Study Guide

A Border Passage Chapter 10

By Leila Ahmed

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Chapter 10

In the Groves of White Academe

  • Ahmed finally gets her passport so that she can return to England to begin her graduate studies at Cambridge (more on the passport saga later, don't you fear).
  • She had to return to Ain Shams to say goodbye to her ill father—and she knew she would never see him again. But there were other worries. Like how to fund the rest of her education.
  • Would Cambridge actually accept her for a Ph.D.? At that point, she had only been admitted for the MLitt (Magister Litterarum or Master of Letters, kind of like a master's degree in the United States).
  • Ahmed had a lot of doubts when she got back to England (had she done the right thing? had she taken the right path?) and would struggle during her graduate career.
  • But some good things happened straight away. Her assigned supervisor was Professor Arberry, who was an excellent professor of Arabic.
  • Ahmed also met her future husband, Alan, a few weeks after returning to England. Their marriage was ultimately doomed (spoiler) but Ahmed valued his friendship and support at the time.
  • During her graduate school years, Ahmed noticed that so much of life and culture revolved around what was happening in America. It was, after all, the Vietnam era.
  • Ahmed knew very little about the culture and politics of America so she had some serious catching up to do in order to hang with the cool kids in grad school.
  • There were also a lot of Americans in her classes (some of them dodging the draft back home), and Ahmed found them to be smart about political theories (i.e., Marxism).
  • It was a time of radicalism, and her Western classmates seemed to have different points of view about it than she had (since she had lived under an unstable regime and they had not).
  • The ideas of revolution and socialism had a slightly scarier overtone for her. She wasn't enthusiastic about Marxism, and for good reason.
  • She also had to learn about the cultures that were giving rise to the important theories of the time so that she could understand them at all. Again, more work. Work on top of work.
  • But while she struggled to learn about other people and other countries, it became clear that Western students didn't care about perspectives other than theirs.
  • So, what was their attraction to radicalism if the perspectives of marginalized people (i.e., the working class, people of color, and women) weren't considered?
  • Ahmed felt alienated. Nothing she studied applied to her. It also began to make her think about issues of race and cultural difference in her life.
  • She was experiencing huge identity shock now because the English considered her to be black. And there was the negativity associated with her Arabness.
  • Ahmed feels pretty awesome when she reflects on this: race and gender were not something she could discuss back in the day, but they're hugely important issues today. She was a dang pioneer.
  • Ahmed says, too, that there was a larger question in her mind: had the Western world really cornered the market on truth and knowledge? Do any other cultures have a say in the matter?
  • As she continued to study theory (we're talking Derrida, Foucault, and Barthes here—heavy, heavy stuff), these questions continued to dog her.
  • Ahmed also recalls her housing mates from grad days. There was Veena, a Hindu and a theoretical biochemist who kept a little altar to Ganesh on her desk.
  • Their American neighbor, Barbara, believed that religions were stupid and couldn't take Veena (or her work) seriously.
  • Ahmed's friendship with Veena helped expand her understanding of Hinduism. (She'd been skeptical of the elephant-headed god, too.)
  • Veena was headed for a pretty horrible time at Cambridge that started with her Czech boyfriend dumping her because his family didn't want him to marry an Indian.
  • Ahmed's own experience in grad school was a roller coaster. Arberry recommends her for the Ph.D. program (yay), but then she gets a phone call from her mother back in Egypt (boo).
  • Ahmed's father wants to speak to her, but he can barely say hello. Those are his last words to her; he dies the next day.
  • His death throws Ahmed back into the world of books. This time, she plunges into Yeats' mystical poetry. She stumbles on his work about automatic writing and decides to give it a try.
  • So, she picks up a pen, calls on the spirit world, and waits for a spirit to make contact. And they do: first a young man, then a French woman.
  • But when Ahmed asks the woman if communicating with the dead is okay with God, she learns that it's a no go. She breaks off the chat, and the French woman seems sad and lonely about it.
  • Ahmed thinks she's nutters. She talks to Alan about it, and he tries to calm her, chalking it all up to her father's death.
  • Ahmed goes to see a psychologist anyway, just to make sure. Later on, she attends a lecture in neighbor Barbara's department about genetic links to suicide.
  • The talk is horrendous. It was said that suicide is a type of Darwinism: an opportunity to purge the gene pool of potentially weak members of the species. Ahmed does not feel better.
  • Ahmed's mother comes for a visit, so Ahmed and her boyfriend, Alan, decide to get married while she's in town. But something is wrong with her mother—she seems ill.
  • When she and Alan return from their short honeymoon, Ahmed learns that Veena has been taken to the mental hospital in Cambridge after a breakdown.
  • Her mother returns to England after a few months, but this time she's truly sick. Ahmed says that they understood she had cancer, but her mother didn't.
  • For a while, she seemed to be getting better, but she died shortly after returning to Cairo. Her family in Cairo said that in her last days, her mother was seeing family members who had died.
