Sunday, February 13, 2011

"in this house of memory"

I'm in the middle of re-reading Leila Ahmed's memoir A Border Passage. Ahmed is a professor of women's studies in religion at Harvard Divinity School. She's Egyptian, Muslim, and kinda awesome. Or hella awesome. Or something.

Though it's a memoir, A Border Passage actually starts with a brief history of modern (post-WWII, in this case) Egypt. Ahmed was born in 1940, so she experienced a lot of this firsthand: the end of the British Empire, the Egyptian revolution of 1952, the transition to Egyptians thinking of themselves as "Arab." This last part is particularly interesting:

Today we are so used to the idea of Egypt as "Arab" that it seems unimaginable that Egyptians ever thought of themselves as anything else. In fact, I made this assumption myself when I first began writing this memoir. It was only when my own discordant memories failed to make sense that I was compelled to look more closely into the history of our Arab identity. Eventually I began to see the constructed nature of our Arab identity as it was formed and re-formed to serve the political interests of the day (10).

The "political interests of the day," at that time, mainly meant Nasser and then Sadat. But, as Ahmed puts it:

But how else might Egyptians define themselves, if not as Arab?...Egyptians, for instance, might, with equal accuracy, define themselves as African, Nilotic, Mediterranean, Islamic, or Coptic. Or as all, or any combination of, the above. Or, of course, as Egyptian: pertaining to the land of Egypt (11).

It seems to me, as I re-read this memoir, that this search for an understanding of identity, particularly Egyptian identity, is what Ahmed's project here is all about. She traces her own history, as an upper-class child living in a very cosmopolitan, wealthy world: she speaks English, French, and Arabic; she has friends who are Christian, Jewish, and Muslim; she's raised primarily by a nanny; her father is an engineer for the government. When her father clashes with Nasser over the construction of the Aswan High Dam, Nasser essentially ruins her family.

One of the other fascinating things to me was the description of the all-women's space: the way that the women in her family would gather and talk, the way that the men would not dare invade this space. And in counterpart is Ahmed's understanding of Islam:

Islam, as I got it from [the other women in her family], was gentle, generous, pacifist, inclusive, somewhat mystical--just as they themselves were. Mother's pacifism was entirely of a piece with their sense of the religion. Being Muslim was about believing in a world in which life was meaningful and in which all events and happenings were permeated (although not always transparently to us) with meaning (121).

Ahmed's memoir is complex. She weaves her own history into the history of Egypt and its relationship with England. Ahmed herself is a product of colonialism, and she admits that she often looked down on her mother because her mother liked Egyptian and Arabic music (her mother was Turkish, her father Egyptian). When she talks about her family, she sees the history of colonialism written onto it:

When I began to look in my academic work at issues of colonialism and began to unmask the colonialist perspectives and racism embedded in texts on Arabs and the colonized, steeping myself in writings on internalized colonialism, I began to realize that it was not only in texts that these hidden messages were inscribed but that they were there, too, in my own childhood and in the very roots of my consciousness (25).

As I watch and read about Egypt now, it is with Ahmed in mind: the way she talks about her religion, her country, and her search for her own identity through the lens of Egypt's identity. I'd be curious to know what she thinks about what's going on now.


  1. As I understand it, the Egyptians circa WWII thought of themselves as substantially better than the Arabs - they had a truly ancient culture that outsiders considered actually worthy of study. It was quite a major cultural shift to get them to start regarding themselves as more friendly with Arabs than with the West.

  2. That is the sense that I got as well, from how Ahmed talks about Egyptian culture. But it seems that the "better than the Arabs" attitude also came from internalized colonialism, especially since--in Ahmed's world, anyway--there was such a split between "commoners" and the more cosmopolitan, Europeanized Egyptians with whom Ahmed's family socialized.

    Fascinating book, if you want to give it a try.

  3. Speaking of Egyptian feminists, did you see that Nawal El Saadawi was in the crowd at Tahrir Square? We should all be so lucky, to live to eighty and still possess the fire of revolt!

  4. I did see her! And I kinda might have given a little squeal and had a flashback to one of Betsy's classes (probably Post-Colonial Women's Novels).

    Amazing women.