Memoirs are a little narcissistic in nature. Writers essentially share their life story with the world, thinking that it’s compelling enough to be told, translated, examined and analyzed. Yet, memoirs are also valuably salient for the rich personal philosophies they imbue.
Leila Ahmed’s “A Border Passage: From Cairo to America — A Women’s Journey” is equally narcissistic and important. Ahmed, a renowned writer on Islamic feminism and an academic, tells the story of her journey from a privileged upbringing in the last years of British rule in Egypt to her intellectual awakening in England and later in America.
She eloquently prefaces her personal account by discussing Egypt’s modern history, compelling the reader to understand the political and social circumstances surrounding her privileged childhood and adolescence, which was filled with English books, movies and music and seldom decorated with the arts of her own culture.
With a sad sense of nostalgia, she recalls the Egypt she grew up in, as a former prosperous cultural and political hub in the Middle East, where Westerners attended Egyptian universities and relished in Egypt’s culture and arts.
I read her passages of this wonderful Egypt while I was on a bus traveling from Cairo to Alexandria. Peering out from the window, as the bus drove through central Cairo into Giza, I realized that the Egypt she was describing with big clean boulevards, vegetation, and an air of class and dignity was long gone.
Peering out from the window, as the bus drove through central Cairo into Giza, I realized that the Egypt she was describing with big clean boulevards, vegetation, and an air of class and dignity was long gone.
There was a stark dissonance between the rich Egypt illustrated in those pages and the one I was looking at, where decades of corruption, mismanagement and inadequate social infrastructure manifested on the very architecture of the ancient country.
Ahmed dedicates an entire chapter to the influential women who shaped her life. In wonderfully evocative language, she writes of lazy afternoons spent at her grandmother’s house in the harem’s quarters, where her aunts and mother would gather to discuss their lives and problems.
They would sit for hours, discerning the people and things that made up their lives, offering love and support for each other, celebrating, crying, and talking. Ahmed meticulously describes a sisterhood that uplifts and heals — a transgenerational bond that isn’t exclusive to any time or culture.
In the same chapter, she compares how men and women in that old segregated society-understood Islam. She characterizes the women’s Islam as pacifist and understood chiefly through their life experiences.
She writes, “There are two quite different Islams, an Islam that is in some sense a women’s Islam and an official, textual Islam, a ‘men’s’ Islam.” Ahmed’s distinction of men and women’s of Islam still resonates today as Muslim women grapple to assert themselves in largely patriarchal societies.
Later when Ahmed settles in England for college, she draws a comparison between the women she meets in Cambridge and the women of her family.
She notes that like her mother and aunts, her colleagues were analyzing and examining lives, characters and figures. Yet, the talk of her loved ones was deemed “idle gossip” and the work of her colleagues was deemed honorable.
This observation speaks to the colonial power structure where White Western women disparage non-Western women, although they both engage in the same activities just in different situations.
Written in cumbersome language and in chronological discord, quickly moving back and forth through time periods, Leila Ahmed’s memoir is a tough read.
Nonetheless, Ahmed principally transcended in her ability to consciously examine her colonial conditioning and privilege and how it later engendered issues of identity and belonging.