Study Guide

A Border Passage Memory and the Past

By Leila Ahmed

Memory and the Past

We too live our lives haunted by loss, we too, says Rumi, remember a condition of completeness that we once knew but have forgotten that we ever knew. The song of the reed and the music that haunts our lives is the music of loss, of loss and remembrance. (5)

In Ahmed's story, memory is a crucial though slippery companion to her writing. Should she include things as she remembers them, from a child's perspective? Or should she "improve" her memories with the understanding she's gained over the years?

By using Rumi's take on the sad sound of the reed, Ahmed helps us to understand that memories are complex things that sometimes need both the clarity of original experience and the wisdom of life experience to be woven into a meaningful story. The process, as Ahmed finds out, can be difficult and heartbreaking.

That's how it was in the beginning, how it was to come to consciousness in this place and this time and in a world alive, as it seemed, with the music of being.

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. (5)

Ahmed makes a fine distinction between having memories in her conscious mind and finding the place where her story actually begins. (Told you she's—say it in a Boston accent—wicked smaht.) For Ahmed, the music of her early days at Ain Shams leaves her with beautiful memories, but the shaping of her identity and future life depends on the interruption of the rhythm of her life. It's perhaps that very disruption that gives significance to the events that she chooses to recall in the pages that follow.

I think we heard Arabic music, too, as somehow lesser. It is probably for this reason that I do not now remember any, not a single one, of the songs my mother sang. She had a lovely voice. I remember how its sweetness arrested me, held me still. I remember other songs, other musics of childhood, but I can't recall even one of the lyrics my mother sang. (24)

Ahmed will speak later on in her book about the "uncounted costs of colonization" paid especially by her mother. A major cost is the erasure of memory that would normally be part of a special bond between mother and child.

Ahmed's loss of her mother's beautiful songs happens because they're in Arabic, a language spurned by children who prefer the language and culture of the colonial forces. It's an early choice that will leave Ahmed with regrets and a sense of yearning.

Such thoughts live on and shape how we see our past, even when we know them to be products of false perceptions and old, unexamined prejudices—prejudices even against our own kind and the most cherished people in our lives. (24)

Ahmed responds here to a memory of her mother. It seems that whenever she thinks of her mom, she can't stifle the snotty thought that "Mother wasn't a professional anything!" She regrets that her 15-year-old self was so harsh—especially since this negative response remains with her as an adult. While she has changed her assessment of her mother with time and a greater understanding of life, her default criticism is a lot harder to put to rest.

And I know now that the point is to look back with insight and without judgment, and I know now that it is of the nature of being in this place, this place of convergence of histories, cultures, ways of thought, that there will always be ways to understand what we are living through, and that I will never come to a point of rest or of finality in my understanding. (25-26)

Ahmed acknowledges that her beloved father, with his great admiration of European civ, had a "colonized consciousness"—an inner belief that everything Egyptian could never be as completely awesome as anything British.

Though this understanding is painful for her (she totally adored her dad and emulated him), she knows that her purpose in writing isn't to judge her parents for past actions, but to seek the truth about her personal identity and her home culture.

I remember it as a time, that era of my childhood, when existence itself seemed to have its own music—a lilt and a music that made up the ordinary fabric of living. There was the breath of the wind always, and the perpetual murmur of the trees; the call of the karawan that came in the dusk, dying with the dying light; the reed-piper playing his pipe in the dawn... (47)

Music, for Ahmed, is more than just about pleasure or entertainment. It usually evokes a person, place, or emotion from her past. And it's often closely linked with a sense of longing and a quest for meaning. This recollection paints Ahmed's life at Ain Shams as a dreamlike, almost mystical time that would somehow shape her identity and purpose in life. It's without a doubt a positive memory, revealing her fondness for the meditative atmosphere of her childhood home.

Looking back now with the assumptions of my own time, I could well conclude that the ethos of the world whose attitudes survived into my own childhood must have been an ethos in which women were regarded as inferior creatures, essentially sex objects and breeders, to be bought and disposed of for a man's pleasure. But my memories do not fit with such a picture. I simply do not think that the message I got from the women of Zatoun was that we, the girls, and they, the women, were inferior. (100)

Ahmed meditates extensively on the role of women in her culture and home. She's clearly of two minds on the subject. As an academic specializing in women's studies, she's well aware of the assumptions that surround women in the Middle East. But her memory of being raised by strong women, of being valued and loved by her father and other family members has more resonance for her.

As she confronts both the realities and stereotypes about Middle Eastern women, Ahmed will use this personal experience to create a more nuanced and complex portrait of what it means to be an Arab woman.

Sometimes even the stories we ourselves tell dissolve before us as if a mist were momentarily lifting, and we glimpse in that instant our own participation in the myths and constructions of our societies. (134)

Ahmed writes her life story not only to remember events in her personal life and in the history of her country but also to deconstruct what she thinks she remembers in order to get at the truth. As with most creative people and talented writers, Ahmed can tell a good story. But this can also be a trap. She wants, above all, to get at The Way Things Really Were/Are—and sometimes, the story she tells herself isn't the most accurate one. She finds out that this objective isn't so easy.

I knew all about the flora and fauna of the British Isles and where coal was mined and about the Pennines and the chalk cliffs of Dover but nothing about the Nile and the ancient valley where I lived. Is this really possible, or have I, in the interest of neatness and in some process of internal spring cleaning, simply erased the memory of studying at least the geography of Egypt? (151)

Again, Ahmed questions the accuracy of her memory. Is she remembering what is real or what fits the story she wants to tell? It's a real possibility that she's selectively remembering (or forgetting) things that don't jibe with her theories about life under British colonial rule. Then again, the situation might have been this dire.

Either way, this is yet another moment when she doubts the reliability of the story she's been telling herself since childhood. The possibility of revisionism makes Ahmed really careful about being judgmental of her loved ones or of excluding interpretations of past experiences.

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 with the living world around us and also of companionship. (190)

If you haven't yet been to college, you're probably looking forward to the freedom and the shenanigans (spring break, woo-hoo) that go hand in hand with the experience. Ahmed's favorite recollection from her years at Girton College surprises even her in its innocence and unremarkable nature: escaping after curfew with her friends to play in the woods. It's a sign that our author was searching for a greater connection to the world around her—to transcendence, beauty, and authenticity—rather than simply hooking up.

It is quite clear to me that my mother distinctly enters the fabric of my own memories in the negative. "She was not a professional anything," I wrote earlier in these pages, remembering my own inarticulate, internalized contempt as a youngster. (193)

Ahmed's response to her mother is a very tender spot for her, mostly because her memories of her are filled with both anger and regret. She admits that her mother always appears in the negative in her mind and can't seem to rid herself of her adolescent response. This attitude was not only a source of tension between Ahmed and her mother, but it also points to a larger conflict over the value of women's work (in the home or outside of it). Ahmed knows that her harsh judgment of her mom means that she's fallen prey to the thinking that women have to work outside the home to have meaningful, valuable lives.

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