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A Border Passage: From Cairo to America - A Woman's Journey
by Leila Ahmed
Reviewed by David Denny

When the woman’s feet touched the floor of the shrine, she felt that her body was dissolving into tenderness, affection, and love and that she was being transformed into a spirit fluttering in the sky, radiant with the glow of prophetic inspiration. (from Palace Walk, by Naguib Mahfouz)

A Border Passage by Leila Ahmed Leila Ahmed, who is now professor of Women's Studies and Religion at the Harvard Divinity School, grew up on the edge of Cairo in a villa surrounded by gardens, between the city and the desert. She begins her memoir with what she remembers as the music of life, of wind in mimosa and eucalyptus trees, the cries a dusk bird called the karawan and of street vendors and the plaint of a reed pipe. Anyone interested in how an educated Egyptian Muslim family lived in the mid-20th century, what it would be like for an Egyptian Muslim woman to emigrate to the West, and especially how Islam was experienced by women in Ahmed’s family will find this memoir a feast of wisdom. In fact, even if you are not interested, Ahmed has the talent to draw you in.

If you wish to know what it feels like to experience history from the perspective of an Egyptian, you will also find this a rewarding read. I vaguely remember learning about Nasser and the Aswan High Dam when I was in elementary school. Ahmed’s father, an engineer, strongly opposed the project, and his whole family felt the impact of his unwelcome ecological vision.

Some of us in the West may still tend to imagine Islam as a monolithic tradition, or the animosity between Jews, Christians, and Muslims as “ancient” Middle Eastern hatreds. But Egypt’s history and culture show a rich mélange of traditions that produced a cosmopolitan culture. Ahmed grew up with Christian and Jewish friends, and I was surprised to learn that Egypt was home to a large Zionist movement in the early 20th century. “When, in 1924, [Saad] Zaghloul became Egypt’s first elected prime minister, Jews as well as Copts served in his cabinet—and indeed both Jews and Copts would continue to serve in the Egyptian government in the following decades” (258). But the founding of Israel, the betrayals the Arab world felt after World War I, and the yoke of British colonialism drove Egypt to a nationalism Ahmed watched emerge, and about which she has ambivalent feelings. She found herself caught between Nasser’s ruthless Arab nationalism and British racism.

Ahmed shares with us her struggle with identity and the alienation that makes her feel that in order to be free she must become western or male. But after immersing herself happily in the rigorous intellectual atmosphere of Girton College in Cambridge and finding a place in the western world of male scholarship, Ahmed looks back on the women’s Islam that nurtured her childhood and makes some fascinating observations. Islam, as she imbibed it from her grandmother, mother and aunts, “was gentle, generous, pacifist, inclusive, somewhat mystical” (121). This she contrasts with the Islam of texts and “authoritative” (male) interpreters of these texts, some of whom appear to lack or even dismiss the above virtues. She then reflects on her life with texts at Girton and compares it with what some may dismiss as the “gossip” she absorbed from her adult female relatives.

Whereas at Girton, Ahmed and her colleagues discussed fictional people,

In Alexandria … it was real people’s actual words and real people’s characters, motives, and intentions that were taken apart and put together again. And in Alexandria it was real people whose lives might well be profoundly affected as a result of the burden of their talk, the conclusions they came to, the advice they gave, the actions they then took. Sometimes, no doubt, through the resolutions they arrived at, children were saved the devastation of divorce, husbands kept monogamous, and women appeased (for good or ill) so as to endure some unendurable situation. (191)

She also notes that this “idle” gossip was accompanied by more laughter than her “scholarly” work, which took place not in the “traditional manner that women in [British] culture, too, once did—orally and to sustain life.” Rather, “they practiced it in the manner and tradition of men … in relation to written texts rather than living people, as a profession, and to earn money rather than to sustain life” (192).

Ahmed writes ruefully of the cost of “internalized colonialism” that led her parents’ generation to believe that British culture was superior to their own, and that led Ahmed herself to internalize “the low regard in which Westerners and also traditional men of the local culture at large held women and the activities of women.”

Years later, before coming to the United States, Ahmed is invited to Abu Dhabi to help establish a modern, yet Muslim educational system. She finds there that literacy, far from opening minds, often tends to close them. The greatest resistance to women’s education was not thrown up by “ignorant peasants,” but by the very non-local “experts” from Egypt and Palestine as well as a local atheist bureaucrat called in to establish an educational system in the emirate. Just as she felt the shadow side of “scholarship” in England, once again she suffers the tension between the rich, living, yet illiterate local culture with its piquant mother tongue, and “the tragic imposition of a sterile, inferior bureaucratic culture on young minds and the gradual erasure of their own vital and vibrant and much richer and more humane local Bedu culture” (282).

Ahmed concludes her memoir with brief sketches of her arrival in America and a return visit to Cairo. When I finished, I felt gladdened at having encountered such a rich life, but, eager for more, I wanted to fly to the American Cambridge, sit at her feet, and listen.

©2012, Desert Foundation, all rights reserved.