Study Guide

A Border Passage Identity

By Leila Ahmed

Identity

Today we are so used to the idea of Egypt as "Arab" that it seems unimaginable that Egyptians ever thought of themselves as anything else. In fact, I made this assumption myself when I first began writing this memoir. It was only when my own discordant memories failed to make sense that I was compelled to look more carefully into the history of our Arab identity. (10)

Part of Ahmed's journey involves an investigation into "Arabness." However, this probing into the origins of the concept makes her feel a bit like a traitor to her fellow Arabs, like she's trying to undermine the thing that unifies them all. But because of her unique experience in Egypt—living in a multicultural society—she has a hard time accepting a pan-Arabic label that erases the wonderful complexity of her ethnic and social identity.

To outsiders, too, her identity has been flattened: she's no longer Egyptian, only Arab. It doesn't seem reasonable to her to have to leave behind all that she really is to accept a political label.

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)

Here, in a nutshell, is why Ahmed resists the Arab label. She feels that it reduces her rich cultural heritage in dangerous ways. To accept this designation is to embrace a false political identity imposed by outsiders and to deny who she properly is. It's a situation that becomes more intolerable to her as time goes by, especially when she's in the United States and is confronted with how other people perceive her.

I had grown up, I came to see, in a world where people, or at any rate my father, had not merely admired European civilization but had probably internalized the colonial beliefs about the superiority of European civilization. My mother, who always distinctly kept herself at a distance from Europeans and their ways and who always also explicitly cherished and honored her own heritage, never became suspect in my mind for having had a colonized consciousness in the way that my father did. (25)

Ahmed finds herself in an awkward position. After years of admiring European culture, she realizes that she's swallowed the rhetoric of colonial domination to the point that she has rejected her own society and cultural preferences. She's bought into the belief that Egyptian culture is just not as cool or advanced as Britain's.

It's a painful realization, too, because Ahmed spent a lot of emotional energy opposing everything her mother stood for—including a strong allegiance to her ethnic identity. Ahmed now understands that she's been undervaluing an important part of herself this whole time—and at the suggestion of outsiders.

And what did it mean, that Nanny could be dismissed? Who else could be dismissed: could I be dismissed? Servants could be dismissed. Nanny wasn't a servant, but she wasn't a parent either. Were we, was I, more like a servant or a parent? Like Nanny? I think I felt that I occupied some marginal space, that I didn't belong quite at the center, where my parents and maybe even my siblings were. That I could be left out of things and maybe they wouldn't notice. (57)

This early memory highlights a kind of cultural and familial confusion Ahmed felt as a child. As a kid, she can't differentiate between family and paid help—especially since Nanny takes on the tasks that normally fall to a parent. Her relationship with Nanny also calls into question her relationship with the rest of the family.

She often feels isolated from her parents and siblings because she is left with Nanny. Ahmed's feeling of being left out or left behind might be mere childhood drama—or it might be something more. The sense that her mother never wanted her and the isolation of being left behind follows her well into adulthood.

I was fifteen. Like many girls that age, 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)

Okay, ladies: you know how this feels. While most of us have rebelled against becoming like our moms (or dads), Ahmed's situation is further complicated by political and cultural issues. As a girl and young woman, Ahmed associated her mom with Arabic culture—something that Ahmed herself did not love.

And then she always viewed her mother as idle, lacking in ambition. Ahmed is thrown (and totally annoyed) when her mother confesses that she, too, wanted to be a writer. This seems to take the luster off of Ahmed's ambitions and her hardheaded disapproval of mom.

"You know how they say... 'The last grape in the bunch is always the sweetest?' That's what you are to us." For her to have sat contemplating me and saying these things, we must sometimes have sat in the same room, but I do not remember it. And now her words say to me that she must have been aware of my sadness and was trying to offer some consolation, whereas in my memory she simply did not bother with me at all, had made a scene about not leaving me in England because I was too young and had brought me home just to ignore me... (86)

Ahmed often entertains two versions of a past event to show how her interpretation of the moment has changed with time and knowledge. She'd always considered herself a sad and lonely child, unloved by her own mother. And that's exactly why this moment throws her so much. She has to admit that her perception of her mother's love is pretty far wide of the mark when she recalls this moment.

But that doesn't really help her resolve the sense that her mother didn't really want her or her lingering feelings of loneliness. Ahmed is left with a more complex understanding of her place in the family, but this is not necessarily helpful or comforting.

I used to love running in to Grandmother and, after greeting her, resting my head in her lap as she gently stroked my hair...I was often told as a child that I looked like her and that I was in fact just like her, and so I would lie looking up at her, studying intently, upside down, the planes and curves of her face, searching it to see who I was and what exactly I was like. (107)

This sweet moment is truly the happiest that we see Ahmed in her childhood. Grandmother is always a character of gentle kindness and pure love. It's a total bonus that Ahmed looks just like her. Looking at her grandmother's face is an exercise in predicting her own future—something that she finds both fascinating and comforting.

"You're an Arab!" she finally screamed at me. "An Arab! And you don't know your own language!"

"I am not an Arab!" I said, suddenly furious myself. "I am Egyptian! And anyway we don't speak like this!" And I banged my book shut. (243)

Oh, Miss Nabih! This encounter with her angry Arabic teacher is such a formative experience that Ahmed returns to it over and over again. It shows that she was aware of an identity crisis within her (and in society as a whole) brewing from her childhood. It's an understanding that her sense of self was being reduced to a political category—and she doesn't like it.

As a young student, her response is fiery, even if she can't yet articulate the reasons for her anger. Also at issue: the tension between spoken Egyptian Arabic and classical, written Arabic. Ahmed doesn't believe that an "artificial" language should be valued above her native language—but it is.

They defined us as "Arab" at the Peace conferences of Versailles and Sèvres when they dealt the Middle Eastern territories as mere spoils of the Ottoman Empire, to be divided between France and Britain as booty, bargaining with one another for this bit or that, drawing lines and borders on their maps with little concern for the people and lands they were carving up. (266-267)

As Ahmed tries to deconstruct the idea of Arabness, she makes some unpleasant discoveries. For one, the concept is not a homegrown one: uniting so many different countries under one banner is the brainchild of two colonial powers who want to keep Middle Eastern countries from cutting into their economic markets.

This fact reinforces Ahmed's uneasiness with the designation "Arab"—it simply doesn't reflect her ethnic heritage. Instead, it is an identity of convenience for the outside world.

"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)

As Ahmed explores the concept of Arabness, she analyzes what it means to those outside the Arabic culture. She concludes that the term is defined by the inhumanity of those who coined it. It's not a reflection of an actual ethnic group or sovereign state. Instead, it's a way to put an entire region's worth of people into a box—and discard them. We are getting a clear sense here of Ahmed's anger and why she's been justified in mistrusting the designation of "Arab."