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A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman's Journey


A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman's Journey

Ahmed, Leila. A Border Passage: From Cairo to America--A Woman’s Journey (Penguin Books, Reissue edition, 2000).

An Excerpt--Border Passage: From Cairo to America--A Woman’s Journey

Egypt: The Background


It was as if there were to life itself a quality of music in that time, the era of my childhood, and in that place, the remote edge of Cairo. There the city petered out into a scattering of villas leading into tranquil country fields. On the other side of our house was the profound, unsurpassable quiet of the desert.

There was, to begin with, always the sound--sometimes no more than a mere breath--of the wind in the trees, each variety of tree having its own music, its own way of conversing. I knew them all like friends (when we left in the summers for Alexandria I would, the last day, make the round of the garden saying goodbye to the trees), although none more intimately than the two trees on either side of the corner bedroom I shared with Nanny. On one side was the silky, barely perceptible breath of the mimosa, which, when the wind grew strong, would scratch lightly with its thorns at the shutters of the window facing the front of the house, looking out onto the garden. On the other side was the dry, faintly rattling shuffle of the long-leaved eucalyptus that stood by the window facing the street. On hot nights the street lamp cast the shadows of the slender twirling eucalyptus leaves onto my bedroom wall, my own secret cinema. I would fall asleep watching those dancing shadows, imagining to myself that I saw a house in them and people going about their lives. They would appear at the door or windows of their shadow house and talk and come out and do things on the balcony. I would go to bed looking forward to finding out what had happened next in their lives.

I loved the patterns of light cast by leaves on the earth and I loved being in them, under them. The intricate, gently shifting patterns that the flame tree cast where the path widened toward the garden gate, fading and growing strong again as a cloud passed, could hold me still, totally lost, for long moments.

Almost everything then seemed to have its own beat, its own lilt: sounds that distilled the sweetness of being, others that made audible its terrors, and sounds for everything between. The cascading cry of the karawan, a bird I heard but never saw, came only in the dusk. Its long melancholy call descending down the scale was like the pure expression of lament at the fall of things, all endings that the end of light presaged.

Then there was the music of the street beyond the garden hedge in the day, not noisy but alive, between long intervals of silence, with the sounds of living. People walking, greeting one another, the clip-clop of a donkey, sometimes of a horse. Street vendors' calls--"tama-a-tim" for tomatoes, "robbabe-e-eccia-a" for old clothes and furniture. And the sound, occasionally, of cars, though rarely enough for us to be able to detect the horn and the engine even of our own car. Our dog, Frankie, could detect it long before we could, when the car was still almost two miles away. That was how Frankie died in the end, running out as he always did to greet my father when he arrived in the car driven by a uniformed government chauffeur. Frankie's front paw got run over, leaving him whimpering about in a cast that he soon chewed through. Father put a guard on his mouth but it was too late; Frankie got gangrene and died. More precisely, he was put down, although this was kept from me at the time.

Then there was the sound sometimes, in the earliest morning, of the reed piper walking past our house. His pipe sounded private, like someone singing to himself. A simple, lovely sound, almost like speech, like a human voice. He would say "good morning" with his pipe and one knew it to be "good morning." When he passed, it would feel as if something of infinite sweetness had momentarily graced one's life and then faded irretrievably away.

Years later I'd discover that in Sufi poetry this music of the reed is the quintessential music of loss and I'd feel, learning this, that I'd always known it to be so. In the poetry of Jalaluddin Rumi, the classic master-poet of Sufism, the song of the reed is the metaphor for our human condition, haunted as we so often are by a vague sense of longing and of nostalgia, but nostalgia for we know not quite what. Cut from its bed and fashioned into a pipe, the reed forever laments the living earth that it once knew, crying out, whenever life is breathed into it, its ache and its yearning and loss. We too live our lives haunted by loss, we too, says Rumi, remember a condition of completeness that we once knew but have forgotten that we ever knew. The song of the reed and the music that haunts our lives is the music of loss, of loss and of remembrance.

That's how it was in the beginning, how it was to come to consciousness in this place and this time and in a world alive, as it seemed, with the music of being.

