A Border Passage is a book written by Leila Ahmed.
Growing up during the last days of the British colonial presence in Egypt, Leila Ahmed's childhood is marked by a collision of cultures. Among Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and other Egyptians from a similar class background in school, young Ahmed considers it quite normal to grow up speaking English or French and being called by the anglicized name “Lily” in school. Ahmed lives in Cairo, at the crossroads of spiritual hubs, ancient sites, and modern sprawl, in a beautiful house known as Ain Shams. Her father is an esteemed engineer who, as chairman of the Nile Water Control Board, had run into trouble with the government for opposing their plan to build the High Dam on ecological grounds. Though her father's concerns about the fate of the Nile River will ultimately be born out by the facts, his opposition to the government's grand improvement project will haunt him for years to come. Later, he will be harassed by authorities and have his bank account frozen.
As a young child, Ahmed is very attached to Nanny, her Croatian governess. Nanny is a deeply religious Christian and tells Ahmed stories of angels and the supernatural. Ahmed has a more conflicted relationship with her mother. Ahmed aspires to be a professional and views her mother with contempt for not working. Later, when Ahmed's father falls ill with chronic pneumonia, Ahmed will come to value her mother's dedication more, as well as the strength of the bond between her parents. One of Ahmed's closest childhood friends is Gina, a neighbor girl and the daughter of Italian parents. Gina's older brother, Freddy, subjects Ahmed to brutal and sexual games when she is around eight years old, and when Ahmed's mother finds out about it, she beats her and takes her to a doctor to be examined. In the aftermath of this event, Ahmed is forbidden to play outside, even with Gina, and is subjected to her mother's disdain, furthering the rift between mother and daughter.
Ahmed's view of Islam is shaped through the time she spends at her mother's childhood home of Zatoun, in Cairo, where Ahmed is surrounded by a rich and engaging community of women. While listening to her mother, grandmother, and other women converse, Ahmed learns about Islam as being a generous and pacifistic faith. Though she receives no direct religious instruction from these women, and her father has decided not to send her to an Islamic school, Ahmed nonetheless comes to appreciate the oral, living tradition of Islam, which, in contrast to the rigid, authoritative Islam that is handed down in texts, encompasses many interpretations. As much as she recognizes the positive force that this humane form of Islam has manifested in her family's life, she also recognizes the powerlessness of her mother and grandmother in the society they live in. Ahmed's grandmother, for instance, has for years been mourning the suicide of her son Fuad, a tragedy she blames on her husband's disapproval of Fuad. A similar fate befell Grandmother's daughter Aida, who committed suicide after being unable to secure permission for a divorce from an unhappy marriage through the stern figure of Grandfather. Because of these tragedies, the estate of Zatoun always seems to have a pall of gloom over it in young Ahmed's eyes.
Ahmed attends a British school in the suburbs of Cairo and prefers play to work, though her test scores and voracious appetite for books help her move ahead quickly in school. Jews and Muslims at the school are excused from the daily Christian prayers, and that's how Ahmed meets and befriends Joyce, a Jewish girl in her grade. Ahmed is encouraged to skip a grade, but her academic ambitions are tempered by the school's English headmaster, Mr. Price, who accuses her of plagiarizing her own well-written essays. Ahmed likewise finds her English teachers discouraging of her ambitions of pursuing science or mathematics. In school, Ahmed studies the history, geography, and flora and fauna of Europe, while learning little about that of her own country. Still, Ahmed isn't completely insulated from the politics of her day. She recognizes the growing influence of a group called the Muslim Brotherhood, which stands in opposition to colonialism and Western influence in the Middle East.
Ahmed is soon headed to Cambridge, England, to study literature, a place she reveres as an intellectual wonderland and the embodiment of all the things she remembers reading in English books as a child—forests, fog, turrets, and towers. Here, Ahmed finds a different kind of community of women in teachers like Mrs. Madge and Miss Bradbrook, and with friends like Veena, an Indian woman who shares some of Ahmed's feelings of displacement. At Cambridge, Ahmed experiences a more genteel form of racism, a feeling of being lumped together with all the people who aren't part of the white British establishment, no matter what their race or cultural background. Between her undergraduate and graduate days, Ahmed returns to Egypt to find it totally changed. Her father is gravely ill, and she can tell that her mother had suffered the burden of her father's illness as well as persecution via Nasser's increasingly repressive regime. Upon returning to Cambridge to begin graduate studies, Ahmed meets Alan, the man she will marry and eventually divorce.
