“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, unsurpassable quiet of the desert.”
—A Border Passage
“That,” says Leila Ahmed, “is how it was in the beginning… to come to consciousness in…a world alive, as it seemed, with the music of being.” Indeed, the early years of Ahmed’s youth in Cairo were blessed, and her recollections of her parents’ vibrant garden and of a city surrounded by expanses of breathtaking desert are exquisite and, at times, mystical. They do not, however, foretell the events that would splinter the lives of the Ahmed family. For the Egypt of Leila Ahmed’s childhood—a country that tolerated and even admired the European culture of the British colonizers, a country that embraced its diverse population and that for decades functioned under King Farouk as a republic (with, of course, occasional “intervention” from England)—was becoming increasingly unfamiliar. As Ahmed approached her teenage years, Egypt underwent a revolution. It is from this revolution that Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat emerged, espousing new messages of socialism, anti-imperialism, and Arab nationalism to the Egyptian people. It is in this era that Sadat penned his own memoir entitled In Search of Identity. And, as Ahmed astutely observed, “if the president of Egypt himself…was searching for his identity, no wonder that I, crossing the threshold into my teenage years in that era of revolution, would find myself profoundly confused and conflicted.”
Even as a child, Ahmed straddled several different cultures. There was the nanny with whom Ahmed spent most of her time, a Yugoslavian woman who spoke German, French, and Italian. Ahmed has said that the taste of her kugelof, cannelloni, and apricot jams represent for her the “distillation of childhood.” There was the private world created by her mother, her aunts, and her grandmother, all of whom embodied the pacifist, life-affirming qualities of an Islam that was steeped in a rich, living oral tradition. This was in sharp contrast to the more severe tenets of the official Islam—drawn by men from arcane written texts—that were beginning to be reimposed with new emphasis throughout the Middle East. There were the children with whom she attended the English school in Cairo—Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians as well as of Christian, Egyptian, Jewish and Muslim backgrounds—and, of course, there were the English.
Ahmed’s connection to the European culture brought to Egypt by the British colonizers was, to say the least, intensely complicated. Upper-class families such as Ahmed’s often grew up speaking English and French. Ahmed herself readily admitted that as a young girl she cherished the works of Somerset Maugham. But while they recognized the strides made by the European powers in the arts, democracy, and science, they were appalled by the horrors of World War II. The days of the British Empire were waning, and as the issues pertaining to Israel became increasingly volatile, a tidal wave of “Arab nationalism” washed over Egypt.
In writing this memoir, Ahmed found two of the most intractable issues to be of Arab nationalism and the “cargo of negatives” attached to Islam by Western academia. What, she asks, does it mean to be an Arab? And how does a Muslim woman bridge the divides in her own religion, and how does she foster meaningful, supportive discourse about being a feminist and being a Muslim in an academic atmosphere that assumes the two are mutually exclusive?
In A Border Passage, Leila Ahmed lucidly addresses all of these questions, crystallizing for readers the mysterious, confounding process by which her identity was constructed amid a political hotbed. Her search for answers takes readers from a rooftop angel-watch in Alexandria to the polished classrooms of Cambridge, and from the surreal cities nestled in the dunes of Abu Dhabi to the ivory towers of academic America. Still, the most fascinating journey described within these pages is the journey taken to the self. The discoveries made there are profound and, in a world of dissolving boundaries and clashing cultures, can be translated into each of our lives.
Leila Ahmed is the first professor of Women’s Studies and Religion at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of Women and Gender in Islam and, the memoir, A Border Passage.
Early on in the book, you address the issue of Arab nationalism, saying “we are so used to the idea of Egypt as ‘Arab’ that it seems unimaginable that Egyptians ever thought of themselves as anything else.” You then go on to explain that the truth of this assumption shifted as you began to write your book. Things, apparently, were not what they seemed. Did these revelations change the original focus of your memoir?
