Study Guide

A Border Passage Injustice

By Leila Ahmed

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[...] I turned over and over in my mind all that was happening to us. How Father had struggled on the right side and how he had been crushed by this political giant, this great hero of our Arab world. And I thought of the years of careful, devoted, meticulous thought and calculation about the Nile that had gone into his work and his understanding of this river, and of his heroic attempt to avert catastrophe and preserve for future generations the riches that Egyptians had enjoyed, and depended on, for their lives and their civilization since the beginning of time. (20)

As Ahmed attends her father in his last illness, she has a really hard time understanding how his heroic efforts could have such a tragic ending. No doubt this realization—that good people can suffer intensely in an unjust system—helped her to be stubborn about leaving Egypt to pursue a career. She also understands that this personal tragedy gives her an alternate narrative for the historic events happening in Egypt. She has a much better grasp on who really was a hero—and who truly wasn't.

[Egyptians] had not grasped or even remotely begun to surmise that in European eyes there was one thing that defined them as unalterably and ineluctably different, unalterably and ineluctably unlike Europeans and unalterably and ineluctably inferior—their race. (36)

This was the honeymoon period in modern Egyptian history, when the expectation of independent development for Egypt seemed a real possibility. It was also still a time when Egyptians looked to Europe as an advanced civilization, worthy of emulation. In hindsight, Ahmed says, her countrymen didn't really get it. The cards would always be stacked against Egyptian ambition because of deep-seated racial prejudice. Ahmed isn't blaming Egyptians for ignorance—it took her a long time to get it, too.

Father's reading of why the British had tried to obstruct his training as an engineer was that they wanted to prevent natives from acquiring such skills so that the country would have to continue to depend on British know-how. That was the way the British were in those days, he said. Unjust in their dealings with Egyptians, trying one way or another to hold onto the country for themselves. (43)

Once again, Ahmed finds that political agenda interferes with the hopes and dreams of everyday citizens. But there's something especially insidious at work here. The obstruction of education like this for Egyptians was meant to cripple Egypt's ability to be self-reliant and to sustain development in the future. While Ahmed's father can't prove this agenda, it falls in with other British policies meant to cripple the country.

Long before the court reached its verdict the British Administration, as the papers reported, ordered the erection of gallows outside Dinshwai. The villagers—men, women, and children—were to be compelled, the Administration had decided, to watch the punishment and execution. When the verdict came in, amid the tears and screams of the villagers, four men were hanged, and seventeen others savagely and repeatedly whipped before being taken off to serve sentences, some of penal servitude for life. (44)

The Dinshwai (or Dinshaway) Incident occurred when Egyptian villagers and British officers got into a fight over pigeon hunting and a barn fire. When a British officer is killed in the scuffle, the colonial government rounds up the village's men and conducts a "trial." Really, the colonial government wants an opportunity to assert its power at any cost, executing men without due justice and forcing the villagers to watch. The message is clear: don't step over the line. There will be no consideration for the humanity of Egyptian subjects.

In all our subjects we were within a few marks of each other, she ahead in one subject, I in another. Mr. Price told Jean how sorry he was to see me ahead of her in anything: after all, he said, she was a Christian and I only a Muslim. Of course she reported his comments, telling me also of her disgust at them. (145)

Despite Ahmed's love of Egypt as a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society, her story is full of moments when she comes up against prejudice from local and non-local people. In this case, it's from her teacher at The English School, who wants to throw support to Christian students to prove the superiority of his religion. In addition to racial prejudice, Ahmed will continue to meet people who feel that religious belief—and specifically, her religious beliefs—and intelligence are mutually exclusive.

[...] I was beginning to be aware, that society as a whole could and should try to change and improve conditions for everyone. Ideas about social justice and about a society of equality and opportunity and prosperity for all Egyptians were being proclaimed by the new revolutionary government, and they were ideas that appealed to me, whatever the family adults were saying. (160)

Ahmed reflects on a summer of discontent in her family that played out against a backdrop of political upheaval in her country. Her new, English sis-in-law responds badly to the indifference she sees to extreme poverty in Egypt, and Ahmed realizes that while everyone gives charity individually, social policy to address it doesn't really exist. Ahmed, who's a teenager at this time, feels like the new revolutionary government might be the answer—but she doesn't yet understand all the consequences of the changeover.

A man spat at me on a bus once when, thinking I was Israeli, he discovered I was an Arab. And once at a College Feast at King's College, where I had gone as someone's guest, one of the young fellows of the college sitting at the head of our table told me that he was a staunch supporter of Anthony Eden and that the Suez Canal should be in British hands—the Egyptians didn't have the engineering capacities to keep the canal open. (190)

Despite this encounter, Ahmed tells us that she didn't feel that racism was really an issue in the protected academic world of Cambridge. But her experiences—like this one—really do prove otherwise. Ahmed explains that with no sophisticated vocabulary to discuss issues of race and no minority community with which to share experiences, it was pretty difficult to sort through these confrontations when they happened. It also seems easy for her to brush off these two encounters as isolated incidents, rather than as signs of institutionalized racism.

But it was not those histories that we had lived that were at the center of our studies, nor was it the perspectives arising from those histories that defined the intellectual agenda and preoccupations of our academic environment. Of course, the histories and perspectives that defined not only the curriculum but also the theoretical perspectives and issues of the day were those of the countries to which we had come, societies that were at the very center of the Western world. (211-212)

In grad school, Ahmed finds herself scrambling to catch up with her American and European classmates. It's not because she lacked intelligence or capacity—it's because academic life centered on theories created by and for an audience that was largely white, Western, and male. It's an alienating experience, especially since Ahmed and other minority students could have had a lot to contribute, say, to a discussion about socialism and revolution. For Ahmed, it meant that what she was studying felt seriously irrelevant to her life outside the classroom.

This insidious, built-in denigration of women was what we lived with and imbibed. In exactly the same way in those days the steadfast, insidious, built-in denigration of blacks, Muslims, Arabs, and people of other cultures and the colonized generally was just the ordinary academic fare. (237)

Can you say "marginalization"? The texts she read in Lit class consistently presented a less-than-favorable view of people who were not male or white—or upper class or straight, etc. The problem is that the students were meant to take these views as objective truth.

This eventually leads to discontent among students in those marginalized groups and then questioning the validity of such tainted views—and then change. Ahmed tells us that eventually, the desire to shift minority perspectives and experiences from the edges of academia into the spotlight created new programs of study, like women's studies. It's an intellectual revolution that brought Ahmed to America.

It's almost always somehow there, the notion that I am Arab, in any and every interaction. And sometimes it's quite grossly and offensively present, depending on how bigoted or ignorant the person I'm confronting is. (256)

Ahmed spends a lot of time trying to deconstruct the idea of Arab identity, especially so she can get at the truth of who she is and whether or not the label truly applies to her. She not only has to investigate the origin of "Arabness," she also has to confront what other people think it means. And this is not always pleasant.

We see this in the standoff on the bus in Cambridge, when a man spits at Ahmed upon learning that she's Arab. It's not just this one instance that makes Ahmed's research so urgent; she finds that almost everyone she meets has preconceived notions (usually negative) about Arabs.

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