Ahmed believes that Islam can be separated into two distinctly different, often-contradictory strands: the expansive, pacifist oral tradition, and the more rigid, authoritarian written tradition. Islam’s oral tradition is one that she associates with women, and she was immersed in it as a young child at her grandmother’s house in Cairo. In this tradition, she finds multiple possibilities and a humane orientation toward the world. As she examines the impact of faith on her own identity and in the larger world, Ahmed associates Islam’s rigid written tradition with the rise of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism, in Ahmed’s view, obscures much of the beauty and meaning she was raised to associate with her faith. She finally points to this split as being responsible for abuse of politic power, as rigid interpretations of Islam become tools in the hands of religious demagogues.
Ahmed is raised speaking English, French, and Arabic, and schooled in England, and her entire life is defined by a collision of different cultural influences. Though she recognizes the inherent problems in being caught between two worlds, for Ahmed this plurality of influences is a rich part of her identity. As she makes an intellectual home for herself in Cambridge, England, Ahmed traces the influences in books that have brought her to this place. When she accepts a teaching job in the United Arab Emirates, Ahmed notes the differences between that “Gulf Arabic” culture and her own “Egyptian Arabic” culture. Appreciating such cultural intersections allows Ahmed to better understand what it means to be Egyptian.
The very language that people use in expressing themselves has political implications—it defines identity and often limits potential according to the labels people must wear. Through speaking English as a child in a British school, Ahmed comes to see the Arabic of her parents as inferior to the languages of western Europe. Given the anglicized name “Lily” in school, Ahmed examines the implications of denying her own cultural identity to adopt a new one only in later years, when she recalls her confusion at meeting Nasser and not knowing what to say her name is. While at Cambridge, Ahmed, like any other person from a third-world country, is labeled “black,” which prompts her to unravel the real implications of such labels as “Egyptian,” “African,” and “Arab.”
Growing up in Egypt before it had attained independence from colonial influences, Ahmed draws a stark picture of the way the Egyptians internalized a “colonial consciousness” in their reverence for all things British. This is an attitude she particularly ascribes to her father, who, despite being held back professionally by British policies, still seems to see British culture as superior to his own native Egyptian culture. Ahmed traces the rapid political changes that will end the Western colonial presence in much of the Middle East and points to political writers like Frantz Fanon and Albert Memmi, who were instrumental in dismantling colonial consciousness through their influential critiques of the dynamic between the colonizer and the colonized. She also notes the positive sides of Egypt’s existence under British rule: the fact that the British presence helped speed Egypt’s modernization and created a somewhat free press. In exploring the complicated legacy of colonial rule, Ahmed traces the implications of politics on a more personal level.