And yet also, as I sit here now, in these halls, in this house of memory, it is not in those days and those moments that my story begins. Rather, it begins for me with the disruption of that world and the desolation that for a time overtook our lives. For it was only then that I'd begin to follow the path that would bring me--exactly here.

And so it is with those years and their upheaval and with the politics that framed our lives that I must begin.

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--they had not yet become, that is, mere synonyms for "racism," "oppression," and "exploitation."

Or, at any rate, they had not yet become so among the intellectual, professional, and governing classes of Egypt. In Cairo it was entirely ordinary, among those classes, to grow up speaking English or French or both, and quite ordinary to attend an English or French school. It was taken for granted among the people who raised us that there was unquestionably much to admire in and learn from the civilization of Europe and the great strides that Europe had made in human advancement. No matter that the European powers were politically oppressive and indeed blatantly unjust; nor did it seem to matter that the very generation which raised us were themselves locked in struggle with the British for Egypt's political independence. There seemed to be no contradiction for them between pursuing independence from the European powers and deeply admiring European institutions, particularly democracy, and Europe's tremendous scientific breakthroughs.

This was the common ethos among other Middle Easterners, too. My schoolmates at the English School in Cairo included Syrians, Lebanese, and Palestinians from the same broad class background as mine, and their attitudes toward English, like mine, no doubt reflected the attitudes of our parents. One of my two best friends through my school years was Jean Said, who would later write Beirut Fragments; she was the younger sister of Edward Said, the well-known theorist and literary critic. They were Christians of Palestine and we were Muslims of Egypt, but their attitudes were not discernibly different from ours. Our very names--Edward, Jean, and my own school name, Lily, an anglicized version of my given name--plainly suggest our parents' admiration of things European.

At home my parents' heroes were Gandhi and, to a lesser extent, Nehru, as well as the leaders of Egypt's own struggle for independence, such as Saad Zaghloul. Egypt in the decades of my parents' youth and young adulthood--that is, the 1920s, 30s and 40s--was, in fact, slightly ahead of India in its pursuit of independence and democratic rule. By the early twenties Egypt had won partial independence from Britain, established itself as a constitutional monarchy, and installed its first democratically elected government. The new government believed that education was key to ensuring Egypt's stability as a democracy and began at once to open more free schools, for girls as well as boys. By the late twenties Egypt's first modern university opened its doors.

For three decades the country was a democracy. Then came the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, which drove the old governing classes out of power and put an end to their dreams. Democracy was abolished and Egypt was declared a socialist state, drawing its political inspiration now not from the democracies of the West but from the Soviet Union. The revolution had inaugurated a new and fiercer type of anti-imperialist, anti-Western rhetoric, which would become the dominant rhetoric of the postrevolutionary age.
Already in the thirties and forties events had begun to prepare the ground for revolution as well as for a deepening anger at and disillusionment with the Western powers.

Egypt, like many countries, was caught up in the eddies of the Great Depression, which overtook Europe and America and which came in Egypt just as the new graduates of the expanded schooling were entering the workforce, looking for the professional opportunities their education had promised. Already, even before this, Egypt had been experiencing its first glut of school and college graduates. Frustrated in their hopes of upward mobility, increasingly alienated from the government and its rival parties, these aspiring members of the middle and lower-middle classes began to turn to alternative organizations of opposition. They turned, above all, to the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood, founded in the late twenties, aimed to institute Islamic government in Egypt and free the country from lingering and still-palpable British domination. The Brotherhood grew rapidly through the thirties, in particular among those educated and alienated lower-middle classes. While the government merely talked about improving conditions, the Brotherhood got down to work raising charitable funds from its members and establishing free health clinics and other much-needed centers providing vital assistance and relief. As the Brotherhood's influence grew, its profoundly negative view of imperialism and the West became more familiar and widespread.

In the thirties, too, Egypt, which had hitherto kept its distance from the Arab East, began to find itself more and more drawn into negotiations around the question of Palestine. European immigration to Palestine surged with the rise of Fascism in Europe, and reports of Palestinian uprisings and brutal British reprisals were more and more frequently in the news. Egyptian sympathy for the Palestinians grew, as did outrage at the flagrancy of imperialist injustice. The Muslim Brotherhood also took up the Palestinian cause.

