Wednesday, February 20, 2008

More Than a Memoir

The secret life of the Middle Eastern Muslim woman is a hot topic. In bookstores around the world, books line the shelves displaying covers of teasing confessionals — desert princesses, seductive eyes lined with makeup behind a niqab, life when related to a terrorist, the disturbing details of what Muslims do to their women. These salacious tales are told by real-live women — don’t you just love memoirs? But there’s one memoir that won’t be snapped up by readers longing for the intriguing stories of those poor, abused Muslim now-saved women. It’s Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage: from Cairo to America—a Woman’s Journey. A memoir that goes beyond mere memories to social issues across continents, the book doesn’t give neo-Orientalist drama a glance. Published in 1999, the memoir has not lost its relevance even nearly a decade later. In fact, Ahmed’s beautifully written reflections on her Egyptian childhood and British education may be even more necessary today.

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 clich├ęd. 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.