Study Guide

Grandmother in A Border Passage

By Leila Ahmed

Grandmother

A Woman of Grace

In all of Ahmed's memories of people and things past, Grandmother is the closest thing to an angel. She doesn't have wings or work as a model for Victoria's Secret. But she does exude grace and hospitality.

Ahmed remembers her time at Zatoun in Grandmother's rooms with genuine love—something that we really only see for her dad in other parts of her story. It's in these rooms that the women of the family could chill without the buzzkill of male authority:

The atmosphere in Grandmother's receiving room was always wonderful. I do not remember a single occasion when it was not a pleasure to be there with the women. Relaxed, intimate, affectionate, rarely solemn, their conversations and exchanges were often extremely witty and sharp and funny. (105)

Ahmed also credits her grandmother with teaching her a deeply spiritual and peaceful Islam—a version outside the official and "male" practices of the religion. Grandmother had a way of weaving spirituality into daily life and of helping Ahmed to see the wonder in the connectedness of all living things—visible and invisible.

She remembers one especially magical Ramadan when her grandmother brought her to the rooftop of the house in Alexandria to engage in some "angel-spotting," a thrilling exercise by any definition:

We sat there, the two of us, under the lovely starlight until I fell asleep. I didn't see angels and the water did not turn to milk, but I have vividly with me still that night's enormous sense of wonder—sitting quietly in the starlight in expectation of angels. (67)

Grandmother's deep spirituality wraps Ahmed in both a sense of wonder and a blanket of safety, as though her prayers and devotion will keep the family safe from harm—and reveal to them the beauty of the world.

A Woman of Sorrow

But there's also a sadness about Grandmother that Ahmed doesn't fully understand as a child. Grandmother had lost a son—and her husband was to blame for it. (Partly, anyway.) While this tragedy fuels her piety, it also tugs her down into something dangerous:

Grandmother was in perpetual mourning. That was why Mother and my aunts needed to spend so much time at Zatoun with her, because without them her grief would be unendurable...Fuad's death had transformed her, they said, from a cheery person who had laughed easily to a quiet, often sad person, who performed many extra prayers besides the required five and always dressed in black. (110)

This side of Grandmother's life feels a little out of control to Ahmed, her sorrow deeper than she can comprehend. It's the only thing that dampens her enthusiastic love for Grandmother (and only a little bit). Ahmed loves her for her gentle ways, her spirituality, and her graciousness.

And one extra thing.

Like Looking Into a Mirror

While Ahmed spends her teen years promising herself that she would never be like her mother, she relishes a special connection to her grandmother. She looks just like her:

I was often told as a child that I looked like her and that I was in fact just like her, and so I would lie looking up at her, studying intently, upside down, the planes and curves of her face, searching it to see who I was and what exactly I was like. (107)

This makes her affection for the special lady grow even more. And it makes Grandmother more personally interesting to Ahmed—looking into that older face is like predicting her own future. With the exception of personal tragedy, Ahmed pretty much likes what she sees there.

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