Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Books Monthly supplement Antara

The long journey
A Border Passage: From Cairo to America -- A Woman's Journey, Leila Ahmed, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. pp307

Cairo moments
I was at the Hilton, where my host, the American University of Cairo, had put me up. --read on--

Tales of the desert fox
The Armies of Rommel, George Forty, London: Arms and Armour, 1999. pp254

A peace with no winners
Ya Salam (Peace!), Nagwa Barakat, Beirut: Dar Al-Adab, 1999. pp190

Rural migrant workers in Egypt
Rural Labor Movements in Egypt, 1961-1992, James Toth, Cairo: AUC Press, 1999. pp246

Secret and moral histories
Al-Qame' fil-Khitab Al-Rowa'i Al-Arabi (Repression in the Discourse of the Arabic Novel), Abdel-Rahman Abu Ouf. Cairo: Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, 1999. pp263

New guide for the virtual traveller
The Splendours of Archaeology, ed. Fabio Bourbon, Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1999. pp352

When the sea changed its colour
Youghiyar Alouanah Al-Bahr ( The sea changes its colours), Nazik Al-Malaika, Cairo: Afaq Al-Kitaba (Writing Horizons) series of the Cultural Palaces Organisation, 1999. pp211

Next week, the Supreme Council for Culture will hold an international symposium to mark the passing of a century since the publication of Qasim Amin's The Liberation of Women. Here, Al-Ahram Weekly remembers Mai Ziyada, one of the most remarkable advocates of women's liberation in the Arab world
The mirror of Mai
Bahithat Al-Badia and Aisha Al-Taymouriya, Al-Anissa Mai (Mai Ziyada), edited and introduced by Safynaz Kazem, Cairo: Al-Hilal, 1999. pp372

Introducing Miss Mai
By Safynaz Kazem

At a glance
By Mahmoud El-Wardani

Magazines and Periodicals:

* Alif : Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 19, Cairo: The American University in Cairo, 1999
* Dafatir Thaqafiya (Cultural Notebooks), No. 22, Ramallah: The Palestinian Ministry of Culture, August 1999
* Nizwa , No. 19, Oman: Oman Institution for Journalism, News, Publication and Advertising, Summer 1999
* Fusul (Seasons), quarterly issued by the General Egyptian Book Organisation


* Al-Romouz Al-Tashkiliya fil Sehr Al-Sha'bi (Plastic Symbols in Popular Magic), Soliman Mahmoud Hassan, Cairo: General Organisation for Cultural Palaces, 1999. pp.231
* Islam in the Balkans , H. T. Norris, trans. Abdel-Wahab Aloub, ed. Mohamed Khalifa Hassan, Cairo: Supreme Council for Culture, 1999. pp299
* Leonardo, Edmundo Solmi, trans. Taha Fawzi, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp223
* St Mark and the Foundation of the Alexandrian Church, Samir Fawzi Girgis, trans. Nassim Megali, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 1999. pp159.

To see other book supplements go to the ARCHIVES index. 


Illustrations courtesy of International Commitee of the Red Cross
"Folk drawings and tales", Cairo, 1996

A Border Passage: From Cairo to America -- A Woman's Journey, Leila Ahmed, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. pp307

The long journey

Downtown Cairo in the 1940s Downtown Cairo in the 1940s
"A city that in my day had a population of perhaps a million was now home to nearly ten million. I abandoned any thought of nostalgic expeditions that, before arriving, I had thought I might make. I in fact had little time for nostalgia or for comparing how things had been and how different it all was now -- which was probably all to the good"

"I grew up in the last days of the British Empire. My childhood fell in that era when the words 'imperialism' and 'the West' had not yet acquired the connotations they have today..."

Leila Ahmed -- born in 1940 and now a professor of women's studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst -- shares the experience of a number of Egyptian women who were born in the middle years of the century, into families of the upper middle class and the aristocracy, and were thus able to capitalise on the then recent achievements of the feminist struggle, which recognised their right to an education. Once this right had been established, it was only natural that the families who could afford it would choose what they considered best for their girls. "It was taken for granted among the people who raised us that there was unquestionably much to admire in and learn from the civilizations of Europe and the great strides Europe had made in human advancement." Like all the daughters of the elite, Ahmed went to a foreign school, had a foreign nanny, spoke foreign languages at home and, as a young girl, did not feel particularly Egyptian, Arab or alienated from her European schoolmates. It is a characteristic of those times that many families of intellectuals and professionals saw no contradiction between their dedicated and often active nationalism -- their ardent desire to see an end to the occupation of their country -- and the fact that they were eager to entrust the task of raising their children to those most unlikely to encourage patriotic feelings.

Liela Ahmed A Border Passage
Leila Ahmed and her book
Ahmed's generation grew up in a sophisticated and cosmopolitan society in which a national or religious identity was of much less import than the development of one's own distinctiveness and personal talents. One is tempted to wonder about the destiny of these educated women, had the revolution not intervened to change the course of their lives. What would have Ahmed's choices have been then? Would she have continued, as a matter of course, to perpetuate a system which, with hindsight, can be credited for having developed some of the finest minds in the country?

