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A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey, by Leila Ahmed.

March 20, 2012


A Border Passage: From Cairo to America–A Woman’s Journey by Leila Ahmed.
Penguin Books (2000), Paperback, 307 pages

A wonderful autobiography by a feminist scholar who explores her own experience of colonization, and her own identity as an Egyptian, Muslim, Arab woman.

Leila Ahmed’s autobiography is a well-crafted, multifaceted gem, shining with an integrity all its own. And that makes it a difficult book for me to summarize and review. According to Ahmed, all of us have multifaceted identities. We are not this or that, but a mixture of many personas. She rejects identities that are purely negative, including an Egyptian identity that denies the value of European culture and literature, a Arab nationalism that is primarily anti-Jew, or an US-style feminism that invalidated Islamic religion. In describing how she has brought together her own various identities, she warns us all of the dangers of polarizing self-definitions.

Another quality that sets Ahmed’s autobiography apart from others is its often lyrical quality, a lyricism deeply rooted in nature. Her book opens with the trees and sounds outside her childhood room in Cairo. Trees and bird song and the particular angle of light at sunset punctuate and unify her book. Even when not describing nature Ahmed tells her personal story with grace and charm, not the academic style in which she wrote her fine, but more distant study, Women and Gender in Islam.

Although Ahmed’s autobiography is a traditional chronological one, patterns occur and then re-occur, each time richer and more nuanced than before. We see the value of oral-based culture over written ones first in the community of her mother’s female relatives in Egypt who have fashioned Islamic practice that differs sharply from the orthodoxy proscribed by its religious leaders. The same issue appears again when Ahmed is working in Dubai and encountering another community of native women. The feminism Ahmed finds when she comes to the United States is another example. Oral tradition is not simply a women’s tradition, however. Ahmed cherishes the richness that she fears is squeezed out of Islam as increasing emphasis is placed on its documents, written in a classic Arabic which is far removed from the daily life of its people. As educated as she is, Ahmed never learned classic written Arab.

Intrinsic to Ahmed’s life is the history of Egypt in the mid-twentieth century, a story she tells with clarity and insight. She grew up in an elite family living on the outskirts of Cairo in the 1940s and 1950s. Although her family wanted the British out of Egypt, they looked on England as the epitome of all that was good, humane and civilized. Only with the Nazi death camps and the use of the atomic bomb did they begin to question that “the west” did not necessarily represent progress. At times, Ahmed questioned her father’s and her own “internal colonization”, but later reconciled what was best in both cultures.

Ahmed’s family was strongly Muslim but they had close friends who were Jewish and Christian. During her childhood, Egypt prided itself on its pluralism. With Nasser’s rise to power in 1956, however, everything changed. Her family not only suffered the losses typical of their class, but her father’s opposition to the Aswan dam, on scientific and ecological grounds, led to their particular harassment. In addition, Nasser pushed Egyptians into Arab nationalism, an ideology that had emerged further north with British help as the Ottoman Empire collapsed at the time of World War I.

Growing up, Ahmed describes herself as more ambivalent about her mother, than her father. Her mother seemed distant and even rejecting, and Ahmed was raised primarily by her beloved Nanny, a Croatian. In Ahmed’s eyes, her mother did “nothing,” a lifestyle the ambitious child was not willing to repeat. Looking back, Ahmed is able to relate to the anxiety of her mother and her fears for her girl child.

In addition, Ahmed’s appreciation has grown for the female world created by her mother, grandmother, and four aunts who gathered daily and spent summers together with their children at the family’s summer home in Alexandria.
Although women’s slavery and concubinage had ended, their seclusion had lived on. The women’s lives retained something of the character of earlier harems. The older women had authority, especially in guiding and teaching their children and servants. One important aspect of the women’s community which nurtured Ahmed as a child was their Islamic faith and practice, a faith and practice that differed radically from the Islam practiced by men and declared as normative by orthodox Muslim leaders. Morality and right living were important, not in a legalistic manner, but in concern for never hurting others.

Ahmed cherished her undergraduate years spent in a women’s college in Cambridge, finding there something of the same authoritative women’s community that she had found within her mother’s community. Returning to England for grad school was a different story. The academic world of the time was very much a white man’s world with no hint of interest in race and gender. Ahmed absorbed its popular theory which seemed to explain other people’s lives but had no relevance for her own. Racism was on the rise in England, usually directed at working-class immigrants, but for the first time, Ahmed was identified by others as black and thus inferior. Knowing few other blacks or women, she felt bewildered and devalued. To describe her situation she uses Betty Friedan’s phrase, “the problem that had no name,” originally meant for a very different situation.

After receiving her degree and teaching in England, Ahmed went to Dubai to work in educational reform and the creation of a university there. She found herself a woman in authority in a male-ordered world, dependent on the community of native women for support. While there she discovered the writings of feminists in the United States. They helped her make sense of her life, and she determined to come here and become a part of the community of academic feminists which was just being created.

I was in grad school doing women’s history and women’s history during her early years teaching at Amherst, and I appreciate her description of those years. She captures our sheer excitement–the hopes, the chaos, and the fierce conversations of a new discipline being created as we wrote and taught. I share her understanding that what we were doing was more than the ideas and words we put to paper but the discovery. We were creating of a way to make sense as women of the worlds which had shaped us and to find ways to change those worlds.

Autobiographies are sometimes criticized as being unreliable and biased, but Ahmed tells her story in order to probe with honesty the myths she created for herself as a child and the myths others created about her. Often she finds both wanting. She questions and revises her childhood view of her mother as useless and rejecting as well as the definitions applied to her as a grad student in England as a black colonial woman. Perceiving of her own identity as multiple and in flux, she can accept older views of herself and her parents which she no longer affirms. Autobiography is always the past as reconstructed in the present, and Ahmed welcomes the opportunity for deliberate reconstruction.

I heartily recommend Border Passage for a wide variety of readers; those interested in understanding gender and womanhood, those interested in Islamic women, those interested in the recent history of the Middle East and colonization; those interested in autobiography as a search for truths, and those who simply want to read an impressive and enjoyable book.

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