"A Border Passage: From Cairo to America -- a Woman's Journey" by Leila Ahmed

A Review by Sidra Vitale

"A Border Passage"

Lyrical. Reflective. Beautiful.

A very intimate autobiography because it's not an autobiography at all, it's about 'border passages' -- from child to adulthood, women's communities to patriarchal ones, citizenship to immigrant, and has stirred in me a strong desire to learn more about Islam. It blew a lot of my misconceptions out of the water, but in an incidental fashion: not, "You all think Muslim women are like this, you're wrong, here's the truth", but "when I was a child, I grew up this way, in a woman's community filled with the oral teachings of Islam, oral culture, oral tradition..." -- that's a harem -- lots of wonderful and instructive reminisences about her family and culture and growing up in Egypt during the time that Nassar came to power, the era when the word "Arab" was redefined, and the impact of her parents, her immediate family, and their beliefs on the sum and substance of her own life. In the course of this discussion is embedded a course on Egyptian history from the eyes of both a child, and the adult scholar who turned her attention to her own home and history.

Ahmed's comments on coming to America at the height of '60s feminism', when white middle-class women where questioning fundamental tenets of their society, yet being discouraged from asking similar questions of her own society's tenets, a pressure many 'feminists of color' experienced, was of particular interest to me. I think there may be an interesting parallel between that experience and the pressure on Third Wave feminists by some older feminists to not stray from the path established by them in the 60s, to not ask our own questions.

Ahmed's discussion of the impact of a literary emphasis on education in a culture that is predominately oral has caused me to question my own rigid assumption that if "it isn't written down, it didn't happen". She makes a fascinating point about patriarchal ideas of Islam being proliferated by 'Western' educational systems that assign more credence to the written word than the oral tradition. The story of Islam that is distributed to the world, is that of a bunch of dead misogynists, not the living religion. I find this fascinating, having had more exposure to Christianity than any other religion, which is a faith that is based on its literature -- though the faith is studied and transmitted orally by a minister to a flock, it is still based on the written word, and the faithful are expected to read that word.

An oral Islam, a women's Islam, contemplated, discussed, refined, educated in women's communities, very seperate from the written Islam, the men's Islam, is a religious division I had never considered. It's excited me to learn more about this Islam.

In sum, A Border Passage covers a great deal of ground, in an intimate, contemplative fashion: social (life in Egypt, England, the United Arab Emirates, and the USA), psychological (her parents, her moral and religious education, and passage into adulthood), and political (Arab nationalism, colonialism, post-colonialism, race in England, race and feminism in America ), all wrapped up in fundamental discussions of self-identity. Worth every moment spent reading it.

Read an excerpt.

Copyright 1999 Sidra M. S. Vitale.