Monday, June 05, 2000

A Border Passage - by Leila Ahmed - Book Review

A Border Passage is not a typical autobiography. It has many elements of an autobiography, but it is also a book of well reasoned essays on some of the most difficult aspects of the history of Egypt and its culture. Essays on Islam, imperialism and on the identity and language of Egypt.

Leila Ahmed recount of her childhood and upbringing in Cairo and Alexandria is beautifully written. Her complex relationship with and her views of her mother are an important theme in the first half of the book. Her analysis of the social impact of the colonial and post colonial on her own family and the events that surrounded her is particularly insightful.
In writing this book Leila Ahmed clearly has done a considerable amount of sole searching with objective detachment. She describes that process and articulates clearly her reasoning. You can actually sense the struggle and pain she went through to reach a particular conclusion. This is the work of a sensitive person with a superb analytical mind and an ability to reflect. I particularly enjoyed her pointing out of what was a recollection and knowledge in retrospect, in her process of understanding an issue or an emotion.
The book contains a very well researched and argued section on the "Arabization" of Egypt. Here, she presents why she is not an Arab, but rather an Egyptian, from a historical, cultural, linguistic and social viewpoint. She illustrates with significant historical substantiation Arabism in Egypt as a colonial invention. Yet, she appears to be willing to accept an Arab identity as well as an Egyptian one in the west, because of what she shares with Arabs in the west. She talks of two "Arabnesses", I think I understood her correctly, but I am not sure. If you are interested in the subject you will find this part very rewarding, and if you couldn't care less, it will still be fascinating. It is her search for an identity, and her willingness to accept an additional identity in the west so as not to see herself escaping, in vain, the negative connotations that she has dedicated her life to fight.
A Border Passage is remarkable in its political correctness. This, largely, comes across as natural political correctness, not forced or contrived. It comes across from Leila Ahmed's own suffering from racial, religious and gender discrimination. She tells of stories of a teacher giving her no grades, because he couldn't believe an Egyptian could do in English what she did. She tells of man a spitting in her face in England once he found out she is Egyptian not an Israeli. She also tells of American feminists not taking her seriously because she is a Moslem. As a result of her own experiences, she was very careful not to offend sensibilities particularly in the West.
This is a truly wonderful, sensitive, insightful, lyrical and brave book.