Study Guide

A Border Passage

By Leila Ahmed

A Border Passage Introduction

How Leila Finds Her Groove (and Then Loses It)

All the best movies start with a soaring soundtrack. Goodfellas kicks off with "Rags to Riches." Every Bond movie opens with slinky art and a slinkier pop melody. Jackie Brown has "Across 110th Street." And books like Moby-Dick have…um…

Hmm. Most books don't have much in the way of opening music.

But lucky for you, oh reader of Leila Ahmed's groundbreaking text, A Border Passage is the kind of autobiography that smashes genre walls even as it blows your mind.

Leila Ahmed's 1999 memoir opens with recollections of her own personal soundtrack from back in the day:

Almost everything then seemed to have its own beat, its own lilt: sounds that distilled the sweetness of being, others that made audible its terrors, and sounds for everything between. (3)

This is 1940s-'50s Cairo, and the soundscape describes everything that she loves and fears about life in Egypt at this time. There's a mix of danger and beauty in her home at the edge of city and desert, in a time before revolution and terrifying social upheaval.

Sound complicated? Sound contradictory? Ha. You don't know the half of it.

Ahmed's project is to recount a story that's both personal and historical: the birth of a person and the birth of a nation. (There's that complex, contradictory stuff again.) And she knows that to tell this story the right way, she'll have to start at the place where things absolutely and fantastically fall apart—when she first becomes aware of who she is and what her place in the world might be.

At the exact time and place that she starts losing faith in, well, pretty much everything.

Picking up the Pieces

But why? Why would a super intelligent, talented, upper-middle class woman lose her faith in humanity?

We'll break it down into a few bite-size morsels:

In Cairo:

Ahmed's life is torn apart by war and political jockeying, leaving her to put her life together as best she can. She fights for eight years to get her passport from the Egyptian government—eight years—simply because she's the daughter of a man who's on the losing side of a wicked political argument.

In England/the West:

But she persists and finds herself among the most educated (white) people in the whole world when she lands at the University of Cambridge for grad school. Ahmed is brainy and young—she has a ton going for her. But, she also quickly learns what it means to be a person of color without a community of support.

She's seen only as "black" by the English—lumped in with all students who are not obviously white. And not only that, Ahmed soon chafes at her "Arab" identity. After all, she is really Egyptian, and that means something more unique and complex than a word like "Arab" can properly convey…especially because the word "Arab" is being primarily used by Westerners with only the haziest understanding of Middle Eastern history and geography.

But, there's one shining silver lining to the glowering cumulonimbus of Ahmed's confusing life: it prompted her to write this brilliant text.

Ahmed's heavy thinking about what it means to be an Arab, an Egyptian, a woman, and a Muslim in the global community helps her understand how that early "music" shaped her life—and how it's opening up the future before her. It brings back complexity to her identity, and authenticity.

So, there's a happy(ish) ending to this complicated tale: Ahmed gets to find her groove again, even if the music is strange and new.

What is A Border Passage About and Why Should I Care?

We're going to do this the easy way. We're going to tell you why you shouldn't care about A Border Passage.

You shouldn't care about A Border Passage if you happen to be living inside a cave with an inexhaustible supply of Dinty Moore Beef Stew and no access to the outside world.

Because if you're anything besides a stew-gobbling cave hermit…sorry. You kind of have to care about this book.

This is a book that deals with a bajillion of the Big Deal issues that grace our 24-hour news cycle, determine global and domestic politics and impact pretty much every aspect of our day-to-day lives.

Here are only some of the issues it hits, in no particular order of importance (because they're all #1 in terms of importance):

Muslim Identity

If you're a citizen of the world, you know about Islam…and you know about the aura that surrounds Western discussions of Islam. Islamophobia abounds in places like the United States and Europe. Hate crimes against Muslims are proliferating. And militant Islamic groups—think al-Qaida and ISIS—continue to perform acts of terror around the globe.

