Study Guide

A Border Passage Contrasting Regions

By Leila Ahmed

Contrasting Regions

Postwar revelations about the death camps in Germany and America's dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki now called into question the very notion of European and Western civilization. Many, including people of the class and generation who had once so admired the West, found themselves compelled to ask in what human values, indeed in what garbling of human values, this civilization of Europe was after all grounded. Toward what abyss was this flagship civilization leading humanity? (8)

While Ahmed and her father—and many other Egyptians—admired Europe as the height of modernity and civilization, WWII Europe was showing a very brutal side of itself. The irony doesn't escape Ahmed: her British teachers spent a lot of time chatting up the superiority of European civ, yet current events proved that they had some of the worst vices of humanity. It may not have been a wake-up call for Europeans, but it certainly was for Egyptians, who now had to evaluate their own sensibilities and values as a way to move in to the modern era independently.

Sometimes from my window I saw, across the stretch of wasteland between us and the next neighbors, men crouching by the railway line, defecating. And the dead, borne on litters, passed by on that side of the house toward some burial ground beyond sight on the desert side. (14)

While Ahmed remembers Ain Shams as a kind of garden paradise, an idyllic and comfortable place to grow up, she doesn't have to look far to see a completely different world. It's as if the rest of the world and all of its scariness and uncertainty was swirling around Ain Shams, reminding young Ahmed that reality is waiting for her beyond the garden.

Even in my own childhood, Zatoun, my mother's paternal home, was a place palpably apart, imbued with some unnamably different order and way of being. The aura and aroma of those other times and other ways pervaded it still, in the rustle and shuffle of silks and the soft fall of slippers along hallways and corridors, in the talk and the gestures and in the momentary tremor of terror precipitated by the boom of Grandfather's voice... (99)

Though Zatoun isn't far from Ain Shams, Ahmed remembers it as a completely different realm. That is because it has a sadness to its history—including the death of a beloved son—and a stern but loving grandfather who presides over it. There's also the reminder of more oppressive times, when a great-grandmother was "gifted" to a man (i.e., given as a slave) to start a family. Though Ahmed also has fond memories of her grandmother's receiving room and the female companionship she found at Zatoun, it has a forbidding vibe that she never got at her own home.

Academic studies of Islam commonly focus on its textual heritage or on visible, official institutions such as mosques. Consequently, it is this Islam—the Islam of texts and mosques—that becomes visible and that is presented as in some sense legitimate, whereas most of the Muslims whom I know personally, both in the Middle East and in Europe and America, would never go near a mosque or willingly associate themselves with any form of official Islam. (129)

Ahmed often juxtaposes official Islam—the Islam of educated men and textual tradition—with Islam as it's actually lived by most people. The differences are more than ideological. There's some geography to it as well. Ahmed points out that official Islam lists the mosque as its home address. The other Islam can be found in women's realms of power, like the "harem" of Zatoun and Alexandria, and in the places occupied by everyday people. So even though official Islam represented a small minority, it dominated in places of power because of its easy visibility (the power of the written word!).

I remember feeling uneasy, for instance, at his telling us how the art and artifacts of the Egyptians proved that the Egyptians did indeed have a civilization but also showed that they lacked the capacity for abstract thought. This fact became quite obvious, he said...when Egyptians' civilization was compared to that of the Greeks, who had developed philosophies and mathematics and so on, which the Egyptians did not have. (146)

Ahmed is speaking of her creepy English School headmaster and sometimes teacher, Mr. Price. His prejudices against Egypt—and especially against Egyptian Muslims—were meant to wear down any cultural pride felt by his local students and to assert the superiority of his own culture. While Ahmed can't quite put her finger on her uneasiness at this behavior when she was a child, it becomes clear to her in later days. She understands that these microaggressions were meant to revise history, to erase the contributions and importance of Egyptian culture for the global community.

I continued to love European classical music and still have (a little grudgingly perhaps) a love for it. But I find myself sometimes yearning for another music, the kind only my mother and her sisters and friends listened to at home when I was a child. (153)

Ahmed tells us of her estrangement from Egyptian culture (especially from pop culture). She even says that her mother's Arabic music drove her insane with its incessant wailing noise. As she grows in understanding of the concept of a "colonized consciousness," she sees that her love of European things wasn't founded on some objective ideal—it was fed by a steady stream of bias flowing from British authority figures. Ahmed realizes that she has to confront the visions of these two cultures she has in her head to get at the truth, and to learn to appreciate what's valuable in her home culture.

Moving daily among those three different worlds under the blue skies of Egypt, we lived also in our heads and in the books we lost ourselves in, in a world peopled with children called Tom and Jane and Tim and Ann, and where there were moles and hedgehogs and gray skies and caves on the shore and tides that came in and out. And where houses had red roofs. Red roofs that seemed far better and more interesting...to me than roofs that were like, say, the terraced roof of our house in Alexandria. (154)

Ahmed learns to value everything that is not part of her own culture, partly because of the romantic associations of exotic things (hedgehogs are super cute) and partly because she's living in a culture that measures its success against European powers.

If only Egypt can act/be just like Europe, they might be civilized after all. It takes some time, but Ahmed and her fellow Egyptians realize that Europe isn't the pinnacle of civilization, as Europeans would have them believe. Still, Ahmed finds that such early admiration is hard to shake.

I found myself living, just as I had in Alexandria, in a place where women, presiding over the young in their charge, were the authorities. This is how it had been from when I first came into the world, and here it was, the same underlying reality, at Girton. Girton, that is to say, was a version of the community of women—the harem—as I had lived it every summer in Alexandria. (181)

Ahmed calls the female community at Girton College the "harem perfected." It reminds her in many ways of that idyllic fellowship in her grandmother's receiving room at Zatoun, but with one added dimension: Girton is well and truly free from male authority. It's comfortingly familiar for her at Girton, though she will later understand that this community of scholars would certainly look down their noses at the women of Zatoun.

That same activity essentially, practiced at Alexandria and Zatoun orally and on living texts to sustain the life of the community, was called by outsiders to the process—by men of the official Arabic culture and by Westerners, men and women—idle gossip, the empty and even sometimes evil, malicious talk of women, harem women. That same activity, however, practiced by the women of Girton on written, not oral, texts and on fictional, not living, people was regarded as honorable, serious, important work. (192)

Ahmed marvels over the snobbery of outsiders who would condemn the harem community in Zatoun. Ahmed believes that the practical, familial work of the women of Zatoun actually holds more value than the theoretical work done by professional academics in the West. Note that the divide here is more than a gap between the realms of male and female—it's more about cultural/professional superiority than gender differences.

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