Study Guide

Mother (Ikbal) in A Border Passage

By Leila Ahmed

Mother (Ikbal)

It's Complicated

There's never a moment when Ahmed feels 100 percent okay about her mom. And not just for the normal mom-daughter reasons—she's not miffed because her mom tells her that her hair looks better with bangs or insists on watching reruns of Gilmore Girls together or still tries to hold her daughter's hand when they cross the street.

This goes deeper than the normal "Mooooom, come oooooon" stuff we've learned from a gajillion heartwarming comedies.

Ahmed always questions her mother's motives and her philosophy about motherhood. Like, how can her mom profess to have a special bond with her children when she doesn't even take care of them or spend time with them? (Good question, in our humble opinion.)

But, as Ahmed grows, she understands that she can't really be close to her mom because of a reserve or shyness about everything that mattered in life:

If a subject touching on the intimacies of life so much as hove into view, she lowered her eyes and flushed, a look of acute awkwardness coming over her, as if these were not things that she could speak of. She was quite different from her sisters. (68-69)

As a result, she keeps Ahmed at arm's length. Yet, there's something even more serious that drives a wedge between mother and daughter. Ahmed has a bad feeling that her mom doesn't want her around—that she even has some kind of death wish for her youngest child. Ahmed feels this especially during a severe illness:

...I remember sensing, in the way that my mother was, that in some way she wanted me to die. I sensed that she was enjoying being the center of attention, my aunts all being there, and that my illness, which had brought them there, was something she somehow enjoyed. (87)

That is one serious allegation. It's not just that Mother is an attention-monger: there's also a heavy rejection vibe coming from her. Ahmed doesn't learn the root of it until she's grown, but even the sense of it colors her feelings about their relationship.

Not a Mommy's Girl

We may have learned from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt that's there's such a thing as a "daddy's boy," but as far as Ahmed is concerned, there are only ever daddy's girls.

Mother might have stood a chance with Ahmed if the connection between father and daughter wasn't so strong. Ahmed, like her father, is an Anglophile—initially, she finds the culture that defines her mother "stupid" or inferior. Both daddy and daughter embrace European culture as a way to participate in a more modern, open society.

Mother's compliance with the taboos and rules of her culture places greater strain on the mother-daughter bond. The incident with the boy next door reinforces Ahmed's antagonism toward her mother. She feels that her mom is enforcing rules that keep women on a short chain:

Later, within two or three or maybe four years, I judged her to be stupid and unjust and governed by meaningless beliefs if she really thought she would have had to kill me and then herself. She was just plain stupid, I decided. (81)

It takes a long time for Ahmed to get perspective on her mother's freak-out—and to develop a little empathy for mom's distant and difficult love for her.

Unraveling the Heart

Ahmed remembers a lot about her hard feelings for her mom. But, as a young person, she lacks perspective—she just can't see things through her mom's eyes. Ahmed's investigations into the lives of Muslim women and Arabness help her gain the insight she needs to look at this troubled relationship with new eyes.

She recounts days when her adolescent rage reached all-time highs—when she couldn't resist the opportunity to snark that "Mother was not a professional anything!" to emphasize her mom's uselessness. Ahmed also remembers dishing out a little emotional poison to her mom when Mother confides that she, too, wanted to be a writer:

I was fifteen... I was sure of one thing: I did not want to be like my mother. I was sure that I wasn't like her and would never grow up to be like her. I didn't want to think we were alike in anything, let alone in our deepest hearts' desires, and didn't at all want to think that I might indeed be her daughter. (74)

Ahmed's admission of her own bad behavior is a generous move toward compassion. This, along with her growing awareness that her father wasn't perfect, helps her to bridge the gap between herself and her mom—at least in her memories.

She even learns to value some of the memories that she has of her mom, moments when the messy love between them was set aside and the two of them could just be women together. These scenes are rare, according to the narrative.

But in those moments, Ahmed sees a woman constrained by her society and often acting in ways that seem unnatural because she has to protect her children.

Like when Ahmed's beloved dad casually mentions how her mom tried to get rid of Ahmed before she was born. It's a shocking moment because Ahmed feels utterly betrayed by both parents—her father, for telling her such a thing (really, who does that?!), and her mother, for her homicidal tendencies.

Still, Ahmed's sympathies reach for her mother. Now, her mom just seems like a woman who was pressed into a corner by two unwanted pregnancies and who had come to regret her actions—and not an unloving mother:

For I'd come to believe that watching me grow my mother had remembered and inconsolably mourned the sister who'd survived just moments and that (rightly or wrongly) she had blamed herself for her premature birth. And understanding this I'd feel that I now understood too how it was that my mother had arrived at the belief that the most important thing one could do in life was to harm no one... (89)

By the time Ahmed sits down to write her autobiography, she's developed a more nuanced picture of her mother. The hurt is clearly still there—she still thinks of her mother "in the negative" when she remembers her—but she's found circumstances that drain the drama from the relationship.

By letting go of her anger, Ahmed is able to loosen the hold that her mother's sorrow and darkness held over her life. Ahmed is able to release mom's spirit to the beyond because she believes that her mom's behavior hasn't really hurt her.

And that's it. Just knowing that she's okay despite the misery between them makes it possible for Ahmed to get on with life—and onto the other important questions she has to answer.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...