In short: it's hard not to check your Twitter feed without hearing a lot about Islam. The true meaning of Islam is often overshadowed in the media by the acts of some nutso terrorists and the responses of some xenophobes.

A Border Passage digs into what it means to be a Muslim and the different ways that one Muslim woman experienced Islam over half a century and in four countries. Required reading, y'all.

Arab Identity

Again: if you have a pulse and even a passing interest in the news, you've probably heard a lot about Arab identity.

But, you probably haven't heard it like Leila Ahmed tells it. Did you know that Egyptians didn't originally consider themselves to be Arab…until the British Empire encouraged people to adopt that identity as part of a strategic move against the Ottoman Empire? Yeah, us neither.

Did you know that Egyptians thought of themselves as multi-ethnic and Arabs as only living on the Arabian Peninsula? Yeah, us neither.

Did you know that even at a language level, written Arabic is way different than tons of different dialects of spoken Arabic? Yeah, us…you get the point.

Feminist Identity

Here's another word that lights up your news feed daily. We know that feminism is awesome—we know it means equality between men and women, and we know that it strives to abolish things like rape culture and the gender pay gap.

But Ahmed sheds light on some pernicious issues even within feminism. Issues like Ahmed's own disregard of traditional "female" work before she realized that her disregard was a symptom of internalized sexism. Issues like the overwhelming whiteness of American feminism…especially in the 1970s, but still a problem today. Issues like the pervasive belief that religious beliefs and feminism are incompatible.

Yeah. Leila Ahmed deals with all of this massive stuff, and more.

So, what are you waiting for? You're a citizen of the world…and (in our opinion, at least) that means that A Border Passage is a must-read in the most literal sense of the word.

A Border Passage Resources

Websites

That's Professor Ahmed to You...
This is Leila Ahmed's bio page at Harvard Divinity School.

This Is the City of the Dead
Ahmed mentions visiting el-Arafa, Cairo's four-mile-long cemetery—and not being able to find her parents' graves. As she weaves her way through it, she mentions that the cemetery is actually a city unto itself and that the tombs often house families. This is the photographic story of two families who live there among the dead.

A Quiet Revolution
Leila Ahmed's book explores the return of the custom of veiling (i.e., wearing hijab) for Muslim women around the world—and what it means.

Gender Studies
Ahmed fulfills her desire to dig deep into the subject of women and Islam with her first book, Women and Gender in Islam (1992).

Movie or TV Productions

Islam, the Movie
Leila Ahmed worked as an advisor to this 2002 PBS documentary Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet.

Articles and Interviews

Islam and Feminism
Ahmed talks women's issues in Islam, including wearing hijab, with Ingrid Lilly.

A Controversial Claim
Ahmed's theories about what the veil means to Muslim women challenge what people know or think they know about feminism and patriarchy in the Arab world. Sometimes, her audience doesn't react so well.

Video

Hijab Debate < Four Minutes
A quick overview of Ahmed's research on Muslim women wearing the veil, especially in Western countries.

Audio

The Book Circuit
Leila Ahmed speaks with Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air about her then-new work, A Border Passage.

Bringing About Change
Ahmed joins a panel of speakers on Neal Conan's Talk of the Nation to discuss powerful Muslim women reforming Islam from the inside.

On Muslim Women's Power and Choice
A short BBC 4's Women's Hour interview with Leila Ahmed on her book A Quiet Revolution.

All That We Don't Know
Krista Tippett speaks with Leila Ahmed about women and Islam for her show, On Being. They discuss the wearing of hijab and how it signifies vastly different things to different people.

Images

A Sentimental Journey
This blog contains some wonderful pics of Cairo from the 1880s to the 1950s—including the storefront of Délices, a sweet shop mentioned by Ahmed in her work.

Political Shots
A considerate blogger has gleaned images of Egyptian political life in the 1940s from Life magazine's vast open collection for us to enjoy.