H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-Women@h-net.msu.edu (July, 2000)
Leila Ahmed. A Border Passage: From Cairo to America--A
Woman's Journey. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. 307 pp.
Interview with the author. $ 13.95 (paper), ISBN 0-14-029183-0.
Reviewed for H-Women by Burcak Keskin ,
Department of Sociology, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor
Memories of a (Personal) Transformation: Different Landscapes,
This book provides an easy-to-read introduction to the issues
surrounding identity formation in the Middle East. The memoir
comprises two sections -- a child's eye account of Egypt's
twentieth century transformation, and the subsequent account of
a self-enlightened Egyptian woman scholar as a result of her
travel to the 'West". Her articulate narration throughout the
memoir conveys how and why she came to "examine, analyze and
think about the world which [she is a part of] from the vantage
point [of] the margins" (p. 288).
The book opens up with a quote from the Sufi poet, Jalaluddin
Rumi: "To hear the song of the reed/ Everything you have ever
known/ must be left behind." In contrast to these words, the
following pages demonstrate how vividly Ahmed remembers her
childhood and constructs her "Egyptian woman identity in the
Diaspora" on the unforgettable essence of her Cairo days. As
she states in the interview at the end of the memoir, Ahmed does
not intend "to write an objective reconstruction of facts" but
to reflect "their trace and residue in [her] consciousness and
the workings of memory, that make up the stories that we tell"
(p.314). Thus, while she talks about her relationship with her
father, she also tells the story of Egypt's successful effort to
gain independence from Britain and the consequent modernization
efforts that took place.
Being an engineer, Ahmed's father maintains great respect for
science and critical thinking, which, in the last instance,
makes him "internalize the colonial beliefs about the
superiority of European civilization" (p. 25). Her mother, on
the other hand represents the colonized culture of Egypt, of
which Ahmed becomes more aware when she goes to college in
England. Growing up with such parents makes her conclude that
"we always embody in our multiple shifting consciousnesses a
convergence of traditions, cultures, histories coming together
in this time and this place and moving like rivers through us"
In my opinion, this hybrid approach to the world also originates
from her living at intersections throughout her life: Her father
comes from a native Egyptian family, her mother from the Turkish
upper class. They speak French, English, Turkish and Arabic at
home. While Ahmed deciphers the meaning of life from the books
of various Western authors, she also listens to mystic stories
about angels from her grandmother and initiates into the "oral
tradition of Islam" on her days with her aunts. She enjoys a
"white life" in Egypt and "gets colored" during her days at the
Girton College in England. In this respect, the slippery ground
that she is born into enables her to write and live -- to use
Patricia Hill Collins's term -- as "an outsider from within".
Throughout the memoir, Ahmed does not only grapple with the
subalternity of Arabness vis-a-vis the "West" but also unpacks
the very notion of Egyptian national identity with respect to
being an Arab in the Middle East. She discusses the 1948 war
with Israel, Nasserite socialism and nationalization of the Suez
Canal in order to elucidate how the category of "Arab" is
constructed with respect to the politics of the day. Her
elaboration of these crucial historical moments does not sound
as "a lecture on Egypt", because she talks about them as she
lived through them as a child.
A striking example of her first encounter with the ideological
construct of "Arabness" is the departure of her Jewish
best-friend, Joyce, from Egypt -- an event which colors her
perception of the Egyptian attitude toward Jews. The
confrontation with the British on the nationalization of the
Suez Canal brings up the position of Jews in the Egyptian
society. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the President, declares that the
Egyptian Jews may stay in the country "if they give up their
foreign passaports and accept Egyptian nationality" (p. 174).
As Joyce's family chooses to leave for England, the girls'
friendship ends by giving birth to two ideologically constructed
personas: an Egyptian Jew wandering in Europe to find her "new
home," and a Muslim struggling with Arabness and Egyptianness in
During her days in England, Ahmed realizes that she is living
through two different notions of the Arab, one constructed by
the West and the other perceived by the Arabs themselves. She
rebels against "other people's inventions, imputations, false
constructions of who [she is]-what [she] think[s], believe[s],
or ought to think or believe or feel"(pp. 255-6). Ahmed's
encounters with other Middle Eastern colleagues in England and
her visit to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates makes her
furthermore realize that being an Egyptian is actually different
from being an Arab. As she reads Eygptian history from a
different angle, she finds out that Egypt had taken different
positions than the other Arab nation-states first at the turn of
the twentieth century in favor of the Ottoman Empire against the
British, and then in the 1930s against the emerging Palestinian
opposition to Israel. Her reading about "the history of Jews in
Egypt and about Egypt's relation to Zionism and Palestinians"
shifts her "understanding of Egypt and its relation to the
Arabs." She sums up this self-enlightenment period by stating
that "the world was not as [she] assumed it to be and its seas
and continents after all were [she] thought they were" (p. 249).
