Born in 1940 in Cairo, Leila Ahmed grew up during a time of major political change in Egypt. As a result, the complicated relationship between Egypt, Europe, and the Middle East is a central concern in Ahmed’s memoir, A Border Passage, and understanding that relationship requires a closer look at Egypt’s turbulent modern history. Egypt’s national identity and borders have existed since ancient times, but its people were ruled by foreign invaders and empires such as Alexander the Great, the Arabs, and the Ottoman Empire, until they finally attained full national sovereignty in 1952. Situated in North Africa, Egypt shares borders with Libya, Sudan, and Israel. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Egypt developed a unique position regarding its neighbors in the Middle East through shifting alliances with the Ottoman Empire and the West. Egypt was ruled by the Turks until the British Occupation of Egypt began in 1882. Egypt was never officially a British colony, but it was nonetheless shaped by the policies of its rulers in the West.
Egypt prospered under the somewhat relaxed rule of the British through the turn of the nineteenth century, enjoying a free press and open immigration policy that encouraged the immigration of droves of newcomers from both Ottoman and European territories. Free debate contributed to a lively intellectual atmosphere in Egypt, and modern technology such as the automobile appeared in the cosmopolitan centers of Egypt at around the same time it did in Europe. This set Egypt apart from its Middle Eastern neighbors, where the forces of modernization acted at a slower pace. Fearing competition from the increasingly prosperous nation under its rule, however, the British reigned in the full modernization of Egypt well into the twentieth century. The negotiations of Egyptian officials with the British for national independence would spark the partial withdrawal of British forces after World War I and would set the stage for a new Egypt, independent of any foreign interest.
The Great Depression of the 1930s, which so shaped Europe and the United States, was also felt in Egypt, where new classes of educated young men and women were increasingly frustrated by their lack of upward mobility under British rule. Nationalist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood grew during the 1930s, advocating independence from the West and its values. Young Egyptian army officers like Abdel Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat were shaped profoundly by their experience fighting against the Israeli army in the Six Day War, the conflict that presaged the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948 and whose impact can still be felt in the region’s geopolitics. They eventually saw the defeat of the Arab cause in that conflict as the failing of a corrupt political establishment in Egypt, and they located themselves at the forefront of change. Egypt’s revolution of 1952 was a bloodless one, and the deposed King Farouk was saluted as he sailed to exile in Italy.
Initially, the aims of the revolutionaries in Egypt—ending corruption, injustice, and poverty through progressive social reform—seemed to represent a positive change. However, these high ideals were muted by the dictatorial rule established by Abdel Nasser, who became prime minister of Egypt in 1954. In 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in order to both finance the construction of the High Dam, a project designed to control flooding along the Nile River, and further assert Egypt’s national independence. The nationalization of the Canal rankled England and France, who had enjoyed its revenues for years. With Israel’s aid, British and French forces attacked Egypt, but they were quickly forced to withdraw as a result of loud international outcry and pressure from the United States. In 1958, Egypt joined Syria to form the United Arab Republic, a pact that only lasted a few years. In 1971, the country was renamed the United Republic of Egypt.
In A Border Passage, Ahmed also touches on issues that are still being debated today, including whether there is a true interpretation of Islam and how non-Western women fit into the discipline of women’s studies. In a post-September 11th world, some writers have pointed to violent passages in Muslim doctrine to paint Islam as a violent faith, though Ahmed convincingly argues that it is the interpretation of that doctrine and the way it is used by various political powers that make it such a pawn in religious conflicts. Ahmed notes the similarities between the oral traditions in Judaism and Islam, further reinforcing the way that major world faiths are compatible and consistent with each other, rather than at odds. In keeping with her respect for multiple interpretations, Ahmed became a part of a major movement that took shape in the 1990s to bring a renewed interest on college campuses to nonwhite and non-Western perspectives in academia. She has taught in the women’s studies departments of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the Harvard Divinity School. In addition, Ahmed is the author of two other books: a biography of Edward William Lane, begun during her graduate study at Cambridge, and a critical study entitled Women and Gender in Islam.