Study Guide

A Border Passage Chapter 4

By Leila Ahmed

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Chapter 4


  • Ahmed contemplates a honeymoon picture of her mother on board a ship, enjoying her European vacation.
  • There's a huge age gap between her mother and father (20 years). Because her mother was a reserved person, she never got the story on her marriage or honeymoon. No details.
  • Her mom was the oldest in her family and had to do a lot of thinking for herself. Her family saw her as sensible and steady.
  • Although Ahmed herself knew her mom to be very straight-laced (especially about sexual matters), she also saw compassion in her for wayward relatives.
  • But, her mom wasn't directly responsible for or likely to be hurt by these relatives (i.e., the second cousin who was in a troubled marriage and in love with another man).
  • Her mom also loved books. She read mostly in French and would discuss books with her female relatives.
  • Her parents had a happy marriage. Ahmed recalls weekends and holidays when she and her sibs would dive into her mom's bed in the morning and hang out.
  • Her parents would read the newspapers and discuss the news of the day—a crucial activity during the revolution. Her dad admired her mom's perspective on these issues.
  • Ahmed thinks back to the company that they kept—especially her mother's. It was always women and almost always direct relatives.
  • She remembers two special encounters with her mother. The first happened when she was 15: she told her mom that she wanted to be a writer.
  • Her mom got very excited at this because she, too, had wanted to be a writer. Ahmed was not amused. She doesn't want to be like her mother at all.
  • Her mother gushed on about how it would be great if Ahmed could help her write her life story.
  • Ahmed probably eye-rolled her mom at this point. But, in retrospect, she wishes she could go back and get that life story on paper.
  • The second memory has to do with a point of conscience. Her mom tells her that human life is sacred.
  • The Quran backs her up on this: a person who kills another kills all of humanity (and saves all of humanity if he/she saves one person).
  • With that in mind, her mother then says that it would be better for a person to harm herself than to harm another person. No point in living with the guilt of hurting another.
  • This leads her mom to pacifism and making her sons swear not to be involved in any destructive work—including fighting in a war. She didn't want her sons killing anyone else's son.
  • Ahmed switches tracks to explore her claim to a completely lonely childhood. The loneliness doesn't creep in until later.
  • She had two special friends, Gina and Joyce. Joyce was strictly a school friend, but Gina played with her in the beautiful garden at her home.
  • Gina had an older brother called Freddy who would sometimes join in their play. When they played tag, Freddy would catch Ahmed and then march her off to the garage to be "tortured."
  • It was nothing at first—until one day when Freddy tried to sexually molest her. (Ahmed was about 9 at the time.)
  • She tried avoiding Freddy after that, but he threatened to tell people about the incident if she wouldn't "play" with him again.
  • Eventually, one of the neighbor's sons (a boy called Basil) overheard Freddy and fought with him. Basil told his mother the situation, and then she told Ahmed's mother.
  • This didn't go as Ahmed expected. Her mother interrogated her about the incident and then slapped her across the thigh—something a parent had never, ever done before.
  • Most disturbing of all? Her mom says that if Ahmed had been a bit older, there would have been an honor killing. That's right: her mom would have killed Ahmed.
  • Then, she would have had to kill herself. (Remember her thing about not harming people?) As you can imagine, Ahmed was horrified.
  • There were further consequences from Freddy's actions—but they all fell on Ahmed's head. A gynecologist examined her, on her mom's wishes, to confirm that Ahmed was still a virgin.
  • She couldn't play outside anymore. Her mom also told her she'd done a terrible thing. Ahmed tried to make herself invisible after that.
  • Ahmed held on to her resentment of this fiasco for a long time—but then changed her mind about her mom's behavior when she was old enough to understand.
  • Her mom had been reacting out of fear since society placed such emphasis on a girl's purity. She knew that Ahmed would face big trouble in later life if she'd been molested.
  • Ahmed also understood that her mom wasn't really good at dealing with sexual matters in a sophisticated way. So, beating Ahmed was all she could think of to make her point.
