Study Guide

A Border Passage Chapter 1

By Leila Ahmed

Chapter 1

Egypt: the Background

  • Ahmed describes her childhood home outside of Cairo, emphasizing the sounds that surrounded her there.
  • Her family home was surrounded by trees, and each seemed to speak to her in its own voice whenever the wind moved through it. Creepy? Yeah, a bit.
  • She also speaks of the "music of the street" outside her house. Back in the day (that is, in the 1940s), the street outside her house wasn't exactly bustling, but it was definitely active.
  • There were street vendors selling wares and the odd car or two (one of which killed her beloved pooch). But most important was a reed piper that played outside her house.
  • She connects the music of the reed player with the poetry of Rumi, which connects reed music to human longing.
  • Ahmed tells us that she's actually going to have to abandon this idyllic world to talk about the things that ruined it all for her—and that led her to her current place in life.
  • Ahmed explains that she grew up at the end of the British Empire, before the concept of colonialism and the "West" (as racist and oppressive) became a thing.
  • For her family (upper-class intellectuals), Europe was still a good thing. Her father and his friends all spoke French and/or English and admired European culture.
  • Although Egyptians were struggling against British oppression and racism, they still felt that the British had a lot to contribute to Egyptian society (i.e., in science and democracy).
  • Ahmed went to the English School in Cairo, where the student body was diverse. She mentions that Jean Said and her bro Edward Said were schoolmates.
  • Some historical context: the country had been a democracy for three decades before the Revolution of 1952. After that, socialism took hold—inspired by the USSR, not Britain.
  • After this point, anti-Western/anti-imperialist rhetoric got ratcheted up quite a bit.
  • Society wanted this change in a big way. Egypt suffered in the Great Depression and had lots of potentially upwardly mobile people with no hope of work.
  • So they looked to the Muslim Brotherhood, founded in the '20s, to help them chuck the British.
  • And the Brotherhood delivered: they raised charitable funds and took care of those in society who needed help the most. They also spread their anti-Western beliefs.
  • Egyptians also got dragged into the conflicts in Palestine as Europeans immigrated there for fear of fascist oppression at home.
  • The British didn't behave well there, and Egyptian sentiment rallied around the Arab nation.
  • And the horrific behavior of Western powers during World War II did not improve Egyptian feelings toward the West.
  • Ahmed's own mother saw the atrocities committed both by Germany (the Holocaust) and the Allied powers (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) and went completely pacifist.
  • She made her sons take an oath never to participate as combatants in any war. Ahmed tells us that they held to their promise.
  • Finally, Ahmed says, troubles with Israel tipped Egypt into revolution.
  • After World War II, Egypt and other Arab powers rumbled with Israel (1948)…and Egypt got spanked pretty badly there.
  • Rumor had it that Egypt lost because of corruption at the highest levels of state. Its army officers took the lead, among them Nasser and Sadat.
  • Revolution went down very civilly, including the send-off of deposed King Farouk on a fancy yacht. Ahmed remembers watching him sail away. What happened next? Propaganda for the new regime, natch.
  • Ahmed says the concept of Arab nationalism—in which Egyptians were part of a community with the rest of the Muslim East—became a thing in Egypt.
  • She herself had totally forgotten that Egyptians didn't always think of themselves as part of the Arab world. It was all new at this time.
  • Nasser pushed the idea so much that the name of the country itself changed to reflect this new political identity.
  • But there were many ways that Egyptians could legitimately identify themselves—if not pushed by politics—to see themselves as Arab.
  • The revolution really shook up the sociopolitical situation in Egypt. Most wealthy families had their assets seized and redistributed, but not always to the poor. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
  • So, while those on friendly terms with the government suddenly grew wealthy, the formerly wealthy were in quite a pickle.
  • But, there were good changes, too: free education for all, including college education for those with the grades.
  • This did make people more socially mobile and helped Egyptians to understand that equal opportunity was the basis for society.
  • But, the good feelings were soon gone as Nasser himself effectively became a dictator. Corruption returned, this time at the hands of the military men who ran the government.
  • Secret police began operating, looking to get rid of anyone who criticized the new government. Bad, bad stuff.
  • Ahmed's family began to suffer from this rule, too.
  • When she returned from undergraduate studies in England, she found that her family's life had fallen apart. She knew she had to get back to Cambridge ASAP.
  • She remembers her time there with happiness, and she especially loved her new, deeper acquaintance with English lit. Thomas Hardy became one of her favorites.
  • Ahmed is drawn to Hardy because of the way he writes about nature (remember her love of the family garden in Cairo) and because he addresses conflict concerning society's sexual rules.
  • Reading became a great escape in her childhood and lonely adolescence, when something like depression appeared to be stalking her.
  • There were other dark things about life at Ain Shams. People used the desert side of the house as a pass-through (and as an outhouse). They carried their dead through this area, too. Eek.
  • All of this seemed to prefigure some pretty bad things—all of which were realized when she returned from Cambridge.
  • By the time she returned, the neighborhood had changed (urban sprawl, y'all). The famous garden had died away. It makes her nostalgic for the heyday of the place and all that she loved about it.