Already, then, Egyptian attitudes toward the West were beginning to radically change. Then, in the forties, cataclysmic events cast an altogether bleaker and more lurid light on Europe and its civilization. Postwar revelations about the death camps in Germany and America's dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki now called into question the very notion of European and Western civilization. Many, including people of the class and generation who had once so admired the West, found themselves compelled to ask in what human values, indeed in what garbling of human values, this civilization of Europe was after all grounded. Toward what abyss was this flagship civilization leading humanity?

Such events precipitated a sense of shock and revulsion. Probably no one gave voice to this sense more succinctly than Gandhi, wrestling as he was with Western civilization and the new order of violence. "There have been cataclysmic changes in the world," he said, responding to news of the atom bomb. "It has been suggested by American friends that the atom bomb will bring ahimsa [nonviolence] as nothing else can. It will, if it is meant that its destructive power will so disgust the world that it will turn it away from violence for the time being. This is very like a man glutting himself with dainties to the point of nausea and turning away from them only to return with redoubled zeal after the effect of nausea is over. Precisely in the same manner will the world return to violence with renewed zeal after the effect of disgust is worn out." Hiroshima and the gas chambers of Germany were not merely distant events without effect on Egyptian lives. Egyptian memoirs from that era record how these events indelibly marked the writer's consciousness. In our house they had a direct impact on my mother. She became a pacifist. She required my brothers to take a solemn oath, which we were all summoned to witness, that they would never serve as combatants in any war. It was an oath they kept. In the Suez conflict, when one of my brothers was drafted, he served at the front as an ambulance driver.

The final blow that would trigger the revolution in Egypt would come with the founding of Israel, swiftly, followed by Egypt's and the Arabs' defeat by Israel in the war of 1948. Egypt's defeat, profoundly galling to the army, was rumored to have been caused by corruption at the highest levels of the military establishment, members of which, it was said, in collusion with the king, had pocketed the funds intended for military supplies, procuring instead, and passing off on the army, cheap, defective equipment.
The revolution of 1952 was planned in the aftermath of that defeat by a group of young, bright, capable army officers smarting from the humiliation of a defeat suffered, they believed, entirely because of the corruption of the establishment.

One of these young officers was Gamal Abdel Nasser. Another was Anwar al-Sadat.

Egyptians would take pride in the fact that Egypt's revolution was a bloodless one. While other revolutions in the region--the Iraqi revolution, for example, which came soon after the Egyptian--would carve out a bloody path, in Egypt the royal family was treated with civility. The deposed King Farouk even received a twenty-one-gun salute as his yacht sailed out of his palace harbor in Alexandria to exile in Italy. I recall following its progress across the horizon. Violence, Egyptians said with pride back then, was not the Egyptian way. Egyptians, they said, had a tradition of abhorring violence. Even people who would eventually come to hate Nasser and the Egyptian Revolution would give the revolutionaries credit for having honored this tradition of nonviolence.

Following the revolution, the state took control of the media and set in motion a propaganda machine that tirelessly disseminated its new message of socialism and anti-imperialism, and also of something quite new to Egypt at the time, Arab nationalism.

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 carefully 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. For example, during the years of my adolescence and early adulthood, Egypt underwent several changes in name, reflecting the shifting definitions of our identity. Under Nasser, when the idea that we were Arab was incessantly hammered home in the media, the word "Egypt" was removed altogether from the country's name--and we became the United Arab Republic as we united, briefly, with Syria. Through the Nasser era the country retained that name, even though the union with Syria dissolved within a couple of years. Eventually, in a sign of shifting political winds, Sadat brought back the word "Egypt" and we became the Arab Republic of Egypt. Of course, the issue of identity, a profoundly ambiguous matter for Egypt, was inescapably and deeply political. Sadat, who published his autobiography during his presidency, actually called his book In Search of Identity.

