An Egyptian woman and academic. Ahmed grew up in Cairo and attended
an English school until she ultimately left Egypt to attend Cambridge University
in England. Ahmed constantly finds herself in places where cultures intersect,
clash, or inform each other, from her childhood in an English school in Cairo to
her young adulthood in England to her experience as an academic in the United
States. Chief among Ahmed’s concerns is understanding the labels that are
applied to her—Egyptian, Arab, black, feminist, intellectual—and unraveling the
implications of being a Arab woman in the modern world.
in-depth analysis of Leila Ahmed.
A Turkish woman and member of the upper class. Ahmed and her mother
have a conflicted relationship, partially because of an incident that occurs
when Ahmed is younger than ten. Ahmed’s mother does not work, so she takes care
of her husband when he becomes ill with chronic pneumonia. She draws Ahmed into
a community of women that will forever influence Ahmed’s view on Islamic
in-depth analysis of Ahmed’s Mother.
An esteemed engineer and native Egyptian. Ahmed’s father’s life
changes when he decides to oppose Prime Minister and President Nasser’s plan to
build the High Dam. Ahmed’s father has legitimate environmental concerns, but
his opposition costs him dearly, as he is persecuted by the government for the
rest of his life. In her father, Ahmed also sees the roots of “colonial
consciousness,” an acceptance or even reverence for the culture of the
in-depth analysis of Ahmed’s Father.
The governess who looks after Ahmed. Nanny, a Croatian woman, is
sixty years old when Ahmed is born. During Ahmed’s childhood, Nanny is her
closest companion, though Nanny seems to be in constant conflict with Ahmed’s
mother. From Nanny, Ahmed adopts a reverent attitude for the world of the
unseen, a world of ghosts and angels drawn from Nanny’s deep Christian
Ahmed’s cousin, four years her senior. Samia visits Ain Shams,
Ahmed’s home in Cairo, and spends hours discussing her love life with Ahmed’s
mother. Ahmed is perhaps envious of this relationship, one in which her mother
offers wise and even-handed advice. If Samia were her own daughter, Ahmed’s
mother would, Ahmed is certain, be more judgmental.
Ahmed’s mother’s mother. Grandmother presides over the lively group
of women friends and relatives who gather in her home, Zatoun, to discuss
everything from their lives to Islam to world events. Grandmother is in
perpetual mourning over her son Fuad, who committed suicide, a tragedy she
blames on unending conflict with his father.
Ahmed’s mother’s father. Grandfather dresses well and is very formal,
and he instills fear and reverence in his many children. Ahmed points to
Grandfather’s sternness and religious rigidity as contributing factors in the
suicides of two of his children, Aida and Fuad.
Grandmother’s servant. Um Said has been Grandmother’s servant since
she was a girl, and, accordingly, they have a very close relationship.
Grandmother arranged Um Said’s marriage, and though her husband has taken
another wife, Um Said is still reluctant to divorce him. Um Said is the only
servant welcome in the salon of women over which Grandmother
Ahmed’s mother’s brother. Yusef was his family’s only male heir, so
he is responsible for carrying on the family line. Yusef married a French woman
named Colette who converted to Islam for him. Diagnosed with terminal lung
cancer in his thirties, Yusef bowed to family pressure to divorce the infertile
Collette and accept a new bride, only to have this arrangement end
Ahmed’s childhood friend and neighbor. Gina is an Italian girl who
spends long afternoons playing with Ahmed in the sprawling, beautiful garden
that surrounds her house.
Gina’s older brother. Freddy is six years older than Ahmed and
subjects her to humiliating sexual games when she is eight or nine. Ahmed
attempts to run away from and otherwise avoid Freddy, but he holds the threat of
revealing everything about her over her head. Finally, the truth about Freddy’s
“games” comes out, and Ahmed is forbidden to ever play outside.
Ahmed’s schoolmate and best friend. Joyce meets Ahmed when they are
six at the English school they attend together. The two girls bond over the fact
that they are excused from daily Christian prayers, as Joyce is Jewish and Ahmed
is Muslim. Together, they share a passion for American movies. After the later
conflagration with British, French, and Israeli forces over the Suez Canal,
Joyce’s family leaves the country, fearing persecution over their religion.
Ahmed never hears from her again.
Another schoolmate and friend of Ahmed’s. Jean comes from a Christian
Palestinian family and is the younger sister of Edward Said, the well-known
scholar of Middle Eastern studies.
Ahmed’s mother’s cousin. Karima was orphaned as a child and inherited
enough money to live comfortably and independently. Karima represents a contrast
to the fate of Aida in Ahmed’s mind. Karima also found herself in an unhappy
marriage, but since she had married on her own terms and knew how to invoke an
Islamic law that would allow her to divorce, Karima was able to negotiate her
way out of an untenable situation.
Ahmed’s mother’s sister. Aida finds herself in a disastrous marriage,
though her father won’t allow her to divorce. Depressed and hopeless, Aida
begins to take pills. Her husband arranged for her to get electroshock
treatments, but nothing helps her. Aida finally resorts to suicide. To Ahmed,
Aida’s story represents a cautionary tale of what can happen to women in a
rigid, patriarchal society.
The headmaster of Ahmed’s English school. Mr. Price is doubtful that
Ahmed could have written the essays she hands in. Ahmed’s experience with Mr.
Price opens her eyes to how people are categorized due to their culture, race,
A fellow student at Cambridge. Veena, from a poor village in India,
is a brilliant student of theoretical biochemistry, and a practicing Hindu and
vegetarian. Veena falls in love with a Czech student, and when his family
forbids their marriage, Veena has a nervous breakdown. In Veena’s predicament,
Ahmed discerns echoes of the circumstances of women in her family and throughout
the Arab world.
Ahmed’s husband. Alan is an American and meets Ahmed during their
graduate studies. They get married while Ahmed’s mother is at Cambridge. Alan
converts to Islam in order to win Ahmed’s mother’s approval, though the marriage
lasts only a few years.