  • Ain Shams was special because of its location: it was both city/country and desert/garden. A real paradox of a place.
  • It was also near ancient Heliopolis and the place where Mary, Jesus, and Joseph allegedly stopped to rest on their flight into Egypt. Pretty mind-blowing stuff, historically speaking.
  • So, the garden rotted away, but the change in her parents was way worse. Her engineer dad had lost big time in a battle with Nasser about the Aswan High Dam.
  • Her dad knew that the dam would be an ecological disaster. By disrupting the annual flooding of the Nile, the fertile silt wouldn't spread to the banks. Chemical fertilizer would replace the silt.
  • This is bad news bears, to put it mildly.
  • Damming the river would also mess with the aquatic life since their food sources would change. And then there was disease, a real threat if the waters of the Nile didn't flow properly.
  • There was an organism that would normally be flushed out of the river with the movement of the water. The poor who worked in the waters would suffer.
  • None of this mattered to Nasser. He placed a ban on speaking out against the dam. But Ahmed's dad felt he had to speak out.
  • Too bad he was alone.
  • He didn't realize that to Nasser, the dam wasn't about ecological welfare. It was a political point to be scored at the expense of British imperialism.
  • Nasser had nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956 so he could collect enough money to build the dam. And to build it was to show that Egypt could do great things.
  • So, Ahmed's father found himself in deep trouble with Nasser. He (and his family) would have to put up with harassment and exclusion.
  • And then, just because things can always get worse, dad gets sick with pneumonia.
  • Ahmed sits by his bed and holds the oxygen mask over his face. She desperately wants to return to Cambridge to start graduate studies, but her passport papers are being delayed.
  • Ahmed fears that she'll turn out like her mother. Adolescent Ahmed feels that mom has amounted to nothing (no profession) and has no purpose in life. Harsh.
  • Later on, she understands that none of this was true about her mother. Her mom had to deal with their hard situation and take care of her dad—two very difficult things.
  • Meanwhile, her dad is dying at Ain Shams. Sometimes he can get out of bed, sometimes not. He likes to pass the time by listening to the Quran.
  • He also writes. Ahmed assumes it's something for work, but it turns out to be his memoirs. She only sees them 20 years after his death but can't read them because they are in Arabic script.
  • She wonders why it is that she—the daughter of a man who so loved the Quran—never learned written Arabic. (Ahmed can, of course, speak Arabic fluently.)
  • Arabic was valued in her family (especially by her mom), but English was considered superior. They spoke it at school, heard it in the theater, and read English books.
  • Arabic and French were the languages at home (+ English). The children loved to speak English because their mom couldn't understand them. It was like a code.
  • With mom, they spoke French and Arabic (mostly Arabic). Ahmed associates not just the Arabic language with her mother but also Arabic music. It sounds like wailing to her at the time.
  • So, she and her siblings looked down on Arabic music, preferring Western pop music. Her mom could sing well, but they basically ignored her. And now, she can't remember those songs.
  • She does regret all this now, but what can you do? Ahmed admits that she and her sibs looked down on their mom for her connection to Arabic culture.
  • She also realizes that privileging English is a kind of "internalized colonialism" on the part of herself and her father. (Kudos to her for great self-analysis.)
  • Ahmed shows a belated admiration for her mom here since she avoided this internal colonialism. She kept herself distant from British things.
  • Ahmed begins to understand that human beings aren't just one thing: we're all the sum of many different histories and cultures, depending on our family and our geography.
  • She realizes that she can't stop trying to understand her past and the people she loved so dearly. Her memories have greater clarity at this point. For instance: her father didn't fail to get her lessons in Arabic. He'd hired a tutor for her when she was an adolescent.
  • But the tutor constantly tried to molest her. Ahmed was ashamed of the situation, so she never talked about it. She did the next best thing and quit her lessons.
  • Turns out that her father also had a bad experience at religious school (beatings). That's why he'd never sent any of his own children.
  • Ahmed also learns from her dad's memoirs that he wanted a garden for the children so that they could feel free to wander in body and mind. You know, get the creative juices flowing.
  • She also thinks that's why her dad wanted them to read English books. It was a chance for intellectual freedom.
  • So, while Ahmed waits for her passport to get sorted, she spends her time teaching at a women's college. She deals with Cairo bureaucracy at the Mugammaa to get her paperwork.
  • The Mugammaa is red tape central. The government has no intention of helping her; there's too much hatred for her dad.
  • Ahmed gets the run-around for eight years. Every time she visits the Mugammaa, they require something else of her. But Ahmed doesn't give up, even though her family thinks she should.
  • She knows that her future in Cairo is bleak. There's also the tragedy of her Aunt Aida's suicide, which happens during this time. She's worried that despair will take her, too.
  • Ahmed finally gains a sympathetic ear—someone who privately supported her dad about the dam—and gets her passport. Her dad is relieved that his heroism won't cost Ahmed her future.
  • Ahmed knows that when she says goodbye to her dad, it's really goodbye. She'll never see him again. A year later, she hears him on the phone one last time, right before he dies.
  • Her mother dies two years later. Ahmed feels lonely in her grief at Cambridge because no one in England really knew her mom. It's like her parents had just...vanished.