Study Guide

Father (Abdel Aziz) in A Border Passage

By Leila Ahmed

Father (Abdel Aziz)

Utterly Simpatico

We hate to describe a woman as totally kick-butt as Leila Ahmed—you know, the first professor of women's studies in religion at Harvard Divinity School and the author of four massively important texts—as a daddy's girl.

But we all have our roots, and Ahmed's roots are as…a daddy's girl. We get that from the beginning of her narrative. She loves the portraits in his study (of Gandhi, Nehru, Isaac Newton) and what they stand for. She loves that he's a "modern man" who admires European culture and stands up for his principles, even at great cost. She also loves that her dad is not like her mom.

Her pride in her father's civic-minded professionalism is evident as she thinks back on his life as a civil engineer:

Father would devote his life to harnessing these invisible forces that science had revealed. He would do so in the service of the community, through the construction of dams and the development of irrigation and electrification projects linked to the Nile. (41)

His loyalty is always with the land that he loves and the people who depend upon its health for prosperity. He's constantly willing to put his own livelihood on the line to make the politically powerful people in his country understand the importance of human impact on the earth around them.

And he constantly has to pay the price for doing so.

Integrity Man

Ahmed admires the heck out of him, despite the difficulties brought on the family by his sense of moral obligation. She's truly inspired by her father's learning and dedication—and the rightness of his conclusions and predictions.

The connection she feels to her father because of his professional integrity alone overshadows her relationship with her mother. It makes it difficult for Ahmed to value the "nothing" that her mother does all day and even harder to overcome the terror that she, too, will end up leading a purposeless life.

Ahmed can't let go of the fear that she won't have a chance, like her father, to make her mark on the world, the "dread that [she] like [her] mother, would never have a professional life" (20-21). It makes an already strained relationship with her mom even more complicated and bitter.

That lack of affection between mother and daughter drives Ahmed even closer to her father's heart. She loves how he loves her. Ahmed remembers how she would beg her father to tell the story of her birth. It's a moment of great tenderness between father and daughter as he brings her into the realm of the family with his own two hands:

...it was my father who on my arrival took me into the bathroom and washed me in the hand basin. He would tell me about it when I came in sometimes as a small child and stood watching him shave...You washed me in this basin? I would ask...Yes, he would say. And then? I would ask. And he would tell me again how he had taken me to the hall and held me up to show me to my brothers, who were quarantined in their room because they had measles. (86-87)

Sigh. Pretty sweet, right? It's the beginning of strong affection between the two of them and a lifetime of support from her father, who encourages her academic ambitions and her athletic achievements.

But Wait, There's More...

In the end, though, Father is just a man like anyone else. Ugh. Realizing your parents are mere humans is the worst. As Ahmed grows and gains perspective on the political situation in her country and her mother's experiences, she begins to view her dad in a more balanced way. While her admiration for him isn't diminished, she does begin to get a fuller picture of both her father and mother.

She learns, for instance, that Father—a man who would never favor a son over a daughter—rebuffed his first choice for marriage in a most horrendous and whimsical way. He refused to marry the woman because she tried to sneak a look at him before their wedding day.

Ahmed is blown away by this knowledge, that her upright and moral father could have potentially ruined the life of a woman on such a technicality:

Who would have thought, though, that a man who would one day send his daughters to college in England and who throughout his life would give his wholehearted support to women's rights would think a woman improper for wanting to sneak a glimpse of her future husband—so improper that he would withdraw an offer of marriage? (95)

As her involvement with feminism gets more intimate and intense, Ahmed can't help but be staggered a bit by this. She also reevaluates her father's heroic stand against Nasser in the showdown over the Aswan High Dam. While she admires his steadfastness on the issue and his hardheaded defense of his data, Ahmed understands that he could not have been heroic alone.

After all, Father had her mother's support the whole time. Ahmed understands how vital this is when she returns from Cambridge to find her father dying and her mother struggling with financial ruin brought about by the government's hatred:

Mother had from the start supported him in his stand and she steadfastly and unreservedly continued to do so even when the consequences began to affect their lives and the lives of all of us deeply. Nevertheless, the act of conscience was Father's, and it was he rather than Mother who would have had the satisfaction of knowing that he had done what he believed he had to do. (21-22)

So, daddy is the hero…but mommy is left to pick up the pieces. It takes Ahmed a long time to get that her mother exhibited a kind of heroism, too, in supporting Father. This epiphany doesn't take away from her dad's actions. It does, however, paint a truer picture of her mother and a more complete one of her dad.

The Myth of the English Gentleman

There's another way that her mom pays for Ahmed's admiration of her dad: she loses the culture wars in a big way. Her dad is an unabashed admirer of European culture. He was educated in England, reads English books, and speaks English with his children.

He encourages the same in Ahmed, whom he sends to The English School in Cairo. Dad also sends his children to college in England as he thinks this is the only way they can receive a proper education. The result is that Ahmed and her siblings belong to a culture that's totally alien to their mom.

And it becomes another way for Ahmed to escape from her mother's "purposeless life" and often heartless flare-ups. She hides in English books and laps up Western movies, music, and ideas while avoiding the Arabic pop culture favored by her mom and the aunts.

When she thinks back, Ahmed has to admit that both she and her father suffered from "colonized consciousnesses," which is to say they truly believe that everything English is better than anything Egyptian, a hidden legacy of British colonialism in Egypt. In that sense, both Ahmed and her father have let the British win a piece of their souls.

But her mom, with great love for her culture, has not.

Ahmed doesn't really fault her father for this lack of awareness. After all, he's dedicated to the local community and knows that the Brits tried to hamper his educational goals. It's just an added dimension to his personality, something that makes her step back to get a clearer sense of who he really was. And it's a chance for her to learn how to regret.

Lessons Learned

As Ahmed says goodbye to her dying father, she sees him with perfect clarity. He's a David who actually gets crushed by his personal Goliath, the "great hero of [the] Arab world," Abdel Nasser (22). She awakens to the concept of injustice since a good man like her father, who did everything for all the right reasons, could still be destroyed by political self-interest.

That's not the way things are supposed to happen.

But Ahmed has to digest this unfair situation because it's the thing that pushes her forward in life. She knows that she has to keep fighting for her chance, no matter how hopeless it all seems. Her hardheadedness and drive to do the right thing prove that her dad's huge sacrifices really did have meaning, after all.