A related "geographical" dislocation in her intellectual
contemplation is about her Muslim identity as a woman. In her
own words, Ahmed "became black when [she] went to England . . .
[and] a woman of color when [she] went to America" (p.238).
Ahmed meets with feminist analysis in the 1970s when she begins
to read American authors such as Kate Millett, Elaine Showalter,
Patricia Spacks, Adrienne Rich, and Mary Daly. When Ahmed comes
to the United States with enthusiasm for utilizing a feminist
approach in her scholarly work, she encounters the "whiteness"
of American feminism. She thinks about those days as being
interwoven with the "implication and presumption that, whereas
they -- white women, Christian women, Jewish women -- could
rethink their heritage and religions and traditions, we [Muslim
scholars] had to abandon ours because they were just
intrinsically, essentially, and irredeemably misogynist and
patriarchal in a way that theirs (apparently) were not"(pp.292).
She then feels the necessity to unpack these "white" prejudices
about women in Islam and allies herself with the emerging black
feminist criticism launched by June Jordan and bell hooks in the
This scholarly choice paves the way to her numerous articles and
her path-breaking book, Women and Gender in Islam: Historical
Roots of a Modern Debate. Ahmed provides the gist of her
thesis when she argues for the necessity to distinguish between
the oral Islamic tradition and textual Islam. The oral Islam
refers to everyday practices of women and the "ordinary
folk"(p.125). It constitutes the moral Islamic ethos that is
"gentle, generous, pacifist, inclusive, somewhat mystical."
Because oral Islam is passed on the younger generations "through
touch and the body and in words spoken in the living moment", it
is "subtle and evanescent"(p.121). Textual Islam, on the other
hand, is based on the "classical texts of Islam that only men
who had studied the classical Islamic literary heritage could
understand and decipher." Ahmed calls this "men's Islam"
Since the "foundational [Islamic] texts" were written in "eras
when men believed as a matter of categorical certainty that God
created them superior to women and fully intended them to have
dominion over women", the textual Islam is "largely
oppressive"(p.126). In contrast to the oral tradition of "women
and simple, unlearned folk," "men's Islam . . . has been
supported and enforced by sheiks, ayatollahs, rulers, states,
and armies . . . . [It] has wielded absolute power and has not
hesitated to eradicate-often with the same brutality as
fundamentalism today -- all dissent, all differing views, all
Ahmed tries to convey these two conflicting versions of Islam to
a Western audience. She does not advocate accepting either
version en masse but questioning the injustices of both as to
reach a less misogynist Islam. Her endeavor has its merits in
and of itself. Nevertheless, one needs to question the way
Ahmed identifies the followers of the two practices of Islam.
Though she tries to refrain from associating the two traditions
exclusively with women or men, she talks about oral Islam only
with respect to the practices of women. She mentions "ordinary
folk" -- composed of both men and women -- but she does not give
any examples of "ordinary" men's practices. She does not
elaborate comprehensively on the women who abide by the textual
Islam either. Within the discussion of "men's Islam," she
mentions Zeinab al-Ghazali, the founder of a Muslim Women's
Society, who advocated "the legitimacy of using violence in the
cause of Islam."
Ahmed attributes Zeinab al-Ghazali's "unpeaceful" Islamic
tendencies to her religious upbringing by her father "who had
attended Al-Azhar University [and] had received [a training] in
studying [classical Islamic texts]" (p.123). Zeinab al-Ghazali
is thus assumed to have an inborn predisposition that is
distorted by "men's" education. In between the lines, Ahmed
implies that if Zeinab al-Ghazali had been initiated into Islam
by her "female" relatives as Ahmed had been, she would not take
up violence as a solution. This ambiguous categorization of who
can be a "legitimate" knower of oral or textual Islam echoes the
renowned debates on the question of whether men can be feminists
(Digby 1998; Jardine and Smith 1987) and also reminds us of the
womanist theological attempts on the fringe of religious
essentialism(Sanders 1995). Though Ahmed presents a more
cautious analysis in her memoir, she needs to rethink her
analysis as to avoid criticisms of using universal categories
based on biological traits.
At the end of her memoir, Ahmed once more quotes Rumi, this time
referring to the stanze: "This is how it always is/ when I
finish a poem. / A great silence overcomes me, / and I wonder
why I ever thought to use language"(p.306). I contend that
these lines determine Ahmed's ultimate position in the struggle
between oral and textual Islam. Even though Ahmed's memoir may
not provide a clear-cut answer to this question, it definitely
presents a precise account of the changes both in the
socio-political architecture of the Middle East as well as its
twentieth century interpretations in academia.
Sanders, Cheryl J.(1995) eds. Living The Intersection:Womanism
and Afrocentrism in Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Digby, Tom. (1998) eds. Men Doing Feminism. New York:
Routledge. Jardine, Alice and Paul Smith (1987) eds. Men in
Feminism. New York: Methuen.
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