  • Ahmed calls this incident the end of her childhood—she was no longer allowed to play in the garden or to have friends over.
  • There is a second event—two of her siblings leaving for school in England—that marks the end of her "joyous" early life.
  • But in losing those siblings to England, Ahmed gets to take a journey of a lifetime to bring them to Cambridge. Her parents also thought they would look into a boarding school there for her.
  • Ahmed calls the sea voyage from Alexandria to Dover "magical," including the seasickness. (Hey, at least it was something new and interesting.)
  • In the end, her parents wouldn't leave her at the boarding school in Cambridge, and Ahmed went home with them, miserable and lonely.
  • She recalls becoming invisible when she returned to Cairo, keeping her head in books and eating meals alone with Nanny.
  • But, there's one memory that calls this perception of her total loneliness into question. With her nest pretty empty, her mom felt that Ahmed existed to comfort her.
  • And, of course, Ahmed is irritated by this comment. It made her feel as if she didn't have a right to exist for her own sake.
  • It also freaks her out a little since it meant that her mom wondered why she ever had that last child. This is something that Ahmed will clarify later.
  • Ahmed thinks back to her birth story, which her dad often told her. He had taken her into the bathroom to wash her in the hand basin and then to meet her sibs.
  • She would always ask her dad to tell that story, especially when she saw him using the same basin to shave in.
  • But, that's the end of good birthday memories. She feels bad vibes from her mom from the beginning.
  • When she'd gotten ill with pneumonia after returning from England, her aunts fussed over her. Ahmed felt that her mother kinda sorta wanted her to die.
  • It had something to do with all the attention that she would get with such a tragedy. While Ahmed admits that she might have imagined it, she can't let it go.
  • But, Ahmed does learn something later on that helps make sense of the "death vibe" she got from her mom.
  • When she was in her last year at university, her parents came to England to visit with Ahmed's sister and newborn child.
  • While Ahmed visited with all of them, her father dropped a bombshell: her mother had asked him to drive on a bumpy road while she was pregnant with Ahmed so that she would miscarry.
  • Her father had instead driven her to the hospital, on the chance that maybe the baby was already coming and causing his wife to panic. He might have saved Ahmed's life.
  • When she hears her husband tell this story, Ahmed's mom loses it.
  • She tells Ahmed that she didn't know her then—as if to say, if she had known what her daughter would be like, she never would have wanted to harm her.
  • For Ahmed, this moment is like a missing link that she'd been searching for to make sense of the troubled connection between herself and her mother.
  • She'd always felt that her mother hadn't wanted her to live. This is an issue that comes up more than once for Ahmed as she matures and contemplates her place in the world.
  • It also helps her understand her mother's insistence that the worst thing in life is to harm another person.
  • But, it wasn't until Ahmed had a supernatural experience with her mother's spirit that this understanding became real. It happened after she'd moved to America to begin a new life.
  • Her work was demanding and it was wintertime in New England—quite a shock for someone used to mild weather. She fell into some serious SAD.
  • She worried for herself because of a history of suicide in her family: first her uncle and then her aunt. But then, she realized something important.
  • The depression wasn't genetic. Her despair had to do with her mom's death wish for her.
  • She finally decides not to let her mom's old feelings bother her. She writes down her resolution in a notebook—and immediately feels her mom's spirit in the room.
  • Her dad's spirit also comes through, and she senses that they have been waiting for this resolution of hers in order to leave her. But her mother has something else to get off her chest.
  • She wants forgiveness in order to be released, but Ahmed doesn't think it's her place to forgive her.
  • But she does release her mom from any harm that she might have done to her. And just like that, the spirits depart.
  • Ahmed explains that she felt she didn't have the power to forgive her mom because of the slightly older infant sister who probably died because of her mother's actions.

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