In 2001, a colleague at the American University in Cairo (AUC) asked me if I would be interested in taking over her position as a research assistant to an exceptional sociologist. At the time, I was a student in the Master’s Program in Sociology-Anthropology and was nervous about stepping into that role as my knowledge of the field was still nascent. Ultimately, I took her up on the offer. And little did I know I was stepping into a foundational experience that would shape my intellectual trajectory for decades to come. That scholar was Professor Mona Abaza, who died peacefully in Berlin on 5 July after a long battle with cancer. She left us far too soon, but while leaving behind a rich legacy by ways of cutting-edge research, enduring mentorship, and conscientious scholarly activism.
When I worked with Professor Abaza, she was in the process of finishing her book Debates on Islam and Knowledge in Malaysia and Egypt: Shifting Worlds. I came to develop a deep sense of appreciation and admiration for her work. In fact, decades later, I have come to realize how much my own work on Egypt and my approach to teaching have been influenced by the example she set as a scholar who studied the country through the lens of world-class analysis while situated in the Global South.
Abaza’s work in the last two decades represents an incredible social history of Cairo’s social transformation. She wrote about a wide range of themes, including fashion, enlightenment, urban spaces, Occidentalism, everyday life in Cairo, intellectuals, the state, secularism, the challenges that social scientists confront in the Middle East, cyberspace in Egypt, globalization, graffiti and mass culture, and neoliberal transformation in Cairo. Any observer would attest that Abaza’s work is, appropriately, widely cited, partly due to its depth and rigorous quality and partly due to its interdisciplinary character. For instance, Abaza’s masterpiece on shopping malls and consumer culture in Egypt is a brilliant sociological work that covers issues from gentrification and the creation of varieties of shopping malls that vary across class lines to appropriations of new clothing styles and hybridization of tastes.
There is no one word to describe Mona Abaza’s sociology, and certainly this short tribute cannot do justice to her work. But I would say simply that she presented a ground-up mode of theorizing. She started from her acute sociological observations and her deep engagement with social reality to generate insights. Abaza was unlike many social scientists I have known, Egyptians and others, who bring their ready-made concepts or models developed elsewhere to bear on Egypt’s social reality. Rather, Mona Abaza always started with Egypt as an incredible space for theorizing. One example that stands out here is Abaza’s writing on revolutionary and post-revolutionary space in Cairo, which was full of thick ethnographic description, attentive to the detail of constant changes. Abaza, among the leading authorities on the study of graffiti in the country, addressed various issues such as gender representation within the constant shifting and literal whitewashing of the graffitied walls. Her work was nuanced, analyzing how graffiti practices were transformed into monotonous repertoires or lost in the context of violence and radical counter-revolutionary transformations of downtown Cairo. In short, while many scholars had some certain fixation on Egypt’s revolutionary graffiti, Abaza was very sensitive to the transformation that this dynamic phenomenon underwent.
As a scholar, Mona Abaza stood out in her success in navigating the difficult challenges and entanglements of doing research in Egypt. She always held onto the principled fine line between many conflicting issues and positions — that is, between professional sociology and public/engaged sociology, orientalism and shallow anti-orientalism, enlightenment (sometimes ahistorical and often reduced to a statist and hollow secular project), and reactionary or obsolete political Islam, international sociology and Egyptian sociology, her class background/positionality and her genuinely reflexive spirit about it.
On the first and last of these issues, I would like to briefly discuss Abaza’s navigation of academic and public sociology and her reflexivity on her class background and positionality. Abaza was both a notable professional sociologist and an engaged scholar. Apart from her prolific and varied academic production, she published a number of books geared toward public audiences, such as the important Twentieth Century Egyptian Art (2011), based on the private collection of renowned Egyptian art collector Sherwet Shafei and The Cotton Plantation Remembered (2013) drawing on her own family’s history, as discussed below. Beyond these books, Abaza’s commitment to public scholarship could be seen in the amount of time she dedicated to writing for public venues. Her work frequently appeared on Open Democracy, Jadaliyya, and Ahram Online. She was also engaged in academic blogs, such as the Global Dialogue of the International Sociological Association, and the blog of Theory, Culture and Society, where Abaza’s work frequently appeared.
As a leading theorist and scholar of graffiti, space, and Cairo, numerous interviews were conducted with her in various blogs on media, communications, and urbanism. She wrote frequently on the difficulties confronting researchers in the region, and interviewed others on that subject. As an engaged scholar, she encouraged her students to be in touch with their society and to be particularly sensitive about their class background. She did not see the classroom as separate from society, either for her as a teacher or for her students. For example, she believed that any urban sociology class should start from the positions and demographics of her students. For example, she would ask her students to write about their neighborhoods and their commute to campus in her seminar on cities.
Abaza also never took her positionality for granted and wrote reflexively about her privileged upbringing and education. In the acknowledgments in Debates on Islam, she mentioned that she is aware that she and many other Egyptian intellectual were privileged through their exposure to certain cosmopolitan knowledge and education, and in her youth, she was “reading French literature and philosophy in the original language alongside the river banks of the Nile.” The Cotton Plantation Remembered, specifically, is one of her masterpieces: it is a complex sociological exploration of Egypt’s social transformation from feudalism to state socialism and beyond, interspersed with vignettes of rich ethnography about the ‘izba, the village, her own family, and her relations with the farmers, along with many of her own photos. The entire book was motivated, as she mentions in the acknowledgement, by her journey to take pictures “as a form of expression, to “come to terms of loss and pain of mourning the beloved.” She was not only reflexive about her upper-class upbringing, but also the emotions, illness, and trauma amid Egypt’s counter-revolution. Her last book Cairo Collages: Everyday Life Practices After the Event could be seen as an expansion of the Cotton Plantation in the sense that it has the same spirit, albeit dealing with the triumphs and the trauma of the revolution and counter-revolution through both sociological theory and images.