For the past 40 years, it has been the fashion to decry and ridicule the ostentation of the pre-revolution upper classes in displaying their knowledge and appreciation of things foreign. Ahmed is completely taken by the writings of Thomas Hardy and his descriptions of the English landscape. One doubts that she was, at the same time, equally moved by the works of contemporary Egyptian writers. Like many young people of her generation, it is entirely possible that she became first acquainted with the works of Taha Hussein, for example, in translation. Instructors hired to teach Arabic in foreign schools were in the habit of venting their social frustration on pupils like Ahmed, whose scant knowledge of traditional Arab culture predictably signified an affluent background in those days. This attitude invariably alienated the best students of the class, whose proficiency in foreign languages and other subjects could have forged a solid basis on which to breed brilliant Arab scholars. As it happened, they were deterred from furthering their interest in their mother tongue.

Members of Ahmed's social class were further derided in the new atmosphere of the revolution for feeling equally at home in any European capital and being often more acquainted with the streets of Paris and London than with those of Cairo. In Beer in the Snooker Club, a novel by Waguih Ghali, Ram and Font, arriving in London for the first time (like Ahmed at Girton), are elated. "Just to stand in the streets of London was satisfaction enough for us," says Ram. "I loved Girton from the moment of my arrival on a day in early October as dusk was falling, the taxi turning into the college driveway and pulling up under the red brick tower with its college crest," writes Ahmed.

Hers was the first generation of young Egyptian women who had looked upon graduate studies overseas as a distinct possibility. With her foreign schoolmates, she had examined possibilities, made plans and chosen the most suitable college. "I didn't want to go to Cairo University or the American University in Cairo. I knew from friends at Cairo University that there was a kind of rote approach there, that one was expected to put down what the lecturer said verbatim and not what one thought for oneself, and to me that sounded deadly. The American University had a somewhat better reputation, but for some reason, I did not want to go there, either. I wanted to go to England and to Cambridge." That Nasser's revolution could snatch away arbitrarily a privilege she considered her birthright bewildered and almost destroyed her.

Equally shattering was the slow degradation of her parents' world and the shadow of guilt that hung over them. Insinuations of terrible crimes perpetrated by their class were meant to justify their destitution and the contempt with which it was now in style to regard them: "Within the house my parents lived from day to day, disoriented, like people whose ship had foundered. My mother in particular often looked as if she didn't quite recognise the world in which she found herself. And it was indeed a different world for the revolution affected my family in fundamental and irreparable ways."

These were difficult times for the children, who often found themselves forced to take sides. Many opted for the new socialist vision, which would right all previous wrongs and for the first time promote social justice in a country whose poor were so numerous. Ahmed herself had been acutely aware in her childhood of the social divide that separated the poor from the rich and which for her was symbolised by the beautiful garden surrounding her house and protecting her from the dangers and deprivations of the outside world. "It was hard, returning from Cambridge, to see how disheveled the garden had become as my parents' home subsided into decay," she writes, suddenly confronted with the extent of the irreversible change which had befallen her family. She was too imbued with her academic pursuits, however, to abandon her dream of further studies and stop to mull over the destruction of what had made the past so sweet. Instead, she decided to channel her energies in trying to secure a few more terms at her beloved Cambridge.

To many Egyptian women who chose -- or were forced by circumstances -- to remain with their ageing parents, giving up their dreams of higher education in a foreign country, Ahmed's decision to leave at any cost may seem somewhat surprising. This single-minded determination was not typical of young Egyptian women accustomed to sacrificing their own ambitions to the wishes of their families. One can only admire the utter generosity of her sick father and overburdened mother who encouraged her unwaveringly in her endeavour. Only the despondency that befell this segment of Egyptian society, whose security was annihilated overnight, can explain the ease with which family ties came undone during that period. Clearly, Ahmed felt a wrenching pain at the thought of her parents' disillusion with the political atmosphere and enforced solitude in their old age. Coming back periodically allowed her to measure the changes in their life and in the state of the country.

Nasser's revolution had destroyed the multinational, multireligious society that had thrived in Egypt for over a century, but the world had been changing at the same time. The devastation of her own world was not the only factor Ahmed had to contend with. The end of the European Empire, the rise of sentiments of nationalism and the redefinition of national boundaries forced her to start posing questions about her true identity. She was an Egyptian, an Arab, a Muslim and a woman living away from her country of birth; she felt that these labels needed to be reexamined and redefined. It is through this soul-searching journey that the reader accompanies her, following while she searches for her place in her society and culture, and examines the difference between the attitudes and beliefs of Muslim men and women, the way they interpret and practice their religion, discharge their social functions and relate to each other. Does she belong in this new context where many values are still confused, where men and women must continually devise new strategies to survive in a fast changing world?

In a simply and beautifully written account, Ahmed has laid bare the anxieties of a generation whose formative years were informed by pre- and post-Revolution political and economic issues and who have often been at a loss to define their identity and role in a world where impassioned nationalism has managed to flourish. Whether Ahmed, now an ardent feminist advocating multiculturalism and religious pluralism, can ultimately resolve the many contradictions of her heritage and find peace of mind remains to be seen, but clearly her present choices are still inscribed within the tradition of pre-Revolution Egypt and of those who, before her, succeeded in preserving their national and religious identities while comfortably roving across several cultures.

Reviewed by Fayza Hassan

   Top of page
Front Page