An Egyptian woman and academic. Ahmed grew up in Cairo and attended an English school until she ultimately left Egypt to attend Cambridge University in England. Ahmed constantly finds herself in places where cultures intersect, clash, or inform each other, from her childhood in an English school in Cairo to her young adulthood in England to her experience as an academic in the United States. Chief among Ahmed’s concerns is understanding the labels that are applied to her—Egyptian, Arab, black, feminist, intellectual—and unraveling the implications of being a Arab woman in the modern world.
A Turkish woman and member of the upper class. Ahmed and her mother have a conflicted relationship, partially because of an incident that occurs when Ahmed is younger than ten. Ahmed’s mother does not work, so she takes care of her husband when he becomes ill with chronic pneumonia. She draws Ahmed into a community of women that will forever influence Ahmed’s view on Islamic culture.
An esteemed engineer and native Egyptian. Ahmed’s father’s life changes when he decides to oppose Prime Minister and President Nasser’s plan to build the High Dam. Ahmed’s father has legitimate environmental concerns, but his opposition costs him dearly, as he is persecuted by the government for the rest of his life. In her father, Ahmed also sees the roots of “colonial consciousness,” an acceptance or even reverence for the culture of the oppressor.
The governess who looks after Ahmed. Nanny, a Croatian woman, is sixty years old when Ahmed is born. During Ahmed’s childhood, Nanny is her closest companion, though Nanny seems to be in constant conflict with Ahmed’s mother. From Nanny, Ahmed adopts a reverent attitude for the world of the unseen, a world of ghosts and angels drawn from Nanny’s deep Christian faith.
Ahmed’s cousin, four years her senior. Samia visits Ain Shams, Ahmed’s home in Cairo, and spends hours discussing her love life with Ahmed’s mother. Ahmed is perhaps envious of this relationship, one in which her mother offers wise and even-handed advice. If Samia were her own daughter, Ahmed’s mother would, Ahmed is certain, be more judgmental.
Ahmed’s mother’s mother. Grandmother presides over the lively group of women friends and relatives who gather in her home, Zatoun, to discuss everything from their lives to Islam to world events. Grandmother is in perpetual mourning over her son Fuad, who committed suicide, a tragedy she blames on unending conflict with his father.
Ahmed’s mother’s father. Grandfather dresses well and is very formal, and he instills fear and reverence in his many children. Ahmed points to Grandfather’s sternness and religious rigidity as contributing factors in the suicides of two of his children, Aida and Fuad.
Grandmother’s servant. Um Said has been Grandmother’s servant since she was a girl, and, accordingly, they have a very close relationship. Grandmother arranged Um Said’s marriage, and though her husband has taken another wife, Um Said is still reluctant to divorce him. Um Said is the only servant welcome in the salon of women over which Grandmother presides.
Ahmed’s mother’s brother. Yusef was his family’s only male heir, so he is responsible for carrying on the family line. Yusef married a French woman named Colette who converted to Islam for him. Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in his thirties, Yusef bowed to family pressure to divorce the infertile Collette and accept a new bride, only to have this arrangement end disastrously.
Ahmed’s childhood friend and neighbor. Gina is an Italian girl who spends long afternoons playing with Ahmed in the sprawling, beautiful garden that surrounds her house.
Gina’s older brother. Freddy is six years older than Ahmed and subjects her to humiliating sexual games when she is eight or nine. Ahmed attempts to run away from and otherwise avoid Freddy, but he holds the threat of revealing everything about her over her head. Finally, the truth about Freddy’s “games” comes out, and Ahmed is forbidden to ever play outside.
Ahmed’s schoolmate and best friend. Joyce meets Ahmed when they are six at the English school they attend together. The two girls bond over the fact that they are excused from daily Christian prayers, as Joyce is Jewish and Ahmed is Muslim. Together, they share a passion for American movies. After the later conflagration with British, French, and Israeli forces over the Suez Canal, Joyce’s family leaves the country, fearing persecution over their religion. Ahmed never hears from her again.
Another schoolmate and friend of Ahmed’s. Jean comes from a Christian Palestinian family and is the younger sister of Edward Said, the well-known scholar of Middle Eastern studies.
Ahmed’s mother’s cousin. Karima was orphaned as a child and inherited enough money to live comfortably and independently. Karima represents a contrast to the fate of Aida in Ahmed’s mind. Karima also found herself in an unhappy marriage, but since she had married on her own terms and knew how to invoke an Islamic law that would allow her to divorce, Karima was able to negotiate her way out of an untenable situation.
Ahmed’s mother’s sister. Aida finds herself in a disastrous marriage, though her father won’t allow her to divorce. Depressed and hopeless, Aida begins to take pills. Her husband arranged for her to get electroshock treatments, but nothing helps her. Aida finally resorts to suicide. To Ahmed, Aida’s story represents a cautionary tale of what can happen to women in a rigid, patriarchal society.
The headmaster of Ahmed’s English school. Mr. Price is doubtful that Ahmed could have written the essays she hands in. Ahmed’s experience with Mr. Price opens her eyes to how people are categorized due to their culture, race, and gender.
A fellow student at Cambridge. Veena, from a poor village in India, is a brilliant student of theoretical biochemistry, and a practicing Hindu and vegetarian. Veena falls in love with a Czech student, and when his family forbids their marriage, Veena has a nervous breakdown. In Veena’s predicament, Ahmed discerns echoes of the circumstances of women in her family and throughout the Arab world.
Ahmed’s husband. Alan is an American and meets Ahmed during their graduate studies. They get married while Ahmed’s mother is at Cambridge. Alan converts to Islam in order to win Ahmed’s mother’s approval, though the marriage lasts only a few years.