Ahmed, born in Egypt in 1940, addresses topics such as imperialism, literacy, feminism, racism, and identity as they relate to her life before moving to the United States. Skillfully crafting her prose, Ahmed simultaneously uses the critical analysis of an academic (a PhD of Cambridge University, she currently teaches at Harvard Divinity School) to break down issues and introduce new ideas. In describing the Islam of her childhood, she writes of a “women’s Islam” distinct from a text-based, dogmatic “men’s Islam.” Ahmed laments the way written works dominate academia as reflecting “the ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ Islam”:
“Professors, for example, including a number who have no sympathy whatever for feminism, are now jumping on the bandwagon of gender studies and directing a plethora of dissertations on this or that medieval text with titles like ‘Islam and Menstruation.’ But such dissertations should more aptly have titles along the lines of ‘A Study of Medieval Male Beliefs about Menstruation.’ For what, after all, do these men’s beliefs, and the rules they laid down on the basis of their beliefs, have to do with Islam? Just because they were more powerful, privileged men in their society and knew how to write, does this mean they have the right forever to tell us what Islam is and what the rules should be?” (129-30)Ahmed shatters many stereotypes about Egypt, Islam, and Muslim women. It’s not that she goes out of her way to do it. Instead, she presents her life matter-of-factly and most stereotypes just don’t fit into that world. The large black veil was only worn by the lower classes? A Muslim man would encourage his daughter to pursue science? Ahmed’s mother saw pacifism as the core of Islam? These ideas are slipped into the story naturally, not as part of a “Let me explain real Islam to you” agenda. (The latter is usually the only alternative to Islamophobic sensationalism.)
When Ahmed does mean to shock and enlighten her readers, the topics are hardly clichéd. A chapter of the book is devoted to investigating the history of the label “Arab.” Egypt, as it turns out, is relatively new to the label. And the fact that Muslims are predisposed to supporting the Palestinian cause over Israel? Ahmed completely destroys this “fact,” uncovering in her research Egypt’s pro-Israel (dare I say Zionist?) past. Ideas that seem unimaginable become real in the memoir, and there lies Ahmed’s greatest strength. The background of politics, the thoughts on literature, the musings on religion are intriguing and enjoyable. But the greatest impression A Border Passage leaves upon the reader is the idea that all “facts” can be reevaluated. Ahmed teaches her critical eye, forcing readers to realize that nothing is simple. Not Egyptian identity, not British imperialism, not the spirituality of Muslim women. This may only be the story of one woman, but with this message it makes room for the stories of many.