Study Guide

A Border Passage Setting

By Leila Ahmed

Setting

Cairo (Ain Shams and Zatoun), Egypt; Alexandria (Siouf), Egypt; Cambridge, England

Ain Shams

For Ahmed and her family, Ain Shams is an oasis at the edge of the desert. Its garden is magical and becomes the hallmark of the family home:

What we had most loved about our house, its most remarkable feature in our own eyes and everyone else's, had been its garden. Besides being enormous by Cairo standards, it was marvelously rich in its variety of shrubs and trees—pine, eucalyptus, apricot, mango, tamarind, oleander—and in its winding paths and arbors and its clambering plants, brilliant and fragile—roses, bougainvillea, wisteria. It was, among family, friends, and even casual visitors, one of Cairo's legendary gardens. (15)

It becomes a place of refuge for Ahmed, as she learns was intended by her father, who valued freedom of the mind and body above all things. In the garden, Ahmed is free to let her imagination run wild. It's in the garden that she plays childhood games with her friends—and it's the loss of the privilege of playing in the garden that marks the end of a happy childhood.

But it's not just the gardens that make Ain Shams special. Everyone seems to fall under its contemplative spell. There's just something about Ahmed's family home that evokes the fantastic:

[...] Ain Shams was a place essentially given over to reading and to a sense of the overriding reality of inner worlds of imagination. Even visitors felt this about Ain Shams. People who came would say that they felt they had entered a world of Proust—or whoever their favorite writer happened to be. As if the place were somehow located exactly on the edge and borderland between imagination and the ordinary world. (180-181)

Ahmed believes that this is due to the geographical location of her home, which sits at the edge of Cairo—a city of crossroads in itself—on the border of the desert. It's this liminal space that makes all things possible at Ain Shams.

Zatoun

While Ain Shams is pure delight to Ahmed in her early childhood, her grandparents' home at Zatoun feels far more complicated and less comfortable to her. There's a certain creepiness about the house that she can't quite place:

[...] I found Zatoun at one and the same moment enticing, pleasurable, engulfing, and perilous—obscurely perilous. I could sense...that once we had entered its portals, the doorkeeper slowly bringing together behind us the huge iron leaves of the gate he had opened to let in our car, we had crossed into some other world. (99-100)

This is not the other world evoked by the beautiful gardens at Ain Shams. It's more like the other world of Labyrinth, where there are pleasant creatures and forever glam David Bowie, but it's perilous all the same.

Her feelings about Zatoun are further complicated by two polarizing settings there: the Locked Room and Grandmother's receiving room:

[...] it is the pleasures of Zatoun and in particular the warmth of the women's gatherings in Grandmother's room that stand out in my mind, but when I was a child the terrors of Zatoun were also intensely real. The main focus of my childhood terror was the Locked Room, but there was also the badraun, the basement, an entire empty replica of the house upstairs, with its two grand halls and its various rooms going off them. (102)

Ultimately, it's the pleasure of being with the women at Zatoun that wins out in her memory. But in her childhood, Zatoun has to work hard to win her over.

Siouf, Alexandria

Grandfather builds the house in Alexandria so that his daughters and their children will have a place to chill together during the summers. It's a pretty sweet thought. And because it's summer—and because it's a place pretty much devoid of male authority—Ahmed has mostly lovely memories of her time there.

She notes that all of the gloom and doom of Zatoun—that strange peril she feels in the house there—disappears at Siouf. Even her grandmother's prayers are transformed by the change of scenery:

At Siouf, even Grandmother's constant prayerfulness was mysteriously transformed. The sight of her at prayer, standing, hands folded, then kneeling and bowing in the ritual motions, touching her head to the ground and rising again—all this, instead of reminding one of death and mourning, as it did at Zatoun, was profoundly reassuring. (112)

Siouf becomes an extension of the all-female community found in Grandmother's receiving rooms at Zatoun. While the men of the family might float in and out of their lives at Siouf, it's primarily a women's (and children's) space and time.

Cambridge, England

Though Girton College is miles away and a world apart from her life in Cairo, Ahmed finds a similarity in the mood and geography between these places.

[...] life at Girton was in fundamental ways deeply continuous with the assumptions, beliefs, and ways of living that had hitherto framed the world as I knew it. The meditative, inward mood of Girton, for instance—this place of books, gardens, quiet, trees—was very like that of Ain Shams. (180)

It's a great comfort to her to find this new world familiar to her. The beauty of the gardens and wild spaces at Girton, together with the architecture around her, truly gives Ahmed the sense that she's living inside those wonderful English novels she escaped into as a teen. It's a fantasy come true.

Girton reminds Ahmed of the best part of her life in Egypt: the magical gardens at Ain Shams. And just as at Ain Shams, she finds the beauty of the outdoor landscape opens up her imagination and whispers to her of a freedom that she couldn't quite find back at home.

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