  • As she thinks back on this time in Cambridge and the difficulties she and Veena faced, she wonders about the stress and the toll it took on them.
  • Racism was on the rise in England at the time, yet Ahmed and her fellow students didn't seem to have a way to talk about it or deal with it.
  • She believes it was because no one at Cambridge believed it was an issue in such a civilized place.
  • It was also difficult for her not to have a stronger community of people of color in Cambridge. There was Veena. And she was the only other "black" person that she knew personally at school.
  • There was no one with whom to share the alienation. No one to just kvetch and work it out with.
  • Ahmed also found that people of faith were margin dwellers in secular, academic Cambridge. If you were religious, you were somehow intellectually inferior.
  • This sentiment was even stronger if you belonged to one of those "weird" religions (i.e., non-Christian religions). Veena caught the brunt of this contempt.
  • Ahmed concludes that it was pretty rough being a woman (and a woman of color, a woman of faith, or of the working class) in academia. She felt disregarded in many ways.
  • She also falls mysteriously ill right before her mother's death. Her doctors don't know what's going on—and mostly ignored her when she was at the office.
  • Fortunately for Ahmed, her bro-in-law was a doctor. He managed to get her in to see the queen's physician—and, of course, Ahmed jumps at the chance. A royal doctor? You would, too.
  • This doc thinks she has rheumatoid arthritis and begins to treat her. When her regular physician finds out that she was two-timing him, he loses his temper.
  • He calls Ahmed's bro-in-law, sister, and husband to accompany her to her next appointment. Ahmed just knows she's dying.
  • But the doc just wants to yell at her bro-in-law for taking her to another doctor and not consulting him first.
  • It's not just the cheek of the doctor for doing this; it's that he panics Ahmed and excludes her from her own care. He decides on another diagnosis for her but doesn't explain it to her.
  • Ahmed understands now that this was patriarchy at its worst: men handling women's lives, all the while excluding the woman in question.
  • All of this broke down Ahmed. She became riddled with anxiety about her illness, and there was nothing she could do about it. And then, Alan started to have his own problems.
  • As he got set to graduate, problems cropped up. He had a job lined up in another town, but they couldn't work it out.
  • Here's the nail in the coffin: he expected Ahmed to drop everything and be a traditional wife. That wasn't going to fly. Ahmed pushed ahead with her dissertation.
  • Her work helped her through. Her work on Edward Lane reminded her that she was missing religious faith. She began to read about Christianity.
  • She flirted with conversion until she realized that it wouldn't fix her bigger problem: did she really believe in anything at all?
  • Since Cambridge was a really secular place, she found herself in a difficult situation—she just didn't know what to think.
  • The faith struggle brought up another issue. Ahmed had always lived in a society where religious belief—any religious belief—was a thing. It was just part of life.
  • Not so in Cambridge—zero community support for her former religious beliefs.
  • In the end, Ahmed moved on: divorce, graduation, and the job market. She also finds a useful doctor and begins to feel better.
  • And Veena? She also gets better, wins back her Czech boyfriend, and moves to Prague.
  • Ahmed lands a part-time teaching job but more importantly gets her thesis published. All of this is good, but is it good enough?
  • She wonders if the end of her education isn't just a little disappointing, especially since her own life experiences had never been a part of all that study and discussion.
  • Ahmed realizes that other students from minority groups had the same experience. They would go on to use this disappointment to make real changes in the academic world.
  • Like in the women's studies and black studies programs that started popping up in American universities in the '70s. It took dissatisfaction with the status quo to create these.
  • After this "revolution," scholars wanted to tackle big questions: who decides what is important in the curriculum? Who "owns" knowledge? What ideas are important and why?
  • These changes happened mostly because of social activism—and the United States had the corner on that market at the time. There was nothing like this going on in Cambridge at this point.
  • Ahmed moved on to a job in Abu Dhabi—just when the Iranian Revolution became a thing. Ahmed couldn't help but think about what it meant to be a Muslim woman.
  • Ahmed realizes that it was during her graduate years in Cambridge when serious identity confusion set in.
  • That's because racism was on the rise in England in those years. Ahmed had to come face to face with what the great white Western world thought of her—and it wasn't pretty.
  • She often found herself painted into a corner. While she hated Nasser with the heat of a thousand suns, she also hated the racist perspective applied to him (and all Arabs) in the media.
  • Ahmed felt frustration because she didn't know how to get into a conversation about race and identity with anybody in Cambridge: she had no community, no language with which to do it.
  • But there were people working on the problem of language and racism.
  • Edward Said—bro of her old friend, Jean—wrote Orientalism, a famous work on Western perceptions of the Eastern world.
  • This work gave Ahmed and others a more complex language with which to discuss issues of identity. Ahmed didn't completely agree with Said's approach, but she knew it was an important development.
  • Still, the book flattened the experiences of Arab cultures, and Ahmed wasn't down with that. She thinks that we have to complicate the way we think about Arabness—not oversimplify it.

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