This is a difficult question to answer—precisely because my coming to understand this—that our identity as Arabs was not just “objective fact” but politically constructed—was so fundamentally transformative. In fact I think I might never have finished the book if I hadn’t figured this out—I came to a dead stop in the midst of writing it and found myself suddenly completely unable to write. This went on for months—it was a miserable time and I had no idea what the problem was—except that I did know of course that I felt an enormous sense of guilt about my feelings about being Arab and I simply couldn’t imagine how I could ever write openly about such things.Looking back now I believe I was extremely lucky that my memory of the scene between myself and the Arabic teacher was as vivid as it was to me. Turning it over in my mind led me to realize that in order to make sense of both the scene and of my own feelings I needed to understand the history I’d lived through rather than simply examining and reexamining my own purely personal inner feeling and memories. And so I guess it did change the focus in the sense that I had set out intending to write simply of my own memories and not at all of history or politics—and found that I couldn’t understand my own experiences without these.
How long did it take you to write A Border Passage? Had you been keeping a journal throughout your travels?
It took me about six or seven years to write. For most of that time I was teaching as well, so basically I was writing only during the vacations, although occasionally during the semester I’d be able to get to it on a weekend. I’ve sometimes kept a journal—but very sporadically. I began writing this book sort of sideways—almost as if I didn’t really mean to do it, not seriously anyway. And yet I also think the truth is I had been desperately waiting for the moment when I could begin. Anyway, I remember I began setting down some thoughts and memories—those that now make up much of the first chapter—the day I was finally done with my last book. I mailed off the corrected manuscript and came back from the post office and went straight to my desk. In the beginning I wrote simply as if I were starting a new journal. It was summer so I was able to keep writing, sitting at it for a few hours every morning, looking out onto the trees, watching the wind in between. That too now, those wonderful trees and woods, are part of the past, no longer part of my life.
When writing the book, did you confer with friends and family—namely your siblings—or did you reconstruct events purely from your own memories?
It never occurred to me to confer with anyone because there was never a point when I thought that what I wanted to write was an “objective” reconstruction of facts, events, and so on. Always what I wanted to write, what I felt a kind of driving, passionate yearning and even need to do, was to set down and to be true to the living of this particular life. “Facts” and history and politics are of course—and far more than I understood to begin with—part of that story, but it’s really how we saw and experienced these, their trace and residue in our consciousness and the workings of memory, that make up the stories that we tell and that are the stuff of memoirs. I know very well—all of us know this—that different people can witness the same event, brothers and sisters grow up in the same home, and experience them and remember them quite differently. In any case, too, I didn’t want to tell my family that I was writing this book because I imagined it would cause a hullabaloo—that everybody would be trying to tell me what I could write, and should write, and very likely, too, above all telling me that I was absolutely not to write it. And writing was hard enough without all this. So I didn’t tell the family—until it was done and actually in proofs. And I was right, there was a tremendous hullabaloo. Happily, though, that has now passed.
One of the most interesting topics explored in your book is the difference between living, oral traditions and written texts. When taken within the context of Islam, do you think that there will ever be a bridge between the living Islam of Muslim women and the official Islam? Universally, is it usually women that keep oral traditions alive, or is this specific to Islam?
This question is difficult to answer. Today Islam (like other religions), which already has all those internal differences and diversities, is undergoing further tremendous permutations and transformations as a result, for one thing, of the process of “globalization” that we’re all living through. I could answer your question in a variety of different ways—depending, for example, on which part of the world we look toward, and which element in any given complicated scene we choose to focus on. If we look, for instance, to countries where Islamic “fundamentalism” is entrenched or growing, it would seem that the future of the oral tradition of Islam that I grew up with is simply hopeless. But if you consider that today there are more than six millions Muslims in America, and that we’re in the process of witnessing the development of an Islam that, for the first time in history, is unfolding in a country where the freedoms of thought and speech are guaranteed political rights, then the possibilities are quite different. Or take the fact that Jaluddin Rumi, the poet I quote several times in the book because his vision so perfectly exemplifies the oral Islam I wrote about, is today the best-selling poet in America. We could take that perhaps as an indication that the future of this kind of Islam is actually enormously promising.