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  • A Border Passage:From Cairo to America—a Woman's Journey
  • Leila Ahmed (bio)

I will read two selections from my book A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—a Woman's Journey, one from the very beginning, to give a sense of the book's flavor, and another from the chapter called "Harem," which focuses and reflects on the issues of the relation of women to Islam.1

I read now from the very beginning of my book:

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.

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.

Next I will read short excerpts from chapter 5, which deals with growing up in that world:

By the time my mother was a child, the practices of concubinage ceased to be. But the attitudes underlying those bygone customs were not quite gone.

Looking back now with the assumptions of my own time, I could well conclude that the ethos of this world whose attitudes survived into my own childhood must have been an ethos in which women were regarded as inferior creatures, essentially sex objects and breeders, to be bought and disposed of for a man's pleasure. But my memories do not fit with such a picture. I simply do not think that the message I got from the women of Zatoun was that we, the girls, and they, the women, were inferior. But what, then, was the message of Zatoun? I don't think it was a simple one. I can only set down what I remember of Zatoun and Siouf in Alexandria, my mother's family's summer home.

I skip forward now to a description of how we lived in Alexandria,

where all of us—my mother and her sisters and their children and Grandmother—summered together, at the Alexandria house at Siouf.

Islam, as I got it from them, was a gentle, generous, pacifist, inclusive, somewhat mystical religion—just as they themselves were.

Mother's pacifism, let me note here, was entirely of a piece with their sense of religion. She was a determined pacifist, as I describe in an earlier passage, and extracted from each of my brothers an oath that they would never serve as combatants in any war. When, during the Suez war, my brother was called to the army, he stayed true to his oath. I see now in looking back how her pacifism, in fact, made complete sense, given their community's understanding of religion.

Being Muslim, and also being Christian or Jewish in that multi-religious community in which I grew up, 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. Religion was above all about inner things. The outward signs of religiousness, such as prayer and fasting, might be signs of a true religiousness but equally well might not. They were certainly...


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pp. 79-82
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