Study Guide

Grandfather in A Border Passage

By Leila Ahmed

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The Man

Grandfather is the Lord of Zatoun (okay, we made up that title), but he seems to have very little impact on the lives of everyone there. That's partly because he's never around; he's usually at work. And when he's home, he doesn't dare invade the privacy of Grandmother's rooms.

His family respects his stature as patriarch, which helps create distance between him and everyone else. Ahmed's aunties love to make fun of Grandfather's formality and authority—but always behind his back. He rules over Zatoun and his family.

And the kids totally get it:

My aunts and mother and uncle were very formal in Grandfather's presence. If he came into a room where they were sitting, they would scramble to their feet, the very hurriedness of their motion probably being part of the appearance of respect that was due him. (107)

This deference feels charming in a Father Knows Best way, but it leads to some very serious and tragic problems down the road. Two of his children (Fuad and Aida) take their own lives because Grandfather isn't willing to compromise on his expectations for them. Both of these children know that their situations are intolerable—and that their father has no intention of helping them out of them.

Regretfully Hers

But Grandfather isn't a dude without a heart. Ahmed remembers that he doted on his wife and daughters and gave them all the things: a house in Alexandria so that they could be together in the summers and a car to bring them all together at Zatoun during the week.

He showed his affection to the grandchildren by giving them "loud, smacking kisses, often on the lips" and obviously took pride in his family (107).

More than this, Grandfather shows remorse over the stiff-upper-lipped behavior that caused his children to lose their lives. Ahmed detects this sorrow when she watches her grandparents interact:

[...] Grandfather [...] deferred to Grandmother, treating her with a more humble courtesy than she him. Grandmother, for her part, although always utterly civil and courteous, held herself aloof. And he, in the way that he looked at her sometimes, seemed contrite, as if imploring her forgiveness. (109-110)

While Ahmed doesn't understand the reason for Grandfather's humility at first, she comes to understand that he's a man who has made serious mistakes—and who'll pay for them for the rest of his married life.

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