In A Border Passage, Leila Ahmed searches for the meaning of her identity as a woman, an Arab, and an Egyptian, as well as an understanding of how being in those categories shapes her place in the world. As a child, she moves unthinkingly between the imaginative realm of her home, the women’s community at her grandmother’s house, and an English school in which Western ideas are revered over all others, but she ultimately learns that negotiating such cultural and social borders has serious consequences. Her playmates hail from many parts of the world and from many different faiths, and Ahmed understands the implications of those cultural and religious differences only after experiencing the turmoil of her country’s quest for independence and leaving Egypt to explore the larger world. While at Cambridge, Ahmed struggles to understand how her intelligent classmates can practice such a genteel form of racism, lumping together all students from the third world under the banner of “black.” Ahmed’s investigation of such categories becomes central to her academic pursuits.
Through her highly personal writing, Ahmed makes many connections between her own experiences and politics, showing how personal decisions and identities resonate in the larger world. Ahmed locates her political awakening in her childhood, when she first discovered the contrast between men’s and women’s ways of knowing and discussing Islam in her grandmother’s living room. This discovery colors her further investigations into religious, race, and gender studies, as Ahmed works to unravel the diverse strands of her upbringing. In her memoir, Ahmed reveals what it means to move across the world’s increasingly fluid borders, and she offers a view of history that is more powerful because it is so personal. Her identity is shaped by a feeling of cultural displacement as an Egyptian student in an English school in Cairo, and then as a minority student at Cambridge, and Ahmed applies keen insight to the question of what it means to be an Arab woman in the modern world. As an adult, Ahmed is able to embrace varying labels—Muslim feminist, intellectual, Egyptian, Arab—while bringing a nuanced understanding of how those labels both limit and define those who adopt them.
Ahmed’s mother is complicated and difficult regarding both her place in society and her relationship with Ahmed. Ethnically Turkish, the nationality of the ruling class of Egypt before the British took power in the late nineteenth century, Ahmed’s mother is afforded many privileges by virtue of her station in life. She doesn’t have to work, a fact that Ahmed looks down upon when she is a teenager. Ahmed herself vows to have a professional identity and set herself apart from her mother in whatever ways she can. The biggest rift in their relationship occurs when Ahmed is around eight or nine, when her mother finds out that a neighbor boy has been subjecting Ahmed to humiliating sexual games. Her shock and disdain are traumatic for Ahmed, who, after this discovery, is estranged from her mother for several months. Her mother’s preoccupation with traditional moral values and the appearance of propriety gets in the way of her offering her daughter the support that she needs after such a traumatic event.
Despite Ahmed’s conflict with her mother, she still reveres her for the influences she’s brought to her life. Through her mother and grandmother, Ahmed is granted entry into a community of women, where she absorbs Islam’s rich and humane oral tradition. Ahmed recognizes the challenges that face her mother’s generation: while they are the keepers and transmitters of these deep religious ethics, they possess little consciousness of how their culture takes away their voices. Ahmed also knows that the class who will change the status of women in Egypt is the middle class, not her mother’s class, where education and upward mobility are not chief concerns.
Through her father, Ahmed is able to witness the costs of the shifting political fortunes of Egypt. As the Chairman of the Hydro-Electric Power Corporation, Ahmed’s father opposes Prime Minister Nasser’s plan to build the Aswan High Dam on ecological grounds. The Dam is a highly important project for the Nasser regime: it will establish Egypt’s ability to take on grand modernization projects, and its construction involves further establishing Egypt’s independence from France and England. Nothing sways Ahmed’s father from him idealistic position, and he goes on to publish books in the 1950s condemning the plan, which are confiscated by the government. Ahmed views her father as so invested in his scientific ideals that he is unable to see the political consequences of his actions. The stubborn stance he takes will haunt him for the rest of his life, as the government meddles in his financial and personal affairs and harasses his family.
Ahmed’s father is the source of much of Ahmed’s conflict regarding the multiple cultures that surround her. He does not send his children to an Islamic school to study the Quran, in part because of his traumatic experience there as a child, being beaten by stern teachers for small infractions. A native Egyptian, Ahmed’s father earns part of his status in society by marrying a member of the Turkish upper-classes—Turks were the ruling class of the Ottoman Empire and thus enjoyed high standing in Egyptian society. Nonetheless, Ahmed’s father constantly hits boundaries in his professional life. When he is a student, for instance, British authorities, fearing the expansion of the educated, skilled classes in Egypt, demand he switch majors from engineering to geography in order to receive a scholarship. Despite his setbacks, Ahmed’s father never loses his reverence for British culture and ideas, an attitude that Ahmed chalks up to “colonial consciousness,” or an atmosphere in which the colonized begin to internalize the ideology that oppresses them.