Study Guide

A Border Passage Chapter 2

By Leila Ahmed

Chapter 2

From Colonial to Postcolonial

  • Ahmed backtracks to fill us in on some important developments in modern Egyptian history that seriously affect her family.
  • First, it's the Suez Crisis of 1956. Nasser made a speech nationalizing the Suez Canal, pretty much taking it from Britain.
  • The British and the French were none too happy. They felt entitled to the profits from the canal because they'd dropped a lot of coin into Egyptian infrastructure.
  • So, they joined up with a young Israel to attack Egypt. That backfires. While they beat the snot out of Egypt, their aggression draws criticism—including from the United States.
  • Nasser comes out looking like a hero—someone who dared to stand up to European bullies.
  • Other developing countries trying to overcome colonial rule were watching and feeling pretty encouraged.
  • Then, the intellectual left dogpiled on colonialism. Works by Sartre, Camus, de Beauvoir, Fanon, Freire, and Said criticized colonialism and supported the cause of independence.
  • Ahmed says that young people (including herself) began to analyze the lives of their older family members and realize that they had "internalized" colonialism.
  • This means that while they yearned for independence, many citizens in colonized countries admired the cultures of their colonizers—even preferring it to their own culture.
  • Yet, Ahmed saw that the creativity and productivity of Egyptians—her father included—had to do with their culture.
  • Her dad's environmentalism didn't come from Britain. It came from his love of the Quran, which speaks of a connection among all living things.
  • Ahmed emphasizes that Egypt was not a backward nation without the Brits. In the 19th century, Egypt was modern—and was working hard at becoming even more modern.
  • The Khedive Ismail wanted to show the world that Egypt could be as awesome as Europe. He wanted to show off for the Europeans when they came for the opening of the Suez Canal.
  • Egyptians felt that they were as good and as advanced as that "pinnacle of civilization" (i.e., Europe). They wanted Europeans to treat them as if they were European, too.
  • But Egyptians didn't figure on one very large factor: racism. It didn't occur to them that white Westerners couldn't think of Egyptians as equals.
  • Egypt forged ahead, acquiring new technologies and adapting to the modern world under Governor Muhammad Ali (not the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world—different guy).
  • The British weren't crazy about an Egypt with strong industry. They feared that a modern Egypt could give them a run for their money in the global market. And then where would exports go?
  • They urged the Ottoman (Turkish) sultan who wielded power over Egypt to slow down development.
  • Ahmed says that by her father's day, however, Egyptian intellectuals had already envisioned Egypt as a modern, European-like society.
  • They embraced the ideals of democratic government, free public education, and modern roles for women (including ditching the veil). Ahmed's family was down with all of this.
  • So, to recap: colonial rule of Egypt began with the Ottoman Empire. By 1882, Egypt was run by Britain.
  • And it happened as many colonial takeovers do: the local leader appeals to a powerful nation for help—and then the guest becomes the ruler.
  • In this case, Khedive Tewfiq asked Britain to help him squash a rebellion in Egypt led by Colonel Urabi.
  • Urabi was an Egyptian with a high rank in the military. That was unusual since most plum military positions went exclusively to members of the ruling Turkish class.
  • Urabi squeaked by because the rules that had prohibited Egyptians from holding high posts had pretty much been ignored.
  • But now, the government wanted to close the loopholes. Urabi and his followers begged to differ and rebelled.
  • The British had no intention of going away after "helping" with Urabi. Some Egyptians didn't really mind them because some things improved in Egypt under the occupation.
  • But, the British didn't pour resources into Egypt because they were nice guys. They wanted to take things out of Egypt—like raw materials—for their own industries.
  • They couldn't have cared less about Egyptians developing their own infrastructure or in allowing them to develop the expertise needed to innovate for themselves.
  • On the positive side, Britain was less oppressive than the Ottomans had been.
  • Egypt gained freedom of the press and an open society, which made it the place to be in the Arabic world.
  • But, things weren't great for everyone. The peasants and working classes suffered the most since they were taxed to the point of losing their land.
  • For Ahmed's father, though, things were going well. He was educated and able to enjoy the whole personal freedom/public works development thing.
  • Her dad might have had it all, except for family misfortune. His father—who had been a judge—died right before taking an important post on the Islamic High Court.
  • Instead of continuing at his religious school, Ahmed's father moved to a British school where he learned English and began to admire European ways.
  • But, Ahmed believes that her dad was meant to be a scientist. He used his skills as an engineer to harness the power of the environment, especially that of the Nile River.
  • She recalls that her father had explored the river and its surrounding lands during his lifetime. The photos he took of that journey made a strong impression on Ahmed.
  • They showed the Nile as a place of fertility and growth, full of life and activity. Ahmed says that this was a big contrast to her view of it from the map, which made it appear barren.
  • Her father's love of the Nile and his urge to protect it becomes his undoing.
  • After the business with the dam, her dad would remember apocalyptic Bible verses that predicted disasters for Egyptians because they had dammed up the rivers. He felt justified by this.
  • But, back to the Brits v. Egyptians. Interactions between the two groups of people were complicated. Some were okay with the Brits but didn't like their attitudes toward Muslims.
  • Her father had never condemned Christians or felt that they were particularly unjust in their behavior toward Muslims. Ahmed thinks this is because he'd seen evil in everyone.
  • Update on her dad: even before his troubles with Nasser, her father got on the bad side of King Farouk by not endorsing one of his scams.
  • So, her dad lost his job and had to leave the country in order to support the fam. Eventually, the matter was investigated and her dad was welcomed back.
  • But, he also suffered at the hands of the British. He'd wanted to be an engineer, but the British weren't interested in allowing Egyptians the tools to be independent.
  • Allowing Egyptians to become engineers would mean they could innovate and support infrastructure without the help of the British government. Heaven forbid, right?
  • So, her dad was forced to study geography rather than engineering. It took him a long time to achieve his goal under this system—but he did.
  • Ahmed says that this kind of colonial thinking was everywhere and mentions the Dinshwai incident that happened when her dad was a young man.
  • After the joke of a trial that followed and the execution and beating of Egyptian men in public, Egyptian feelings about the British soured pretty quickly.
  • And, one last upheaval in Egyptian society (at least, for our purposes): there was no longer a separation between the upper classes of Egyptians and Turks.
  • Professional Egyptian men could marry upper-class Turkish women—and that's how Leila Ahmed came to be.

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