Study Guide

A Border Passage Chapter 6

By Leila Ahmed

Chapter 6

School Days

  • Ahmed attended an English school in Heliopolis, an ancient city that was within walking distance from her home at Ain Shams.
  • Sometime before she took that awesome trip to Cambridge with her family, she was advanced two grades (rather than one) in school.
  • She wasn't a stellar student, but her love for reading placed her light years ahead of her peers.
  • Ahmed had attended a mission school first, but her parents pulled her from it when the teachers tried to Christianize her. Ahmed had hated it, so that was all good with her.
  • But, here's a funny story: in order to join The English School, Ahmed had to interview. They wanted to make sure she could speak English. And she could—but wouldn't.
  • Thanks to the persistence of the teacher who interviewed her, Ahmed eventually came out of her shell, spoke perfect English, and got into the school.
  • The routine at The English School began with prayers and hymns referring to one God—so that Muslim, Christian, and Jewish students could participate.
  • Jewish and Muslim students were excused from Christian worship at the school and had free time to wander the grounds. It was actually kind of a bonus not to be Christian.
  • During "Christian time," Ahmed would hang out with her friend Joyce, who was Jewish.
  • Ahmed says that she and Joyce suffered some confusion about the existence of different religions.
  • Ahmed was taught that everyone believed in the same god but had to take up whatever religion their parents were. Hence, different religions.
  • But if her religion was best (as her family said it was), why didn't everyone convert? She obviously caught her parents out on that one.
  • Though there was conflict between Palestine and Israel at this time (i.e., in the early 1950s), they didn't yet feel it where she lived or went to school.
  • She and Joyce were BFFs, and they did all the BFF things: creating secret societies, playing together, and going to movies. When Ahmed skipped a grade, their friendship endured.
  • At school, Ahmed remembers her experience with the headmaster, a British guy called Brent Price.
  • He taught her Civilization class and refused to believe that Ahmed's excellent essays were truly written by her. He refused to grade her essay.
  • Her new friend, Jean, had to explain the situation to her since Ahmed couldn't really understand what had happened. Ahmed was humiliated that Price thought she'd cheated.
  • It happened three more times in that class, until her teacher began to understand that Ahmed was actually a good writer.
  • Ahmed found out much later that religious prejudice was at the root of Price's behavior.
  • Jean later told her that he hated to see Ahmed get better grades on anything than Jean, who was a Christian.
  • Ahmed had other awkward encounters like this during her school career. Price and others discouraged her from pursuing a career in the sciences—this time because she was a girl.
  • It was clear to Ahmed from other encounters with Mr. Price (and other teachers) that the instructors at The English School felt Egyptians were inferior to Europeans.
  • Ahmed did have positive experiences with her English teacher and her class teacher in the fifth form (i.e., about 10th grade in the United States).
  • But it wasn't the British teachers who really scarred Ahmed. It was Miss Nabih, her Arabic teacher—the teacher who slapped her for rebelling during Arabic lessons.
  • Ahmed explains that standard written Arabic is quite different from Egyptian Arabic—and Ahmed wasn't biting. She felt it a boring and pointless exercise. Miss Nabih wouldn't stand for it.
  • She felt that Miss Nabih was acting out of anger at her personal situation (as a Palestinian refugee) and taking it out on Ahmed.
  • The tension between them also probably stemmed from Ahmed's meh feelings about Arab identity (more on this later).
  • Ahmed feels that she was shaped by the revolutionary government's nationalism because she was young and impressionable.
  • She recalls two examples to prove this. First: meeting Nasser at the movies. When it was her turn to introduce herself, she didn't know what name to give him.
  • Of course, he was an Important Person—and she was 5. But she also worried about seeming disloyal if she told him her English name (Lili) or too familiar if she gave her nickname (Nana).
  • Even at a young age, national and personal identities were at odds. And then there were issues of gender.
  • Ahmed had been a very good athlete as a young girl, smashing the Cairo record in the 100-meter dash. But when a picture of her in shorts landed in the paper, Ahmed's mother wasn't happy.
  • That was the end of her athletic career: she was forbidden to participate in sports outside school after that.
  • To add to the identity confusion, Ahmed says that her education at The English School taught her about the world outside (i.e., England) but almost nothing about Egypt.
  • Yet somehow, she and her classmates were meant to grow up, be educated, and bridge the gap between European and Egyptian society. As Ahmed says, to be "intermediaries."
  • But in Nasser's day, any bridging to European culture—learning a European language or being educated by colonizers—was considered a bad thing.
  • The nationalism that had appealed to her earlier was now spiraling out of control. Whenever Nasser was frustrated, he would lash out at foreigners. Sound familiar?
  • Meanwhile, Ahmed had to struggle with her own consciousness. Could she be Egyptian and still love European culture? Was she disloyal to her people if she still idealized England?
  • She had always preferred European art, music, and movies (partly as a way to separate herself from her mom) as a young person.
  • But as she writes, she admits that she now yearns for non-Western perspectives of the world.
  • It has become clear to her that she grew up believing that Western culture was better than her native culture. Yet she's still uncertain. Was her desire to leave Egypt really about this?
  • Or was it simply a need to see the world? To experience another way of life?
  • Ahmed doesn't have the answer. But she does think about how her mother would have responded to her wandering life, to living in parts of the world far from Egypt.
  • She thinks her mother wouldn't have approved and perhaps would have considered her weak for "fleeing."
  • She also remembers taking a trip with her Aunt Aisha, which brought her to El Alamein.
  • As she looks at the memorial crosses for the soldiers who died there, she thinks about the concept of civilization, of chasing it as she had done—or dying for it, as the soldiers had.