The Harem

In Chapter 8, Ahmed sees the community of women she is immersed in at Cambridge as a “harem perfected.” Instead of belonging to the realm of male fantasy, the harem suggests for Ahmed a nurturing community of women in which the old preside over the young—and in this way is similar to the community of women that she knew as a child, at her grandmother’s house. By transposing an image of great symbolic power from her own culture to a Western one, Ahmed reclaims its power to represent a haven for women. Though the harem is traditionally seen as a symbol of female subservience, Ahmed seems to be suggesting that at Cambridge it became a manifestation truer to its historical roots.


For the young Ahmed, angels represent the magic and mysteries of the unseen world and were first introduced to her as a concept by her deeply religious nanny. Angels are a unifying symbol of both Nanny’s faith and Ahmed’s Islam. Ahmed recalls her grandmother telling her that during the holy month of Ramadan, God allows angels to descend freely, and one can see them if one looks hard enough. She also recalls the sense of wonder that overtook her as she stood on a Cairo rooftop, waiting for the angels to appear. As a symbol of a rich, hidden world, angels serve as a concrete manifestation of the imaginative world that Ahmed develops as a child.


Ahmed writes of her childhood as having “its own music,” a music that is symbolic of both a sense of innocence and the seemingly effortless blending of disparate cultural influences that marked her childhood. This imagery of music helps brings together the past and present, an overlapping of thousand-year-old artifacts and religious sites and a young girl’s dawning political consciousness. This music also unites place, the beautiful garden of Ain Shams with the gloomy richness of Zatoun, and Ahmed’s family’s trips to the shore. Ahmed’s childhood, characterized by a unifying music, contrasts with her later experience of displacement, as she spends time in several places where diverse cultural influences are not so easily blended together.