Study Guide

A Border Passage Coming of Age

By Leila Ahmed

Coming of Age

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. For it was only then that I'd begin to follow the path that would bring me—exactly here. (5)

As for most of us, Ahmed believes that her life didn't really begin until something of her childhood had been destroyed. But unlike most of us, Ahmed's catalyst is a national upheaval that eventually dismantles her parents' lives—and by association, her own. This is why her autobiography is basically split between global and personal events. Ahmed's identity and her quest to redeem it is shaped by the growing pains of her country as well as by her own struggle to find her place and purpose in life.

These years following my return to Egypt were to be, for me, quite crucial. They marked the end, in important ways, of the enormously privileged life I had until then taken for granted. They changed me forever. At once turning point and crucible, they fundamentally shaped my life and my work and who I became. (13)

You may have already noticed that growing up doesn't really happen all at once, even for those who have suffered a major trauma early on. There are usually a series of watershed moments in each person's life that marks the end of childhood and the beginning of the rest of it.

It isn't that Ahmed didn't know heartache before the end of her undergrad years. It's more that the changes waiting for her in Egypt were now things she had to cope with, as an adult. Her privilege—as a member of the financially solvent, educated upper middle class—has been stripped away by the whimsical behavior of a vindictive government. Her time in Egypt after her return is truly a rude awakening for Ahmed.

I don't know how I would have survived the loneliness of my teenage years without the companionship of such books, read to the sound of only the wind in the trees, alternately dirge and solace. I remember moonlit evenings, leaning on my windowsill, when all that stood between me, the spell of the moon, and the pull of some vast abyss below was a book that I could turn to and bury myself in. (14)

Books are hugely important for Ahmed, who seems to have an academic bent from her early teen years. Interestingly, her beloved books are not by local authors. They're English—and usually male. In her escape from the loneliness of childhood, Ahmed seems also to have escaped her own culture. This is something she will take up later, when she talks about the disappointing reality of a "colonized consciousness"—that moment when you realize that The Man has made you kind of hate yourself.

This was only the beginning. Within a few days or perhaps that very day she took me to a doctor, not our usual doctor but a special doctor, who put me on a table and looked between my legs and told her I was fine, that I was just a little girl and that she should not make such an event of it, and in any case she had no ground whatever for her concerns. (81)

As a young girl, Ahmed has a brush with sexual violence at the hands of a neighbor boy. When her mother discovers what has happened, she freaks out. Ahmed is faced with a violent and frightening parent who does her best to impress on Ahmed the importance of sexual purity in their society. The visit to the "special doctor" is essentially for a virginity check. Ahmed believes that it is this episode—not the assault itself—that puts an early end to the freedom of her childhood and introduces a new kind of tension between herself and her mom.

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. I began reading Somerset Maugham at about twelve and immediately took to him and began at once, too, to believe in the follies of human beings about sex. (81)

Ahmed responds badly—as any child would—to her mother's freak-out over the neighbor boy's attempt to sexually assault Ahmed. Her mom doesn't pour on the compassion for her daughter. Instead, she hits her and essentially blames her for getting herself into such a situation. The icing on the cake? Mom explains how honor killings work and how Ahmed would have been a victim of it had she been a little older.

Ahmed's reaction is to hate her mom and to retreat from her. Her chosen form of escape (reading) reinforces her initial feelings, and it isn't until much later that she understands the "injustice" of her mother's actions on that day. Mother understands the importance of a woman's sexual purity in their society (unjust as it might have been) and acted out of fear for her daughter's safety.

This event with my mother, and everything that followed from it—the end of playing in the garden, of having playmates at home, of feeling that I belonged and was wanted in that home—was the great fracture line dividing my life: it marked the end, in my mind, of my childhood. Everything thereafter, in my thoughts, was marked Before and After. Joyousness belonged to before, only to before, to the past, and the past was over. (83)

Ahmed can't stress enough how crucial this moment is for her. After her mother rebukes her for nearly being sexually assaulted by the boy next door, Ahmed's life changes dramatically. Her freedom is severely limited and a new iciness springs up between her and her mother. Although she is only 9 at the time, Ahmed can sort of see the writing on the wall—that being a woman in her culture was never going to be a joyous thing—and it's both frustrating and depressing.

I felt uneasy when she said that she used to wonder why God had given me to them and that it was to keep them company. I sensed that she meant well, but something about her words was troubling to me. Why should my existence have meaning only in the scheme of someone else's life? Why did it need that justification? Why did I not exist just because I existed, the way she did or any of my siblings did? (86)

Ahmed's relationship with her mother is never a warm and fuzzy thing, but it's complicated further by several things. One is that Nanny makes her understand that Mother didn't want any more children before Ahmed was born—and that she'd taken steps to get rid of another child before Ahmed came on the scene.

Because of this, Ahmed is deeply distrustful of her mother's motivations and any affection that she attempts to show. Whenever her mother means to be motherly, things just come out wrong (or Ahmed can't help but read something else into it). It's a negativity that charges all interactions between them and that still invades her thoughts when she recalls these moments with her mother.

Then I suddenly remembered—its significance coming home to me only then, abruptly, like a revelation—what I had learned that summer: perhaps it was not, after all, the family legacy I was struggling with but my own mother's wish for my death while she was carrying me, her thoughts and desires translating into chemicals of rejection. (90)

Ahmed continues to struggle with the legacy of her childhood after she's in college. Though she's independent and living in another country, she feels that her mother's desire for Ahmed's death (Father let slip that Mother wanted to end the pregnancy that produced Ahmed) contributed to her depression.

Although Ahmed knows that depression and suicide runs in her family, she's totally certain that this more mystical transference of rejection is the reason for her inability to move on. In her struggle to define herself and find purpose, Ahmed continually returns to this early rejection by her mother in order to make sense of things.

For the truth is that the most unforgettable, lyrical experience in those years was not a moment of either romantic or erotic involvement. Rather it was a moment of intense presence and connection to the living world around us and also of companionship. (190)

Ahmed's early adulthood isn't all brooding and anxiety. She recalls this transcendent moment when she and three friends broke curfew to frolic in the woods as her most cherished memory of her college life. It shows us the kind of things she values: friendship, beauty, mindfulness—and perhaps a little wildness.

For what I was living and passively learning was exactly the kind of experience that would fuel the intellectual revolution that would come, particularly in the American academic world, as those from the margins—blacks, women, people from other cultures and from minority cultures in the West—understood their exclusion from the academic curriculum and set to work to make their own perspectives and histories academically visible. (212)

Ahmed speaks of personal maturation at different moments in her personal and professional life. In her academic career, she's had to work hard to fit into a predominantly white, male, Western milieu. This means learning to understand what is important to them, to learn the materials that they've already mastered—and to cast aside her own perspective and concerns.

But slowly, she begins to question this. When others on the margins begin to do the same, the center begins to shift. It's an exciting moment in history, but it's even more crucial for Ahmed, who will find herself on the leading edge of a new academic curriculum and experience.

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