Study Guide

A Border Passage Foreignness and the Other

By Leila Ahmed

Foreignness and the Other

In the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi...the song of the reed is the metaphor for our human condition, haunted as we so often are by a vague sense of longing and of nostalgia, but nostalgia for we know not quite what. Cut from its bed and fashioned into a pipe, the reed forever laments the living earth that it once knew, crying out, whenever life is breathed into it, its ache and its yearning and loss. (5)

Ahmed often includes the work of Rumi in this narrative, but her reference to the song of the reed in his poetry is the most haunting image that she shares with us. She sees the music of the reed as a call to something that's not immediately present, like a hidden truth or a life lived in a different place and time.

The reed represents the longing that she feels as she looks for something authentic—her true origins and identity, before labels were placed on her by outside forces. In the reed metaphor, we are all strangers in a strange land, trying to get back to native soil.

For me now there is no doubt that, at least implicitly, English was valued above Arabic in ways that would have marked it, in a child's mind at least, as being somehow innately a "superior" language. English was, to begin with, the language we spoke at school, where we were prohibited even in the playground from speaking Arabic. And it was the language of the people we looked up to at school, namely, our British teachers. And the language of the movies we went to and of the glamourous world in which they were set, and of the books we read and their enticing imaginary worlds. (23)

Ahmed explores the condition of colonization on both personal and national levels. Here, she talks about something as intimate—like language preference—as a sign that British imperial forces had done a thorough job. They had taught Egyptians that their own civilization wasn't all that civilized. Ahmed grew up believing that all things English were the bee's knees. She wasn't aware back then, however, that colonization isn't just for countries. Sometimes, it happens to souls, too.

There was something else, too, a shadow always there, adding to my sense of desperate resolve. My aunt Aida had committed suicide a few months after I had come home to Egypt. I had grieved at her death, and now her despair became hauntingly real to me. I feared that a despair like that might overtake me if I found myself trapped in Egypt forever, unable to go on with my life. (28)

Ahmed's relationship to Egypt and to her family is more than a tad complicated. There's no doubt that she loves them both and feels fierce loyalty to them. But they've also left her with a legacy that's a bit untidy. On a personal level, Ahmed feels like she's alienated from herself, as though her genes are a ticking time bomb (i.e., suicidal depression) just waiting to take her out.

Ahmed can't ever be sure if the sadness and anxiety she feels is, in fact, an inheritance from her family or a product of the alienation she feels in Egyptian society, where she's sure she won't ever be allowed to achieve her professional goals.

[...] what wouldn't I give now to have all those poets and writers to remember and write about and remind people of? I loved the lines she was quoting—but I appreciated them, I realized, only the way I might the poetry of a foreign tongue that I only somewhat knew. They did not have for me the resonances of lines learned long ago. (253)

We know that Ahmed never learned to read classical Arabic as a young person. She's of two minds about this. On one side, she feels that too much authority is given to the textual tradition in Arabic. But she also has some regrets. When she hears the novelist Hanan al-Shaykh read Arabic poetry, she feels like an outsider to the experience. While Egyptian Arabic was the language of her youth, literary Arabic is another creature entirely.

The language barrier is also a reflection of her awkwardness in the Arabic community. While she feels part of the community at the reading, she resists being swept up into a politically defined identity—and that keeps her at arm's length from the others present.

I did feel kin, of course, and I did feel that I was among people who were, in some quite real sense, my community. But was this because of "Arabness"? Was I, for instance, really likely to feel more kin, more at home, with someone from Saudi Arabia than with someone, say, from Istanbul? I doubted it. (254-255)

Ahmed comments on her experience at a reading given by Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh. While Ahmed feels close to the largely Arabic audience, she wonders where the kinship comes from. As she also happens to be "unraveling" Arabic identity for her work, she paradoxically finds herself at a distance from these people. Ahmed quietly resists the idea that people from completely different cultures should be forced into a single identity simply for political convenience.

If I didn't live where I live, I thought to myself, if I were still living in Egypt, I probably wouldn't feel that it was so absolutely necessary to extricate myself from this enmeshment of lies. In Egypt the sense of falseness and coercion would be there in the political sense, but at least in ordinary daily life I'd be just another Egyptian, whereas in the West it's impossible for me ever to escape, forget this false constructed Arabness. (255-256)

At this point, Ahmed is living and teaching in the United States and realizes two things about her search for the origin of Arabness. First, because she lives in America, she can untangle this political construction with a fair amount of freedom—and she must do it to confront the truth about her identity. She's coming up against a lot of ignorance and preconceived notions about what an Arab is, and she needs to get to the bottom of it all.

Second epiphany? If she still lived in Egypt, people would get it. Everyone would understand the falseness of an "Arab" identity and she'd have a lot of simpatico people around her every day. It's the absence of a sympathetic community that compels Ahmed to push forward and free herself from an identity she firmly believes isn't really hers.

Huge demonstrations held on Balfour Day in 1945 and again in 1947 spilled over into violent attacks on the Jews and now on any other group deemed "foreign." Jewish, European, and Coptic shops were looted, and synagogues and Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Coptic churches and schools vandalized. One synagogue was set on fire. (260-261)

Ahmed explains how Egypt (Cairo in particular) shifted from a multireligious, multicultural place to...well...what's described in the passage above. It has to do with Egypt taking up the cause of Palestine, at the instigation of the Muslim Brotherhood, and excluding any religious/ethnic group deemed to be outsiders to the global Arab community. It's a situation that deeply wounds Ahmed, who cherished her early memories of a plural society in Cairo.

And they had the feelings and beliefs about Egypt that they had, and the hopes for Egypt that they had. Not indifference toward the Palestinians and their sufferings, nor commitment to some "narrow Egyptian secular nationalism," but quite simply loyalty to their own community—over and above some fictive, politically created community that the politicians ordered them to be loyal to. (264)

Ahmed speaks of her parents and their position on Palestine—and Egypt's support of the Palestinian cause to the destruction of its multicultural, open society. Although Ahmed doesn't have a solid memory of their takes on the situation, she recalls their loyalties to neighbors and their way of life in Cairo—a devotion to community rather than political causes or identities. As citizens of Cairo, they could not have accepted a newfangled identity imposed on them from outside (or above).

They taught me so well, instilled in me so deeply their notion of what it was to be Egyptian, that I still mourn and am always still and all over again filled with an enormous sense of loss at the thought of the destruction of the multireligious Egyptian community that I knew. (265)

Ahmed recalls the change that came over Egypt after World War II and the Balfour Declaration. Global changes essentially put an end to the diverse community in her own homeland. It wouldn't be long before violence against Copts and Jews—longtime residents of Egypt—nearly decimates these minority communities. For Ahmed, who grew up with friends from diverse backgrounds and with pride in a home at the crossroads of cultures, it means the end of a precious and unique national identity.

I was often conscious in Abu Dhabi of the foreignness of all this—modern buildings, higgledy-piggledy city, construction cranes, new and derelict buildings, and also the invasion of other Arabs and their cultures smothering and overwhelming the local Bedu culture—all in the name of modernity and education. (272)

When Ahmed served on a committee to reform the education system of Abu Dhabi, she's immediately struck by a weird kind of "internal colonization"—loads of non-local Arabs pouring into Abu Dhabi to "help" the local population and displacing them.

In doing this, these foreigners put their stamp on everything, right down to the design of new buildings, which basically quashes indigenous culture. Even the proposed "improved" education system has the potential to destroy local customs and the importance of oral culture in the area. It leaves Ahmed wondering if literacy and "modernity" are really all that.