During her graduate studies, Ahmed yearns for a place in the academy for the voices from the margins—blacks, women, and people from the third world. Toward the end of her graduate student days, Ahmed begins to suffer from a mysterious illness. After several frustrating visits with different doctors, Ahmed is finally diagnosed with sarcodosis, a chronic autoimmune disease. Ahmed reads Edward Said's Orientalism while trying to sort out her place as an Egyptian woman in the West. After leaving Cambridge, Ahmed accepts a teaching position in Abu Dhabi and joins a committee to help reform education throughout the United Arab Emirates. Recognizing the unique qualities of this “Gulf Arabic” culture helps her to re-examine the implications of her own “Egyptian Arabic” identity and her place in the larger Arab world. Ahmed moves to the United States and finds that the atmosphere in women's studies departments in the 1980s is not exactly hospitable to the viewpoints of women from other cultures. However, she does find her new environment exciting and intellectually stimulating, and even as she endeavors to make a contribution to her the world of ideas in her new home, she never turns her back on her Egyptian heritage.
- Leila Ahmed - An Egyptian woman and academic. Ahmed grew up in Cairo and attended an English school until she ultimately left Egypt to attend Cambridge University in England. Ahmed constantly finds herself in places where cultures intersect, clash, or inform each other, from her childhood in an English school in Cairo to her young adulthood in England to her experience as an academic in the United States. Chief among Ahmed's concerns is understanding the labels that are applied to her—Egyptian, Arab, black, feminist, intellectual—and unraveling the implications of being a Arab woman in the modern world.
- Ahmed's Mother - A Turkish woman and member of the upper class. Ahmed and her mother have a conflicted relationship, partially because of an incident that occurs when Ahmed is younger than ten. Ahmed's mother does not work, so she takes care of her husband when he becomes ill with chronic pneumonia. She draws Ahmed into a community of women that will forever influence Ahmed's view on Islamic culture.
- Ahmed's Father - An esteemed engineer and native Egyptian. Ahmed's father's life changes when he decides to oppose Prime Minister and President Nasser's plan to build the High Dam. Ahmed's father has legitimate environmental concerns, but his opposition costs him dearly, as he is persecuted by the government for the rest of his life. In her father, Ahmed also sees the roots of “colonial consciousness,” an acceptance or even reverence for the culture of the oppressor.
- Nanny - The governess who looks after Ahmed. Nanny, a Croatian woman, is sixty years old when Ahmed is born. During Ahmed's childhood, Nanny is her closest companion, though Nanny seems to be in constant conflict with Ahmed's mother. From Nanny, Ahmed adopts a reverent attitude for the world of the unseen, a world of ghosts and angels drawn from Nanny's deep Christian faith.
- Samia - Ahmed's cousin, four years her senior. Samia visits Ain Shams, Ahmed's home in Cairo, and spends hours discussing her love life with Ahmed's mother. Ahmed is perhaps envious of this relationship, one in which her mother offers wise and even-handed advice. If Samia were her own daughter, Ahmed's mother would, Ahmed is certain, be more judgmental.
- Grandmother - Ahmed's mother's mother. Grandmother presides over the lively group of women friends and relatives who gather in her home, Zatoun, to discuss everything from their lives to Islam to world events. Grandmother is in perpetual mourning over her son Fuad, who committed suicide, a tragedy she blames on unending conflict with his father.
- Grandfather - Ahmed's mother's father. Grandfather dresses well and is very formal, and he instills fear and reverence in his many children. Ahmed points to Grandfather's sternness and religious rigidity as contributing factors in the suicides of two of his children, Aida and Fuad.
- Um Said - Grandmother's servant. Um Said has been Grandmother's servant since she was a girl, and, accordingly, they have a very close relationship. Grandmother arranged Um Said's marriage, and though her husband has taken another wife, Um Said is still reluctant to divorce him. Um Said is the only servant welcome in the salon of women over which Grandmother presides.
- Yusef - Ahmed's mother's brother. Yusef was his family's only male heir, so he is responsible for carrying on the family line. Yusef married a French woman named Colette who converted to Islam for him. Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in his thirties, Yusef bowed to family pressure to divorce the infertile Collette and accept a new bride, only to have this arrangement end disastrously.
