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A Border Passage: From Cairo To America A Woman's Journey

3.81  ·  Rating details ·  818 Ratings  ·  71 Reviews
Leila Ahmed grew up in Cairo in the 1940s and '50s in a family that was eagerly and passionately political. Although many in the Egyptian upper classes were firmly opposed to change, the Ahmeds were proud supporters of independence. But when the Revolution arrived, the family's opposition to Nasser's policies led to persecutions that would throw their lives into turmoil an ...more
Hardcover, 307 pages
Published March 1st 2011 by Farrar Straus Giroux (first published 1999)
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Jul 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This entire memoir is like an impressionist painting. Every page was breathtaking, whether it was the memory of the author as a child, lying under a starlit Alexandria sky with her grandmother on the 27th night of Ramadan, waiting for angels, or her many passages about her strained yet loving relationship with her mother. Leila Ahmed masterfully weaves history together with memory, and paints a picture of mid-20th century Egypt as a multilingual, religiously diverse nation unaffected by the tumu ...more
Sep 22, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A Border Passage is a personal memoir of Ahmed's childhood in Cairo, her academic life in England, and her professional life in America. She weaves a beautifual story of the impact of imperialism and the Eygptian revolutions on her life and the life of her family. She struggles with racism when there was no such word. She brings the reader to a place of contemplation as they begin to see the world from a non-Western point of view.

Ahmed is a skilled writer, able to a story that is intriguing and
May 11, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is really, really good. It starts a little slow and muddled but the speed at which it progresses is reflective of the author's sharpening of her outlook and identity. Reading this book, I realized how similar the experience of growing up in a British colony, Egypt, is to growing up as an immigrant, minority, and Muslim in America. She vividly portrays a conflicted sense of self with which I can identify strongly and resolves her sense of conflict in a way that is healing, even to me. T ...more
Mar 17, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
a beautifully conceived, articulated, and experienced memoir.
Women's National Book Association of New Orleans
The Women's National Book Association sent this book to the White House today (March 19) in honor of Women's History Month:

From the Women's National Book Association's press release:

In this deeply personal and moving memoir, Laila Ahmed traces her transformation, along with that of her native Egypt, across six decades. A woman born in 1940 in Cairo into relative privilege and educated at Cambridge University as Egypt was undergoing radical political chang
Aug 03, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book took me a long time to read. It was the author's story essentially of the geography of her life, beginning in Cairo after WW2, when Egypt was still under British colonial rule. The author came from an upper class background, and discussed the ease and enjoyment of her early life. Then came the revolution, and things changed. Still, she was able to leave Egypt for an education, but at that point discovered that she was "black" - and not upper class British or French. She goes on to disc ...more
Dec 21, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Leila Ahmed is a terrific writer, but I have the same problems with her memoir that I have with memoirs in general. Memoirs, in my opinion, only work as a part of some larger context than one's self, and while Ahmed does better than most, she still gets bogged down in personal minutiae that bare little relevance to that context and, ultimately, bore the shit out of me. Her best work comes toward the end, when she really dug in to the point of her memoir: searching for her identity as a feminist ...more
Feb 16, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: many
This is an intellectually stimulating and beautifully memoir. It reflects the formative moments of Leila Ahmed's life while simultaneously investigating questions of imperialism, culture, religion, identity, feminism, race, literacy, politics, literature, Egypt, and Arabness at a level exceptionally perceptive and thorough. Ahmed draws a complex portrait of her childhood in Egypt and experiences in British academia. Her critical eye and articulate voice combine to form a rich memoir, one which p ...more
Allison Le Grice
Disappointing. It was so clear that she was a well-educated woman with an extremely valuable experience to share, but I felt like I was reading continuous thought vomit. She's a beautiful writer, but I felt she could have arranged it better to be more effective. However, the message was great.
Mar 26, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Islamic feminist, Leila Ahmed’s memoir, A Border Passage: From Cairo to America-A Woman’s Journey, starts with Ahmed’s childhood in an upper-class Cairene family and ends with her becoming a professor of Women’s Studies and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the early 1980s. A Border Passage covers her education in England in 1960s along with her time serving on a committee “to oversee the development and reform of education throughout the United Arab Emirates (UA ...more
Adrianna Scibor
Very well articulated thoughts and memories of a woman recounting her life as being born of two worlds in an Egypt much different than the one we know today. I admit it was hard to get through because I didn't understand her thinking at times but this book is a wonderful picture into the Egypt that once was. An Egypt more interested in being European.

