Study Guide

A Border Passage Power

By Leila Ahmed

Power

I grew up in the last days of the British Empire. My childhood fell in that era when the world's "imperialism" and "the West" had not yet acquired the connotations they have today—they had not yet become, that is, mere synonyms for "racism," "oppression," and "exploitation." (5)

British colonial occupation of Egypt has a major impact on Ahmed's life and how she thinks about her identity and place in the world. She's had the fortune to come into the world at a momentous time in Egyptian history—just as colonial rule ends and a revolutionary government attempts to reshape the nation. The absence of language to discuss imperialism and racism doesn't mean that Ahmed didn't experience the fallout from these things. It means, as she will later explain, that her consciousness had not yet awakened to these issues. That was to end pretty quickly.

They came in, the revolutionaries, with high ideals and good intentions. They simply wanted, they said, to cleanse society and bring the corruption with which it was rife to an end. The revolution, they said, would sweep out the old corrupt order and end the injustices of class oppression that had forever plagued this country, with its extremes of wealth and poverty. (11)

You know that old saying about the path to hell being paved with good intentions? With this in mind, we can sense how ominous Ahmed's tone is here. While Egyptians might have supported the revolutionary government, there is a sense that her fellow countrymen are about to get more than they bargained for. And yet the problems of her country are real: wealth inequality, corruption, grinding poverty. A teenage Ahmed finds herself drawn to the rhetoric of the new government as her social conscience blossoms. But in the end, concern for social justice seems like a veneer for a good old-fashioned power grab.

[...] for Nasser, the dam's very size and grandiosity was emblematic of Egypt's rebirth as a great nation, a nation venturing once more, as in ancient days, on monumental projects—projects as grand as the pyramids. That was how the dam was touted in the press in those days: it was new Egypt's great pyramid. For Father, it was Egypt's great disaster. (19)

Nasser (second president of Egypt) inherited a country full of suffering from a lack of national identity and personal power under the grip of British rule. In order to solidify his own power—and to thumb his nose at the Brits—Nasser needed to do something big. Literally.

But Ahmed's father knew that Nasser's pet project would have devastating ecological effects and could potentially make the lives of peasants who depended on the Nile waters' annual flooding even more miserable. This situation is an early lesson for Ahmed about political will and agenda and how it always trumps what's good in the long run.

[The Nasser government was] refusing to grant me the means to leave Egypt not because I'd had any significant political activity myself but because I was my father's daughter, and this was a way of further harassing my father. Captive in Egypt, unable to return to England to begin graduate studies as I had hoped, I began to think my own dream of pursuing a professional life was doomed to come to nothing. (21)

Ahmed spends eight years trying to get her paperwork in order to leave Cairo and begin her graduate studies at Cambridge. But the government, bent on punishing her dad for his opposition to the Aswan High Dam, tangles her plan in red tape. It's straight-up spite, meant to remind Ahmed's family who's in charge. This kind of political thuggery becomes the norm in Egypt, which strengthens Ahmed's resolve to leave.

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. (25)

Ahmed speaks about the "colonized consciousness" in her work as the most insidious power play resulting from the prejudice and degradation dished out by an occupying nation. In her case, it means that even educated Egyptians—like Ahmed and her father—truly believed that European civilization was intrinsically better and should be more admired than their own. This is an internal colonialism, a quiet conquering of a local population from the inside out.

The British invested Egypt's resources in projects, such as irrigation and road construction, that brought prosperity, at least for some, and that developed the country as a producer of raw materials, in particular cotton, for British industries. But conversely, the British continued their policy of not allowing Egypt to develop as in industrial nation, a policy whose costs to the country are more obvious to us now than they were to the people of those earlier generations. And the British held back and even cut funding from other projects, such as education, essential for Egypt's long-term prosperity. (38)

The British had a well-developed strategy for keeping a colonized country dependent on them. In the case of Egypt, they made sure that they could exploit its natural resources but restrict the country's ability to use or process these riches for its own benefit. Egypt couldn't develop the industry necessary to take advantage of its own goods.

For my mother, these were some of the hidden, uncounted costs of colonialism: her children's growing up speaking a language she did not understand and going off in their teens to college in a faraway land and a culture that would eventually steal them away. (111)

Ahmed's mother was never an admirer of European culture, and she always remained steadfast in her love of Egyptian culture. As a result, she earns the scorn of her daughter, who is an ardent admirer of things English. Ahmed says that this is the collateral damage of colonialism, but something that no one ever calculates. She doesn't like to admit this since it means that she has fallen prey in the worst way to colonial influence. It also played a large part in disrupting her already difficult relationship with her mother.

More specifically still, it is the Islam erected by that minority of men who over the centuries have created and passed on to one another this particular textual heritage: men who, although they have always been a minority in society as a whole, have always been those who made laws and wielded (like the ayatollahs of Iran today) enormous power in their societies. (126)

Ahmed differentiates between women's Islam—based on oral tradition and lived piety—and men's, which is mostly textual, relying on knowledge of classical Arabic (taught usually only to men). The problem? Men's Islam is often thought to be more legit, more authoritative than women's since it is based on literacy and written tradition. It's created by and for a small group in a larger population practicing a completely different version of the religion, and yet it is the Islam that outsiders see. And it's also an Islam that overpowers and erases the oral tradition that supports "women's Islam."

And so I sensed even then that I was witnessing loss: the vanishing of Bedu culture, its banishment to the edges of life, its smothering by a supposedly superior culture bringing, supposedly, "education." (272-273)

Ahmed notes the irony of her mission in the UAE to reform the educational system that is supposed to make life better for the local population. She has to ask: at what cost does this change happen? She sees a new type of colonization all around her: well-meaning people from the global Arabic community displacing traditional ways of life to make room for a "more sophisticated" culture. Ahmed is justly saddened and uncomfortable by such a shifting of power.

So I dropped in that evening at the Women's Center, and over a glass of tea I told Moza about the math and science classes. Within a week or two, we on the committee got a directive from above instructing us to drop this scheme. (278)

Ahmed finds herself having to work the primarily male system in Abu Dhabi in order to keep the ideal of equal education for women in play. She taps into a quiet source of power and influence: local women. Although the women have to exert their influence through the men in their lives, they can and do. It turns out that the struggle is less men vs. women and more local vs. outsiders. Ahmed finds that mobilizing the local community is the best way to keep power in the proper hands.

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