If the president of Egypt himself, no less, was searching for his identity, no wonder that I, crossing the threshold into my teenage years in that era of revolution, would find myself profoundly confused and conflicted and, forever after, haunted by feelings of deep uncertainty and a mysteriously guilt-ridden sense of ambiguity. Identity was not simply a matter of rhetoric and politics but something that directly touched my own life in personal if unarticulated ways. While Jean Said was a Palestinian Christian, my other best friend, Joyce Alteras, was an Egyptian Jew. The new definition of our identity that was being crystallized in those years had direct implications, as I am sure I sensed, for the Jews of Egypt.

But how else might Egyptians define themselves, if not as Arab? Were Egypt not hostage, as it has been in our time, to a politics that so firmly fixes its identity as Arab, we might easily see that, on the basis of the country's history and geography, there are in fact quite a number of other ways of conceiving of Egyptian identity.

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.

Pertaining to the land of Egypt. Pertaining--to use the indigenous ancient Egyptian word for this land--to Kemi. "Mizraim," as it is called in the Bible. "Musur" to the Assyrians. "Aigyptos" (from Hikuptah, one of the names of Memphis), as the Greeks called it, when Egypt became a province of their Hellenic Empire, "Aegyptus" to the Romans, when we became part of their empire. "Misr" to the Arabs, when they, too, conquered Egypt. "Masr," as we Egyptians call it. "Masr," as we call our capital too. Masr. "Cairo" to English speakers, "al-Qahira" to Arabs. A city founded, in fact, by the Arabs a little over a thousand years ago, soon after they conquered the country. Founded on a site fifteen miles or so north of Memphis, the ancient capital of Egypt--a city dating from about 3000 BCE. "Memphis" from "Mennufer," City of the Good.

They came in, the revolutionaries, with high ideals and good intentions. They simply wanted, they said, to cleanse society and bring the corruption with which it was rife to an end. The revolution, they said, would sweep out the old corrupt order and end the injustices of class oppression that had forever plagued this country, with its extremes of wealth and poverty. This would be a new era, they said, an era of equality and opportunity for all. Democracy, they said, had failed; socialism now was the only answer. The old, unscrupulous rich would have their wealth stripped from them; their properties would be nationalized and put to use for the benefit of all the people. The land they owned would be taken from them (anything over two hundred feddans--about two hundred acres) and distributed to the peasantry. And the factories they owned would be taken over and run by the government for the benefit, now, of all the people.

Of course the old upper classes and propertied middle classes did not like losing what they had owned and did not like the revolution and the new laws nationalizing this and that and stripping them of the wealth they had inherited or themselves built up. But there were many members of those classes, too, who disliked and feared what the revolutionaries were doing, not out of greed but out of political conviction. They believed that the revolutionaries' first act, of suspending and then abolishing democracy, augured ominously for the country's future.

The revolution did in fact bring about some positive and important changes. It immediately instituted free schooling for all and free college education for all who qualified, both men and women. Although even this policy had its costs, in the enormous overcrowding of schools, colleges, and universities and a resulting dramatic decline in educational standards, it had the extremely significant effect of opening up educational and professional opportunities for all classes, and it brought about a class mobility and a democratization of wealth unprecedented in Egypt's recent history. Even more fundamentally, perhaps, it effected a transformation of consciousness and expectation by making equality of opportunity a basic assumption of society. To be sure, though, Egypt continues to be a society marked by vast inequalities--no less vast today, perhaps, than in the old days.

But gradually it became apparent that there was a more somber side to the revolution. Soon enough it became a blatant dictatorship, with Nasser emerging from the initial group of revolutionaries as the sole ruler, whom no one could challenge or defy. Soon, too, corruption became the order of the day at the hands of a new ruling class, many of them military men, who had come in on the coattails of the revolutionaries. Political repression became the norm and Egypt's prisons began to bulge with political prisoners. The mukhabarat, a Soviet-style network of informers and secret police whose purpose was to ferret out critics and dissidents, became a pervasive presence in society.

This was not what the young revolutionaries had meant to happen. But here it was; it had happened.

This darker side of the revolution would in due course affect my own family. The problems that were just beginning to touch our lives when I left for college in England in the late fifties had become, by the time I returned, full-blown. These years following my return to Egypt were to be, for me, quite crucial. They marked the end, in important ways, of the enormously privileged life I had until then taken for granted. They changed me forever. At once turning point and crucible, they fundamentally shaped my life and my work and who I became.


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