1. Egyptians, for instance, might, with equal accuracy, define themselves as African, Nilotic, Mediterranean, Islamic, or Coptic. Or as all, or any combination of, the above. Or, of course, as Egyptian: pertaining to the land of Egypt.
In exploring the number of labels that can be applied to Egyptians in Chapter 1, Ahmed pinpoints a problem of identity that is uniquely Egyptian and anticipates the challenges of identification that arise for any minority group. As Ahmed shows, Egyptian identity is inextricably tied to a turbulent history under which Egyptians were ruled by, and absorbed the influences of, a number of different ruling parties, from the Arabs to the Turks to the British. The “land of Egypt” itself defies category, situated as it is between Africa and the Middle East. With that taken into account, and with all of the influences that have shaped Egypt over the millennia, is there a distinctly “Egyptian” identity? This is one of the central questions that directs Ahmed’s inquiry into her past and the history of her homeland. Her investigation reveals a complex answer to this question—that yes, we are defined by our religious faith, our culture, and our national identifications, but ultimately, we are uniquely formed out of multiple influences.
Through the quote and the general thrust of her book, Ahmed reveals that questions of national identity cannot be answered with simple labels. To be called “Egyptian” in the world today carries the weight of thousands of years of history, not to mention the associations placed on the Islamic faith in a time of numerous world conflicts over faith exist. In describing her childhood in Cairo, where ancient ruins and modern sprawl coexist, Ahmed contemplates how complex those identifications can be. In some ways, labels are what she carries with her, categories that change shape and meaning depending on her surroundings. While in England, Ahmed will be labeled a “black,” the catch-all term for any person of color, sparking a renewed interest in exactly the issue that she talks about in this quote. Are Egyptians primarily Africans? Or is their major identification with Islam? The answer that Ahmed arrives at is a complex consideration of the disparate elements that have made her: she can take ownership of labels like “Egyptian,” “Muslim,” and “feminist” and still assert her identity as an individual.