From the enchanting gardens of her Cairo home, Ain Shams, to the spires and forests of England, location figures prominently into A Border Passage. Ahmed’s environment helps her define her place in relation to the world, and she uses the idea of place to explore the tensions of identity in a world where cultural identifications are complex and politically loaded. Ain Shams is where Ahmed develops her powers of imagination. Zatoun, her grandmother’s estate, is where she discovers a community of women who shape her attitudes toward Islam. At Cambridge, Ahmed finds another type of community of women, one that will introduce her to a world of ideas.
Again and again, Ahmed faces a feeling of being displaced—whether she is in Egypt, England, or the United States. She traces her consciousness of her own cultural identity to her school days, where she recognizes a subtle form of racism from her English teachers because of her status as an Egyptian. One teacher accuses her of plagiarizing her well-written papers, and others discourage her from pursuing math or science. At Cambridge, Ahmed finds herself surprised to be labeled “black” and lumped together with many other students from the third world. While in Abu Dhabi, Ahmed confronts once again what it means to be an Arab woman in an Arab culture that holds as many differences as it does similarities to the culture she knows in Egypt.
Throughout her life, Ahmed draws strength and intellectual wealth from communities of women. The most formative of these is the group of women Ahmed interacts with at her grandmother’s home, Zatoun. Here, Ahmed is steeped in the rich, multilayered tradition of Islam, and she comes to understand how the oral traditions of Arab women are different from the written, and more rigid, traditions of men. At Cambridge, Ahmed joins another important community of women, which feeds her intellectual curiosity and fosters her growth as an academic thinker. Finally, Ahmed circulates in women’s studies departments in the United States in the early 1980s, finding them not exactly receptive to the input of third world women, but stimulating nonetheless.