I have to say that some of the things about the author bothered me, for instance she could vividly recall sights and smells of her childhood home a
Yasmine Flodin-Ali
So thoughtful and lovely.
Alisha Falberg
Waivered between 3 and 4 stars - very interesting and I learned a lot, but hard to get through at times.
Amy Holiday
Full disclaimer: Memoir is not my favorite genre; far from it. I'd put it near the bottom, actually. (And I raised my review up one star because of this.) But books based in other cultures are near the top of my list, and the premise of a woman in the midst of a changing country really grabbed me.

But, aside from the lovely language and the beautiful imagery, this book was a struggle for me. I'd compare Leila's upbringing to the daughter of a wealthy senator, or something (not meaning to western
Kristine Gift
Realistically, I would rate this 3.5/5 rather than simply 3, were that an option. I was assigned this book for a class I took three years ago about the history of the modern Middle East, but then it was removed from the syllabus before classes began. But at graduation, another professor gave me a new copy of this book, and I took it as a sign that I should finally read Ahmed's book. In short, I'm glad I did; it was enlightening and interesting (especially the chapter(s?) about her college/grad s ...more
Phạm N.
1 among a few interesting passages I found so far:

"What was passed on, besides the general basic beliefs and moral ethos of Islam, which are also those of its sister monotheisms, was a way of being in the world. A way of holding oneself in the world - in relation to God, to existence, to other human beings. THis the women passed on to us most of all through how they were and by their being and presence, by the way they were in the world, conveying their beliefs, ways, thoughts, and how we shoul
Feb 13, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found the nuance and self-reflection is this book refreshing.
Dec 10, 2012 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Yet another wealthy, Western-educated Arab woman who decides that her life story is interesting and valuable enough to be "the life story of the Middle Eastern Woman"! Leila Ahmed is a wonderful scholar and has made innumerable contributions to the field of Middle Eastern/Islamic gender studies, but this book is alas not one of them. Although it is well-written, the subject is very boring. Ahmed gives us snippets of a half-remembered priveleged childhood that she couldn't wait to escape by movin ...more
Nov 05, 2009 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I don't remember how I learned of this book, but it had been on my "to read" shelf for over a year. The book is a memoir of Leila Ahmed, an Egyptian author and feminist. It details her life beginning with the British occupation through current times. The book gives a glimpse of life for foreign students (for this woman, it was in England), and sheds light on Egypt's unique role in the Arab world. She also finishes with the feminist movement and her difficulty in relating this movement to a cultu ...more
Feb 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I don't even know where to start.

It's difficult even to explain what this book is. Is it an autobiography about growing up in Cairo during the "Arab revolution" which swept the Middle East in the 1950s? Yes. Is it a memoir about being a Muslim/Arab/colored woman living in the West? Yes. Is it an anthropological glance into the "hidden world of the harem" with all it's difficulties and beauty? Yes. Is it a history of the Middle East's colonization, the impact that had on a people's self identity
Apr 14, 2012 rated it really liked it
I read this book in 2000, shortly after it appeared. I met Professor Ahmed at a conference (where she did NOT speak about her book) and found her a very engaging presenter.

The book covers three aspects of her life: her childhood in pre-revolutionary Egypt (i.e. before 1953); her education in English; and thereafter.

Professor Ahmed, a relatively secularized and non-observant Muslim, has written extensively about women and their lives in the Middle East, as well as nascent feminism there.

