Study Guide

A Border Passage Chapter 3

By Leila Ahmed

Chapter 3

In Expectation of Angels

  • Ahmed recalls the sounds of her life in Cairo, including the scary stuff like drumbeats, which reminded her of poverty and death.
  • There were unfortunate people all around Ain Shams. Ahmed felt both sad and guilty when she saw people suffer while she had so much.
  • Because they lived near the railway line, she really did see a lot of human suffering—the poor, people carrying their dead, and people living on the fringes of society.
  • Ahmed remembers her nanny in this chapter. Nanny is a European Christian, and Ahmed confesses that she lived in terror of Nanny dying. She was attached.
  • So attached that Ahmed would listen for Nanny's breathing in the middle of the night, just to reassure herself that she was still alive.
  • One of these nights, Ahmed saw her guardian angel for the first time. It looked like a moonbeam.
  • Both she and Nanny share a belief in supernatural beings of all sorts, including ghouls, which Nanny threatened would come for her if she didn't obey.
  • Nanny seemed to be a woman of upright moral character. And she was, really. Except for one little weakness. She had a preference for men.
  • This annoyed Ahmed, naturally, since Nanny favored the boys in the family. She also adored Ahmed's grandfather, who also happened to have blue eyes (which she loved).
  • But surprisingly, it's only Nanny who shows such a bias. Her father openly favored his daughters.
  • Nanny openly disliked Ahmed's mother—and she had no problem talking about her feelings.
  • Ahmed learned that Nanny's dislike of her mom was founded on something shady. Her mother had another daughter who was born prematurely and died.
  • Nanny implied that Ahmed's mother had something to do with that infant's death. Also, Nanny felt that her mom was spoiled.
  • But, Nanny had to respect Ahmed's mother, and the two agreed on how Ahmed should be raised.
  • Even though they were from different cultures and practiced different religions, Nanny and Mother had really similar values.
  • There was one terrible fight between Nanny and her mom, which Ahmed tried to stop. The upshot? Ahmed had to move to her own bed. Her mom didn't want her depending so much on Nanny.
  • This fight confused her. She learned that Nanny could be fired. Did that mean she could be fired, too? Poor little kid.
  • We learn that Nanny was from Yugoslavia and a Croatian. She left her home with her daughter after her husband was killed in World War II and went to Istanbul for a job as a governess.
  • She went to Cairo next and got the job with Ahmed's family.
  • Her name was Clothilde (hence Ahmed sticks with "Nanny"). She spoke several languages, was a good cook, hated Hitler, and disliked Communism. Sounds pretty cool to us.
  • Like most people who suffered war and deprivation, Nanny couldn't stand children complaining about their food.
  • She had a daughter called Eugenie, who visited them in Cairo. Ahmed felt terribly left out because mother and daughter spoke in their mother tongue.
  • Ahmed felt that Nanny was using mommy/daughter time (and a secret language) to complain about working for Ahmed's family. She really had no reason to think this, of course.
  • Nanny was religious and would sometimes bring Ahmed with her to the church but was super careful not to evangelize.
  • Ahmed remembers that Nanny always talked about God as a shared belief with Muslims and Jews—not referring to Christ specifically, just to one God.
  • But, this caused more confusion for the young Ahmed: if everyone she knew worshipped the same God, then how come there were different religions?
  • Her parents believed that a person was simply the religion they were born into—it wasn't a matter of choice. Ahmed wasn't sure if she bought that explanation.
  • She spent all of her time with Nanny because there was a big age gap between Ahmed and her older siblings. They took lots of walks together, usually toward Heliopolis.
  • In the summers when she went to visit her grandparents, she and Nanny would take walks in Alexandria (about three hours from Cairo, on the Mediterranean coast).
  • This all sounds very nice, but Ahmed felt lonely: she was left with Nanny while the older kids got to party with the adults at fun places in town.
  • Ahmed ends the chapter with Nanny's death, which happens while she herself is in England studying as an older teen.
  • Nanny had stomach cancer and in the end was afraid to die. Although Ahmed doesn't say it, this seems to make her especially sad to think about.
  • But, she ends with an uplifting memory: her second experience with angels. She and her grandmother climbed to the roof of the house in Alexandria on the 27th night of Ramadan.
  • Her grandma had told her that it was a special night, when angels were allowed to roam the earth.
  • While they didn't actually catch a glimpse of an angel that night, Ahmed recalls the thrill of angel-spotting with her grandmother.