At the risk of some oversimplification, I believe that scholars at the AUC, especially those who are Egyptian, are often challenged by a perceived tradeoff. That is, between achieving credibility among Western academic audiences as established global scholars versus striving to remain accountable to and adequately connected to their community of Egyptian researchers. Mona Abaza was able to critically engage both communities. She saw herself as a credible counterpart to Western-situated scholars, while also forging meaningful, respectful ties to Egypt-based scholars, including those not affiliated with the AUC. The breadth of her engagement was immense and included prominent sociologists in the Global South. For example, in her important book Debates on Islam, Abaza’s main objective was to compare two important cases in the Global South — Egypt and Malaysia — discussing issues of debates on Islamization of knowledge within larger issues of production of knowledge in the two countries. But most importantly, she devoted an entire chapter discussing the work and the life of Dr. Syed Hussein Alatas, a notable sociologist and politician and founder of several social science organizations in Malaysia. This interest in Global South to Global South engagements was already evident in her doctoral thesis, which focused on Indonesian students at al-Azhar.
Abaza was very aware of the challenges facing emerging scholars in Egypt, and she was very intentional about supporting graduate students. During the period we worked together, she told me that she sees it as part of her academic and life mission to help promising students to find better opportunities to enrich and elevate their training. Academic freedom and freedom of inquiry in Egypt right now are under serious attack. Scholars in Egypt are not only dealing with a repressive atmosphere, along with many other political and economic structural challenges, but they are also dealing with pressing and unequal conditions in the global production of knowledge. In other words, the struggles that Mona Abaza had taken on in her long career as an engaged scholar could not be more pertinent to the contemporary moment in Egypt.
A few months into my work with Abaza, I told her about the human rights work I had done before enrolling in the graduate program, and especially my first book/report on torture in Egypt. Even though she was not my advisor or in my MA thesis committee, she continued to encourage me. For example, shortly after I told her about my work on torture, she invited me as a guest speaker in her graduate seminar to talk about the topic. That later I was not able to write my thesis on torture in Egypt as I had planned because it was too contentious even for the AUC underlined for me Abaza’s courage.
In late 2011, Abaza published an important op-ed on Ahram Online. Titled “Academic tourists sight-seeing the Arab Spring,” Abaza criticized the conduct of Western scholars who paid short trips to Cairo with the goal of completing ‘quick research’ on the Egyptian revolution. Such researchers, she argued, showed little regard for their scholarly counterparts in the country. The piece, albeit short, was brilliant, as it touched on the multilayered aspects and the inequality of division of labor in the academic field, referencing for instance the risks taken by Egyptian colleagues as they produce knowledge about the revolution, without the same credit.
Thank you Mona, Goodbye Mona
Not only is Mona Abaza a bold, creative and brilliant scholar, but she represents an exemplar for Egyptian sociologists and social scientists: someone who produces excellent scholarship, in touch with her society, stands up to those who are in power with sharply engaged scholarship, treats her subjects and interlocutors with the highest respect, deals with her Egyptian counterparts and Western-based scholars as equals, while emphatically and critically situating them in their contexts, and aware of the unequal and problematic conditions of producing knowledge in today’s world.
As an Egyptian sociologist and a global citizen, who lives in the Global North, I will continue to be inspired by Mona Abaza’s reflexivity and writings about her positionality. Thank you for everything you have done for your students, and all that you have done for a better understanding of Egypt and for the global production of knowledge.
 See Abaza, Mona. "Shopping malls, consumer culture and the reshaping of public space in Egypt." Theory, Culture & Society 18, no. 5 (2001): 97-122. And Abaza, Mona. The changing consumer cultures of modern Egypt: Cairo's urban reshaping. Brill, 2006.
 Abaza, Mona. "The field of graffiti and street art in post-January 2011 Egypt." In Routledge Handbook of Graffiti and Street Art, pp. 358-373. Routledge, 2016.
 See Abaza, Mona. "Gender representation in graffiti post-25 January." In Cairo: Images of Transition, pp. 126-133. transcript-Verlag, 2014. And Abaza, Mona. "Repetitive repertoires: how writing about Cairene grafﬁti has turned into a serial monotony." In Graffiti and Street Art, pp. 193-210. Routledge, 2016.
 Abaza, Mona. "Social sciences in Egypt: The swinging pendulum between commodification and criminalization." Facing an unequal world: Challenges for a global sociology 1 (2010): 187-212.
 See her important interview with Professor Nezar AlSayyad on the challenges that confront scholars who study middle eastern cities, for the Blog of UC Berkeley’s School of Environmental Design.
 See her introduction on Cairo Observer where she compares her experience as a student studying Cairo, then as a teacher.
 See the Acknowledgment of Debates on Islam, p xviii
 Abaza, Mona. The cotton plantation remembered: An Egyptian family story. Oxford University Press, 2013.
 In this passage and the book, Abaza was reflecting on the loss of her mother, see The Cotton Plantation, p. 9
 Abaza, Mona. Cairo collages: Everyday life practices after the event. Manchester University Press, 2020.
 Alatas is the father of distinguished Malaysian sociologist Syed Farid Alatas, who has been a leading figure in retrieving Ibn Khaldūn as a founder of sociology globally.