A Border Passage

Leila Ahmed

A Border Passage.

“I remember it as a time, that era of my childhood, when existence itself seemed to have its own music – a lilt and music that made up the ordinary fabric of living. There was the breath of the wind always, and the perpetual murmur of trees; the call of the karawan that came in the dusk, dying with the dying light; the reed-piper playing his pipe in the dawn and, throughout the day, the music of living: street-vendors' calls; people passing in the street, talking; the clip-clop of a donkey; the sound of a motor car; dogs barking; the cooing of pigeons in the siesta hour.”

The writer of this passage, Leila Ahmed, grew up in Cairo during the 1940s and '50s in a family that was eagerly and passionately political,and that proudly supported the movement for Egyptian independence (Egypt at that time was still ruled by Britain). Her story, A Border Passage, told in language that vividly evokes the lush summers of her Cairo youth and the harshness of the Arabian desert, can help readers understand the passages between cultures that so affect our global society. Subtitled “From Cairo to America – A Woman's Journey,” Ms. Ahmed's story is compelling in its portrayal of both her personal life and the historical events that caught up her family and country.

“Such was the summer we were having when Nassar made his speech nationalizing the Suez Canal on the twenty-sixth of July, the fourth anniversary of the revolution. He was speaking in the main square in Alexandria and once could hear on the radio the surges of euphoric applause breaking in as he spoke – and he spoke for hours. There was no euphoria in our home. Even back in the days of the revolution, the news of it, of the coup that had sent the king into exile, had been received somberly at home, much to my incomprehension. I'd often heard my parents lament the corruption of the king, and so logically they should be pleased now, I thought. But to them, it was a military coup – a group of officers had cut through the democratic process and forcibly seized power. Democracy in Egypt, they feared, was at the very least in jeopardy, and perhaps at an end. And of course they were right. By 1956 the country was a dictatorship, though it was not called that: Nassar was the country's 'democratically' elected president, and he would continue for the rest of his life to be 'democratically' elected and re-elected, always receiving 99 percent of the vote....

The nationalism speech was to be the first shot in an unfolding drama that would become a landmark in world history, bringing about an end to old-style imperialism and, above all, to the old-style assumptions and attitudes of imperialism that had been the norm. The nationalization of the canal and, even more directly, the British and French reactions to it would also transform Nassar from a dictator in Egypt who had begun to resort to repressive measures to control discontent at home and with, as yet, only a relatively small following abroad, to a Third World hero and the uncontested leader of the Arab world.”

Constructed from the entanglements of history and memory, this intricate and compelling memoir narrates both  Leila Ahmed's coming of age and the twentieth-century history of her country. A Border Passage is remarkable and moving, and deeply personal, telling the story of what it meant to go through the multiple geographic, cultural, and identity passages that the journey entailed. Be sure to read all about it.

Copyright © 2004, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.