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When Ahmed talks about visiting her "house of memory," it sounds great—like hanging out with a lovely old lady who smells like cookie dough and gives you cozy grandma hugs. And it is…for about five seconds.
She leaves behind the pleasant memories of life at Ain Shams in the first few pages of the book, tantalizing us with its unusual gardens and the irresistible sound of the reed that seems to flow through the walls of the house.
But why? Why can't we just read a nice book that takes place in a warm garden full of flickering, leafy shadows?
For good reasons, actually. Ahmed tells us that she's got to focus on the tough stuff because those moments made her the person she's become:
And yet also, as I sit here now, in these halls, in this house of memory, it is not in those days and those moments that my story begins. Rather, it begins for me with the disruption of that world and the desolation that for a time overtook our lives. (5)
Oh, okay. Fair enough, Ahmed.
She's not kidding about disruption. Egypt had slipped out of the proverbial frying pan of British control (yay) only to find itself into the fire with a dictator instead of a democratic leader (boo). It's critical for Egypt to show that it can keep up with Europe by being modern and industrialized, but it also has an identity crisis to deal with. Are they part of the Arab world? Do they support Palestine against Israel?
It's a messy business—and Ahmed's family finds itself in hot water more than once. In the middle of this craziness, Ahmed begins to identify the things that matter to her. By listening to the rhetoric of revolution—and then finding the hypocrisy in it—she learns important things about justice and injustice, and what really matters to her.
The destruction of her father's career and health teaches her that people on the right side of history don't always win. She understands that heroism requires hardheadedness in the service of what's right.
And that, even still, you might be doomed:
...I turned over and over in my mind all that was happening to us. How Father had struggled on the right side and how he had been crushed by this political giant, this great hero of our Arab world. (20)
And that's it, right there: politics rules everything. The awareness that they're living on shaky ground gives Ahmed a stubbornness of her own, to leave Egypt and take her chances in the wide world.
We could argue that most autobiographies are an author's struggle to "find herself." (What's up, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?)
So, it's not much of a surprise to see Ahmed doing some serious digging into her past and her identity to figure out just how she got where she is in life. (Did we mention that she's the first professor of women's studies in religion at Harvard Divinity School? Yeah. Ahmed is no one to trifle with.)
Her search for identity is complicated by the national struggle that continues through her adolescence. It's not just about family stuff. She also has to figure out what her ethnic, religious, and racial identities really are—and not just accept the labels that are placed on her by others.
It's complicated. Ahmed has a lot of options when it comes to describing herself as an Egyptian:
Egyptians, for instance, might, with equal accuracy, define themselves as African, Nilotic, Mediterranean, Islamic, or Coptic. Or as all, or any combination of, the above. Or, of course, as Egyptian: pertaining to the land of Egypt. (11)
But, it's not long before she's saddled with a political identity that doesn't seem to suit her at all: that of "Arab." It puzzles and angers her because it flattens the amazing complexity of her Egyptian identity. And she's determined to get to the bottom of it.
And lo and behold, the results of her research ain't pretty. Ahmed learns that the great uniting idea of Arabness had very little to do with brotherhood or solidarity. It really had to do with political convenience.
It hands Westerners the chance to demonize anyone with the label. Arabs, Ahmed learns, will forever be "other," always treated like inferiors:
"Arabs" meant people with whom you made treaties that you did not have to honor, arabs being by definition people of a lesser humanity and there being no need to honor treaties with people of lesser humanity. It meant people whose lands you could carve up and apportion as you wished, because they were of a lesser humanity. (267)
It's a bitter pill to swallow. But now, Ahmed understands why she's had to walk through that difficult house of memory: it brings clarity to the messy past. And clarity helps her find the truth about herself and her country—and, more importantly, to live the truth as nearly as she can.
Because, as is obvious to anyone reading A Border Passage, if there's one thing that Leila Ahmed is awesome at, it's living the truth.