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Book Review: A Border Passage by Leila Ahmed

A Border Passage: From Cairo to America — A Woman’s Journey
Leila Ahmed

Penguin, 1999
★★★★☆

It was as if there were to life itself a quality of music in that time, the era of my childhood, and in that place, the remote edge of Cairo. There the city petered out into a scattering of villas leading into tranquil country fields. On the other side of our house was the profound, unsurpassed quiet of the desert.

With these vivid, lyrical words, Leila Ahmed begins her memoir. With this almost languid imagery she establishes what will be the tone of her life story. At times incredibly personal, at others broad and historical, Ahmed interweaves her own personal history of growing up in Egypt with the more general history of the country itself, which was going through turbulent times as Ahmed was growing up.

It is, above all, a gorgeously told story, rich with colorful imagery and evocative prose. Ahmed’s writing skill is unparalleled. True, sometimes you can tell that she is an academic and not a novelist, in that at times the writing comes across a bit too formal, a bit too stilted, and perhaps a bit too detached, but it never stops being beautiful.

Night was falling as we left Alexandria. The harbor and breakers fell away behind us into darkness, and as the ship rose and fell with the swells we saw briefly the lights of the low Alexandrian coastline, and then it too fell away. And the sea was magical, with dolphins and flying fish by day and in the night phosphorescent fish like stars in the ship’s churning wake. And on the first day out, distant, a blue shape on the horizon–Cyprus. … The second night out I awoke smelling land. We were passing the first Greek islands,l islands aromatic with thyme and the scent of earth and grasses and dry land. we passed close, so that their hillsides reared up above us against the stars.

Ahmed’s memoir is a fascinating one to me personally, as I am also Egyptian. Of course, the gulf between us is vast, as was made evident to me whilst reading her memoir. Ahmed grew up speaking French and English in an upper-class Turko-Egyptian household. Her parents were wealthy and educated; her father was an engineer who defied President Nasser. She was part of the cultural elite, the country’s intelligentsia; I was often quite surprised by how frequently she name-dropped famous Egyptian figures with whom her family had been familiar. (I, by contrast, come from Egyptian fellahin — peasant — stock, with no Turkish/Circassian/Albanian ancestry to speak of, ancestry that is common to the Egyptian elite, given that they were for a long time the country’s ruling class.)

This made for an interesting reading experience, as I would sometimes hone in on a particular aspect of Ahmed’s life that struck me as so utterly familiar — her childhood visit to a once pristine and deserted beach, for example, or a stop along a desert road — but at other times her experiences would be so completely alien to me I would marvel that we were both Egyptian and Muslim. Her understanding of Islam, in particular, is so different from the more conservative one my own family espouses, an interpretation that I’ve often taken to be the default, as we all often default to thinking our own experiences are the standard.

Ahmed alternates between providing highly specific details of her childhood growing up in Cairo and summering in Alexandria, and the history of Egypt as a whole, along with brilliant takes on topics such as: oral history and oral language in contrast to written text; women’s Islam versus men’s Islam; the artificial and historical construction of Arab identity in the Arab world and in the west; linguistic imperialism; Cairene multicultural identities; and more. Ultimately, Ahmed’s memoir feels at once very intimate and somewhat distant, but it is a combination that works well to paint a picture of a particular woman’s growth as well as the growth of an entire nation.

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