I was enc
Mar 09, 2010 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The author is an academic, and it shows in her writing style. Sometimes she really went too far off into an academic discussion - but it was worth it. She explores ideas of Arab identity vs. Egyptian identity, oral traditions vs. written Islam, women's culture vs. men's culture, and what it means to be a non-European living in the west. It's the best discussion of the problem with traditional education and reliance on book learning that I've read. I had no idea that written Arabic was so differe ...more
Apr 29, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I love autobiographies in general, but I especially loved this one. I really learned a lot about Egyptian history/politics, revealing a very tumultuous and transitory time in its history. (I especially found it interesting to learn about her father's position on the High Dam) Having lived in Cairo, reading about the earlier days of Egypt in this book was almost like reading about a fairytale dreamland- it was hard to believe Cairo (and Egypt) used to be SO different than what it is now. It can d ...more
Sep 20, 2010 marked it as started-not-finished  ·  review of another edition
We started this interesting book in our reading group but I got caught up in too much else and, alas, it got laid by the wayside as so many books before it and since have done. It was a really interesting memoir about growing up in Egypt and coming, ultimately, to the west where freedoms for women are a given as opposed to an unthinkable. And all the fascinations and internal and ideological as well as political contradictions this created for Leila. It is a really interesting read... Fortunatel ...more
Nov 01, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book effectively addresses the complications that exist in the crossing of different borders and cultures. Ahmed takes the time to introduce you to the life she lived as a young girl in Cairo. She takes you through the political situations and problems that shaped what Cairo has developed into today. In addition, she addresses the complications that occur through her travel to America in all the racism that she met with as she tried to meld into the colonial European world. I found this boo ...more
Jul 20, 2007 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: those who want to learn about Egypt or Islam
I read this for a book club. I really didn't know a lot about what's covered in this memoir--growing up in Egypt, the formation of Arab nationalism, what it's like to be a Muslim woman, what it's like to love aspects of the culture that has colonized you. One of the most interesting things about this book was described at the end when the author moves to the U.S. to be a women's studies professor, and oddly finds women's studies a very hostile environment to be in--a contradiction that I found t ...more
Mar 03, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This rare and wonderful book reminds me I'm normally too generous with 5 star ratings! Leila Ahmed's reflections on her childhood (her relationship with her mother, her experiences in different women's spaces - an upper middle-class family in mid-century Cairo; an all women's college in Cambridge) sets the terrain for some fascinating and nuanced sociopolitical analysis (on the differences between oral and written Islamic cultures; reflections on how Egyptians become Arabs). It was such a pleasu ...more
May 13, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoirs
The author was born & raised in Egypt. Her family was wealthy & educated. Her father was an engineeer. Of course as a Muslim, she grew up mostly in the company of the women of her family. This was a required reading in one of Olivia's classes at OU. It is excellent in that it helped me understand the development of Egypt politically and culturally, the essence of the Arabic language, what it is to be an Arab, how the life of Muslim women changed through the years, and it helped me to dev ...more
Mar 22, 2009 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I got this book for Christmas - my husband picked it out all by his onesie! - and I hoped for better things than Ahmad delivered. This is a woman who has led an intriguing life...but she writes in a style that is at once ornate and tedious. I got the impression that she thinks of her life as "a woman's journey", and she writes about that; but I wanted to know about Leila, about who she was and is, and she is oddly careful to hide all that. This is a memoir that reads like a sociology text...dull ...more
Jan 30, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
If you like this book, then you might also like this autobiographical novel of Egyptian author / feminist / intellectual Radwa Ashour: أطياف / Specters, and also the film "Four Women of Egypt" (1997), available on YouTube at the time of writing:
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Leila Ahmed (Arabic: لیلى احمد) is an Egyptian American professor of Women's Studies and Religion at the Harvard Divinity School. Prior to coming to Harvard, she was professor of Women’s Studies and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Cambridge before moving to the United States to teach and write ...more
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