Study Guide

A Border Passage Chapter 7

By Leila Ahmed

Chapter 7

Suez

  • Ahmed takes us back to the summer of 1956, before the Suez invasion. Her family rented a beach villa—and it was about to be the worst family vacay ever.
  • It was miserably hot and the family seemed to be on edge. To complicate things, her oldest bro brought his new English wife to Egypt for the first time—and she wasn't digging it.
  • A big issue for Doris: the crushing poverty around her in Egypt and the fact that her in-laws didn't seem bothered by it.
  • Ahmed says that they faced poverty especially at the beaches since beggars hung around the entrances, looking for charity from the wealthy people with beach cabins.
  • Because the rich and the poor could actually be seen together at the beach (not so in town), the contrast between them seemed especially sharp.
  • But Ahmed, who was a teenager, didn't understand why Doris was so mad at her family for the poverty.
  • She didn't yet see poverty as an issue of social justice, as something that policy could fix. She helped them with a coin or two, but what else could really be done?
  • But when the revolutionary government took power in Egypt, Ahmed really got into the idea of social equality—even though her family didn't like the new government at all.
  • Poor Doris suffered culture shock in other ways, too. She didn't approve of the amount or variety of food being forced on her all the time.
  • She was used to rationing and food shortages in England (during World War II and in the reconstruction period), so it seemed to her that Egyptians were just too cavalier about food waste.
  • Of course, Doris began to settle in by the end of the summer, and things were cool with the fam. But the tension of the first few weeks made things very miserable for Ahmed, who just wanted some peace.
  • Her uppity older brother, Karim, didn't help matters, either. He wanted to show off his new engineering degree by disagreeing with their father about the Aswan High Dam.
  • Karim didn't believe his father's predictions about the ecological apocalypse that the dam would cause—until he looked at the evidence. Karim couldn't help but agree with their dad in the end.
  • Mom and Ahmed's sister Magda also fought a lot that summer. Magda wanted to push her boundaries by claiming her right to marry a Christian. Their mom wasn't having it.
  • In the end, Ahmed couldn't stand the constant fighting and would seek refuge at Aunt Aisha's cabin or back at Siouf.
  • She could discuss things with a woman called Fatma, who did the sewing for her family. Whenever she felt conflicted or troubled, she felt she could open up to Fatma, who seemed more receptive than her mom.
  • In the middle of this, Nasser makes his famous speech nationalizing the Suez Canal. D'oh.
  • Her family did not have a happy response to this, mostly because Nasser brought the Aswan High Dam into it, the very project her father wanted to stop.
  • At this point, Nasser's government was little better than a dictatorship, so even though Ahmed's family disapproved of Nasser's actions, they had to be careful what they said—and to whom.
  • Even worse: this move to nationalize the Suez Canal—and the terrible response of the British and French governments—made Nasser a hero. He seemed unstoppable.
  • In the time leading up to the attack on Port Said, Ahmed noticed changes at her school.
  • They could see planes flying overhead, and the British teachers at her school had pretty much fled by the beginning of term.
  • Ahmed and her family moved over to Zatoun because it was a sturdier building and might stand up better to the daily bombings by the British. They stayed in the dreaded basement.
  • Her family had to rely, ironically, on the BBC to get truthful coverage of the hostilities. And in truth, the world seemed to hate the bullying of Egypt by two colonial powers.
  • Ahmed listened to the BBC reports. She was impressed that many people in Britain didn't support the bombing of Cairo. Some were even leaving parliament over it.
  • Ahmed and her English School friends were shocked by this unjust behavior by the British—the same people who taught them every day to be upright, just, and moral.
  • Her parents were also torn. Nobody liked the bombing, but they didn't trust Nasser. Ahmed's mother was sure that his government was coming for them next because they had wealth.
  • Ahmed couldn't fully believe all the anti-imperialist rhetoric floating around at the time because she had already fallen in love with British culture through her reading.
  • She knew that the situation was complex: there were the bombs, of course, but there were also good people in England protesting the aggression against Cairo.
  • But then the British and French went a step too far, bombing Port Said and killing thousands of Egyptians.
  • International support for the British dropped immediately, and Nasser became a total hero for standing up to oppressive powers.
  • When she returned to her home at Ain Shams, Ahmed learned that her BFF Joyce would be leaving Egypt with her family the next day. Ahmed took it personally.
  • She didn't understand, as her mother did, why Jewish people might want to leave the country. (Flash forward: Nasser would not be friendly to the Jews.)
  • Joyce did leave, and though she wrote to Ahmed to tell her where she was, Ahmed didn't write back. She lost contact with her friend forever.
  • Her school had been taken over by the Egyptian government, and the new teachers weren't exactly up to snuff.
  • Ahmed couldn't properly sit for her A levels, which she'd need to attend college in England.
  • Her friend Jean left for America so that she could go to Vassar.
  • Her dad negotiated with Girton College (Cambridge), Ahmed's sister's school, to allow Ahmed to sit for the entrance exam without A levels. But she had to wait in Egypt till then.
  • So, Ahmed hung around, making friends with Amr and Nawal, two older kids. She was kind of into Amr, who could talk about Russian lit and would hold her hand as they walked. Oooh, dreamy.
  • Her friendship with Nawal turned out to be intellectually stimulating—and lifelong. Ahmed credits many important connections in her life to Nawal.
  • It was Nawal and her family that introduced her to Um Kulsum, the singer, and helped her to learn to love Arabic singing. Finally.
  • Ahmed sat for her entrance exam for Girton College at the Swiss embassy in Cairo, which seemed like a bizarre setting for a test. But it obviously didn't throw her—she got in.

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