It's tough to distill any book down to a few paragraphs, but it's even trickier to do it with A Border Passage. Why? Because Ahmed jumps around in time and space (she's awesome like that) and is linear like a lyric poem. Which is to say: not so linear.
But, hey: if we balked at giving you the synopses of great, bewildering texts, we wouldn't be much good at our jobs. No, no, hold your applause. We couldn't do it without you.
In any case…
Ahmed opens with her early life at Ain Shams, her family home on the outskirts of Cairo. She's the youngest of four children living with their civil engineer father and homemaker mother in a house with an outstanding backyard. The garden is beyond magical and clearly the best thing about the house.
Ahmed's family was prosperous until the revolution and the rise of Abdel Nasser's government. Then, her dad makes a humongous mistake: he picks a fight with Nasser over the Aswan High Dam. Dad's right about the dam being ecologically unsound, but it's Nasser's pet project. He just cannot with dissent. He cannot. So, Ahmed's family bears the brunt of Nasser's political spite.
Ahmed takes a moment to track the development of modern Egypt from the time before her parents' births to her teen years. There's colonial rule (Britain) to deal with and then—perhaps worse—the conflict between Egypt and Britain that brought about the end of colonialism and the end of the "democratic experiment" in Egypt. Yeeps.
As we see through her father's example, Nasser's regime gets increasingly frightening and oppressive. But, there are always people willing to push for change and development, including some awesome ladies who take a stand for feminism in Egypt.
With the tumultuous political scene as a backdrop, Ahmed remembers life at Ain Shams. She has a nanny to care for her (called, shockingly, Nanny). Having Nanny around is both a positive and a negative: Ahmed is attached to her, but they are often left out of family fun. Nanny also makes it easier for mom to avoid Ahmed.
And that's an extra bad thing since the relationship between mother and daughter is rocky from the get-go. It deteriorates even more when Mother harshly reprimands her for nearly being sexually assaulted by a neighbor boy. That's right: a boy assaults Ahmed, and Ahmed gets blamed.
Things are so bad between them that Ahmed feels a death vibe from her mom, a wish that she (Ahmed) would die so that her mom could get sympathy from the family. Is this reality? Ahmed isn't sure, but she does learn something pretty awful later: her mom wanted to kill Ahmed in utero because she didn't want any more children. As you can imagine, Ahmed has a hard time coping with this info.
But, her relationships with the other women at Zatoun (her grandparents' home) feel warm and supportive. Ahmed analyzes her life in the "harem" there and compares it to the female community at Girton College where she goes to complete her undergraduate work.
There's also a great mystical spirituality at Zatoun. Ahmed learns a "woman's Islam" from the ladies there: a gentle, spiritual, and alive religion, passed down by oral tradition. This version of Islam is totally different from the official, male-centered Islam that relies on the written word and a conservative, clerical interpretation of the Quran.
Ahmed's memoir wouldn't be complete without memories of good ol' school days (she is an academic, after all), and she doesn't disappoint. She attended The English School in Cairo, where she has some lovely experiences (friends and books).
But, there are also some very ugly things, like the superiority complex of some British teachers and the prejudice of the headmaster. After the Suez Invasion and withdrawal of the British presence in Egypt, Ahmed has to sit for her entrance exam to Girton College cold turkey—without sitting for A levels first. (That would be like taking the SAT or ACT after missing the last two years of high school.)
But Ahmed is a smart cookie, and she gets in. She thrives in the all-female community at Girton, which kind of reminds her of the women at Zatoun. But while the Girton women support her academic pursuits, there's also the sense of snobbery there—like the women of Zatoun wouldn't be good enough for them because they weren't professionals.
When Ahmed returns to Ain Shams after Girton, she finds her parents in dire straits. Father is dying, the garden is in shambles—and so are their finances. Father's spat with Nasser might have made him an everyday hero, but it also took its toll on his health and their lifestyle.
Ahmed wants to return to Cambridge for grad school—she knows she won't succeed in Cairo—but can't obtain her passport because of the whole Nasser thing. She takes a teaching job to support herself during the eight years (!) it takes to get her paperwork approved.
Grad school is a whole different ball of wax from Girton College. While she has some amazing professors, she also runs into a new problem: the upper levels of academia are overwhelmingly white, Western, and dude-centric. She finds that her point of view and experiences—like those of other "non-traditional" students—are ignored and demonized. Not cool.
In the meantime, there's plenty of family drama. Her father dies after she returns to Cambridge. Her mother visits, and Ahmed realizes that she, too, is very ill. Ahmed marries her sweetheart, Alan, while her mom is there. Ahmed understands, after a second visit, that her mother is dying of cancer. It's not long after that Mother dies in Egypt and Ahmed herself begins to suffer from a random illness.
The stress of her family's collapse, her illness, and the pursuit of her Ph.D. (plus her husband's academic career) takes its toll on her marriage. She and Alan divorce.
With her Ph.D. in hand, Ahmed journeys to Abu Dhabi to work on reforming the education system there. It's in Abu Dhabi that Ahmed really begins studying feminism and wondering about the role of women in Islam. Okay, it was definitely happening all along, but Abu Dhabi forces her to think about how important all of this is.
She decides to travel to the United States to continue studying feminism with greater freedom. It's an overwhelming experience—dealing with "white feminism," different cultural expectations, and pioneering the field of women's studies. She doesn't even know where to begin. But she does, and she becomes part of the first wave of women's studies programs in the country.
Ahmed ends by reflecting on the importance of remembering for expats who have had to make a new life for themselves in foreign and sometimes hostiles places. Writing her memoirs allows her to share a valuable perspective on the world and helps her to keep moving forward in her own life.
It's a funny thing that you have to go back to take big steps ahead. But the truth is often a funny thing.