a graduate student in a graduate program, regardless of the university or the program itself, is a position of privilege. I want to acknowledge the position of privilege I now find myself in, for gaining access to these spaces of knowledge and power and completing the program, for these are distinctively two separate ways of being.
Not every knowledge-seeker has the means to access spaces of knowledge, especially students from the Global South, who must cross many borders: academic, political, national, cultural, linguistic, religious, gender, class, racial, financial, and intellectual, to be validated and accepted. Additionally, there is a substantial difference between enrolling in a program and completing it. Finishing a doctoral program has its own challenges. We often forget that life happens during the long years of a doctoral degree.
My dissertation does not center Egypt as a “Middle Eastern” or “Arab” geography. Transcending area studies, my project argues for Egypt’s discursive and material location in the African continent and in the African diaspora. Methodologically, my project centers Black epistemologies and builds a cross disciplinary bridge between African and African Diaspora Studies, and Middle Eastern and North African Studies, while investigating how religion informs ideological and practical perspectives of Black and non-Black Africans in the Diaspora. With this methodological and interdisciplinary suturing and bridging, this project complicates our understanding of modern Egypt and the African Diaspora, the Middle East, North Africa, and the Arab world, as distorted and divided geographies.
I hope this work connects with and bridges the communities respective to the fields and area studies with which I engage. I hope it sparks conversations among Egyptians, Africans on the continent and across the African diaspora, as well as Arabs, beyond academia, on constructive ways to resolving the longstanding tensions between African Arabs and non-Arab Africans.
GTU: As the GTU celebrates its 60th anniversary, we are inviting GTU community members to begin imagining what a brighter future 60 years from now might look like. What does that future look like to you?
MTK: Congratulations to the entire GTU community! This also coincides with the 15th anniversary of the Center for Islamic Studies (CIS), for which I would like to congratulate Professor Jiwa. From day one, CIS managed to feel like a second home to me making the GTU feel the same way. As a Muslim who came of age in a Catholic school in the Heliopolis neighborhood of Cairo, I was drawn to GTU’s commitment to interreligious dialogue and difference. It was through the CIS that I was first introduced to thinking with and through African, African American, and African diasporic scholarship, and came to center race in both my personal and intellectual journey.
As part of the brighter future you describe, I would like to see similar support of the personal and intellectual journeys of other international students and students of color, like myself, continue to be a centerpiece of GTU’s work and institutional commitments as it looks ahead. Such support includes both financial and scholarly resources. The latter could perhaps be achieved through an exploration of joint programs with UC Berkeley’s departments focused on race, which would serve the diverse body of GTU students and enhance the professional careers of GTU students. Ardently continuing to advance a conversation around the importance of the GTU’s Africana/Black Studies Certificate would be another opportunity.
GTU’s genius in promoting scholarship which comfortably navigates the secular and the sacred, without undermining the latter. I would like to seize the opportunity to say that to ensure a brighter future, GTU must continue to reflect a solemn and rigorous commitment to anti-racist scholarship and dialogue across the consortium by supporting students and faculty members working on these issues. Indeed, the GTU is blessed with faculty members who give their best in maintaining a rigorous interdisciplinary, compassionate, and empathetic scholarship. I had the honor of learning about integrating empathy as a pedagogy in the classroom through Dean Jennifer Davidson while being a TA in the 2019 IDS doctoral seminar which she taught along with Professor Arthur Holder.
All in all, as a survivor of the pandemic, the PhD experience, immigration, motherhood, and the violence of these experiences, I would say I am both humbled and grateful! I am a better person for all these intersecting experiences and for all the friendships and connections I was able to make. I am grateful for all the learning and unlearning I must continue to do to learn my place in the world. I hope I was able to have a positive impact on people who knew me. I am so fortunate to experience an enriching journey that allows me to grow and navigate my ever-changing identities.