Study Guide

A Border Passage Chapter 11

By Leila Ahmed

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Chapter 11

On Becoming an Arab

  • Ahmed circles back to the slapping episode with her Arabic teacher, Miss Nabih. This time, we get the details.
  • It happened at a time when the government was trying to drum Arabness into the heads of Egyptians through media outlets.
  • Ahmed says the Gov did this in order to make political loyalties clear. (Yay, Palestine. Boo, Israel.)
  • The rhetoric was specifically anti-Zionist, but Ahmed says that the animosity included all Jews.
  • Problem: Ahmed actually knew people  in Cairo from other religious groups. Her BFF Joyce was Jewish, and her family knew Copts.
  • If being Arab meant hating on other religious groups, she wasn't into it.
  • At the same time, it was a politically oppressive time in Egypt. The secret police had their ears to the ground for "un-Arab" behavior. Sound familiar?
  • Eventually, the propaganda/scare tactics worked: no one really questioned the idea of Arabness. But Ahmed isn't okay with this explanation of Arabness. She's going to dig deeper.
  • She finds the beginning of Arab nationalism in 19th-century Syria. Before that, the term "Arab" only referred to nomadic people of Arabia.
  • Christian Syrians used a united Arab identity to pit Christians and Muslims against the Ottoman Empire, which pretty much controlled the show.
  • Egyptians didn't cotton to this whole Arab identity thing right away. (They wanted the British gone, not the Ottomans.) As you can imagine, the Brits loved Arabism for this reason.
  • Arab nationalism revived again during World War I, with T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) and the "Arab revolt"—instigated by the British. Egyptians were still not biting.
  • Then, the Brits and the French carve up the Ottoman Empire and create a Jewish homeland out of Palestinian lands.
  • The bottom line for Ahmed? Arabness was the creation of people and cultures that wanted to keep the Islamic Empire down.
  • As such, Egypt had been opposed to the idea of a pan-Arabic identity.
  • But there was more internal turmoil ahead for Ahmed as she explores Egypt's relationship with Jews, Zionism, and Palestine.
  • First, she didn't know that there was any sympathy for Zionism in Egypt ever. But there had been.
  • There was Joseph Cicurel, president of the Zionist association of Cairo, and Muslim nationalist Talaat Harb.
  • There was also a close association between Leon Castro (Zionist) and Saad Zaghloul (leader of the Wafd Party).
  • These unlikely partners mostly wanted to regain control of Egypt from the Brits.
  • At this point, the attitude toward Palestine and the Palestinian cause was also hostile. In the early '30s, Egypt wasn't having any propaganda supporting Palestine.
  • And yet, Zionist papers (and propaganda) were allowed during the same period.
  • Remember, this baffles Ahmed because in her lifetime (and up to this very moment), the situation is pretty well reversed.
  • In fact, in her day, there were many prominent Egyptians who were considered too sympathetic to Zionism and thought of almost as traitors to their land.
  • The link between Arab identity and patriotism is so strong that Ahmed feels disloyal about trying to get to the origins of it. Why is she even questioning this great, unifying idea?
  • She feels worse when she listens to the Lebanese novelist Hanan al-Shaykh give a reading at Cambridge. There are many Arabic people in the audience, and she feels kinship with them.
  • But why? Why should she feel more kinship with them than with non-Arabic people who are also Muslim?
  • Ahmed feels that this Arabness is a political identity and nothing deeper. As she puts it, she doesn't want to lie anymore about who she is.
  • Also, she has to live with what it means to be Arab in the world at large—especially in the face of ignorance and prejudice.
  • She's trapped by two false versions of Arabness: the one constructed by the West, and the one constructed/accepted by Arabic peoples.
  • Ahmed keeps digging and learns that Zionism was allowed in Egypt back in the day because Egyptians didn't realize that Palestinians would be displaced in the quest for a Jewish homeland.
  • Egypt was a pretty chill place at the time, committed to secularism and pluralism after World War I. The multi-religious nature of the country was valued.
  • Both Jews and Copts were part of the Zaghloul government in 1924. And very few Palestinians lived in Egypt, so no agitation there.
  • Ahmed says that sympathies shifted toward Palestine in the '30s, when Hitler started wreaking havoc in Europe. Jewish immigrants flooded Palestine.
  • Palestinians were fighting with both the British and the Zionists so pretty soon (by the end of the '30s), Egyptians began to take their side.
  • The Muslim Brotherhood also threw their support behind Palestine, with the larger goal of ousting imperialists from Muslim lands.
  • Pretty soon, there was an us vs. them situation in Egypt: the government/governing classes (pluralist, secular) vs. the Muslim Brotherhood (not so much secular, pluralist).
  • There was no room for multiculturalism in the Brotherhood's perspective: Egypt was Muslim and owed allegiance and support to all Arabic lands.
  • Unfortunately, this feeling was bad news for Egyptian Jews—and any other non-Arabic groups, like the Copts. Their shops were destroyed and schools vandalized.
  • All of this happened before her time, but Ahmed remembers political violence between the Egyptian government and the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Her parents did not like the Muslim Brotherhood or King Farouk. They seemed to feel the same way about Arab identity as she did.
  • And that's where her conflict with Miss Nabih comes in. Ahmed is sure that her shenanigans in that class had to do with sentiments from home.
  • She feels that they should have a loyalty to their actual community—not to an identity created by outsiders for political purposes.
  • Losing an open and accepting society in Egypt was a real downer for Ahmed and is still something she mourns.
  • But we're not done with background. Ahmed brings in the Arab League, proposed by Anthony Eden.
  • Eden did this to keep Britain's power in the Middle East strong (i.e., by squashing a more powerful alliance between Arab states).
  • Egypt also kind of wanted to keep other Arab states down. That sounds crazy, but think about it: a united Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine would have sucked some of its power and wealth away. So Egypt threw its weight behind the British plan. And bam: just like that, Egypt becomes an Arab nation. It was 1945.
  • But there's a downside to being defined as Arab by another nation: the term is negative. There's a definite tone of inferiority about it.
  • It allows Europeans to use the blanket term "Arab" to justify treating them in shady ways, like Arabness means a lower level of humanity.
  • It is this European sense of "arab" (yeah, lowercase) that Ahmed says she encountered in the West (i.e., when the jerkbag on the bus in England spit at her).
  • This version of Arabness, says Ahmed, is why she never, ever, for any reason, goes to see movies created in the West with Arab or Muslim characters.
  • One more bit of digging: Ahmed takes a look at Nasser's book Philosophy of a Revolution and learns why he embraced anger.
  • For Nasser, his whole identity is formed out of anger against the Balfour Declaration, the "gifting" of Palestine as a national home for Jews.

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