- Gina - Ahmed's childhood friend and neighbor. Gina is an Italian girl who spends long afternoons playing with Ahmed in the sprawling, beautiful garden that surrounds her house.
- Freddy - Gina's older brother. Freddy is six years older than Ahmed and subjects her to humiliating sexual games when she is eight or nine. Ahmed attempts to run away from and otherwise avoid Freddy, but he holds the threat of revealing everything about her over her head. Finally, the truth about Freddy's “games” comes out, and Ahmed is forbidden to ever play outside.
- Joyce - Ahmed's schoolmate and best friend. Joyce meets Ahmed when they are six at the English school they attend together. The two girls bond over the fact that they are excused from daily Christian prayers, as Joyce is Jewish and Ahmed is Muslim. Together, they share a passion for American movies. After the later conflagration with British, French, and Israeli forces over the Suez Canal, Joyce's family leaves the country, fearing persecution over their religion. Ahmed never hears from her again.
- Jean Said - Another schoolmate and friend of Ahmed's. Jean comes from a Christian Palestinian family and is the younger sister of Edward Said, the well-known scholar of Middle Eastern studies.
- Karima - Ahmed's mother's cousin. Karima was orphaned as a child and inherited enough money to live comfortably and independently. Karima represents a contrast to the fate of Aida in Ahmed's mind. Karima also found herself in an unhappy marriage, but since she had married on her own terms and knew how to invoke an Islamic law that would allow her to divorce, Karima was able to negotiate her way out of an untenable situation.
- Aida - Ahmed's mother's sister. Aida finds herself in a disastrous marriage, though her father won't allow her to divorce. Depressed and hopeless, Aida begins to take pills. Her husband arranged for her to get electroshock treatments, but nothing helps her. Aida finally resorts to suicide. To Ahmed, Aida's story represents a cautionary tale of what can happen to women in a rigid, patriarchal society.
- Mr. Price - The headmaster of Ahmed's English school. Mr. Price is doubtful that Ahmed could have written the essays she hands in. Ahmed's experience with Mr. Price opens her eyes to how people are categorized due to their culture, race, and gender.
- Veena - A fellow student at Cambridge. Veena, from a poor village in India, is a brilliant student of theoretical biochemistry, and a practicing Hindu and vegetarian. Veena falls in love with a Czech student, and when his family forbids their marriage, Veena has a nervous breakdown. In Veena's predicament, Ahmed discerns echoes of the circumstances of women in her family and throughout the Arab world.
- Alan - Ahmed's husband. Alan is an American and meets Ahmed during their graduate studies. They get married while Ahmed's mother is at Cambridge. Alan converts to Islam in order to win Ahmed's mother's approval, though the marriage lasts only a few years.
In Chapter 8, Ahmed sees the community of women she is immersed in at Cambridge as a “harem perfected.” Instead of belonging to the realm of male fantasy, the harem suggests for Ahmed a nurturing community of women in which the old preside over the young—and in this way is similar to the community of women that she knew as a child, at her grandmother's house. By transposing an image of great symbolic power from her own culture to a Western one, Ahmed reclaims its power to represent a haven for women. Though the harem is traditionally seen as a symbol of female subservience, Ahmed seems to be suggesting that at Cambridge it became a manifestation truer to its historical roots.
For the young Ahmed, angels represent the magic and mysteries of the unseen world and were first introduced to her as a concept by her deeply religious nanny. Angels are a unifying symbol of both Nanny's faith and Ahmed's Islam. Ahmed recalls her grandmother telling her that during the holy month of Ramadan, God allows angels to descend freely, and one can see them if one looks hard enough. She also recalls the sense of wonder that overtook her as she stood on a Cairo rooftop, waiting for the angels to appear. As a symbol of a rich, hidden world, angels serve as a concrete manifestation of the imaginative world that Ahmed develops as a child.
Ahmed writes of her childhood as having “its own music,” a music that is symbolic of both a sense of innocence and the seemingly effortless blending of disparate cultural influences that marked her childhood. This imagery of music helps brings together the past and present, an overlapping of thousand-year-old artifacts and religious sites and a young girl's dawning political consciousness. This music also unites place, the beautiful garden of Ain Shams with the gloomy richness of Zatoun, and Ahmed's family's trips to the shore. Ahmed's childhood, characterized by a unifying music, contrasts with her later experience of displacement, as she spends time in several places where diverse cultural influences are not so easily blended together.