Email this review


A lucid and luminous evocation of growing up in a whirlpool of cultures and the rewarding struggle of sorting it all out. Ahmed (Women’s Studies/Univ. of Mass., Amherst) was born into a professional Egyptian family that thrived in the quasi- republic of King Farouk and the British protectorate. When Nasser came to power in the early 1950s, her father’s influence sank as a result of his protests (on what turned out to be ecologically sound grounds) against the Aswan Dam. The Suez crisis made Nasser a hero in the Arab world and put pressure on Egyptians—until then a motley and proud mixture of Coptic Christian (“the only truly indigenous inhabitants of Egypt”), Muslim, and Jew; of Mediterranean, African, Nilotic—to identify as “Arab.” Growing up in a home where English was honored (although Arabic and French were also spoken), Ahmed had come, with her friends, to regard things Arab as inferior. Faced also with the dichotomy of privilege vs. poverty, always visible in Cairo, Ahmed became more and more confused about who she was and where her loyalties lay. This book is about working out that identity—as a woman in a traditional society, as a “black” at Cambridge University, as a Muslim in the anti-Islamic US environment of the 1980s. Even her feminist colleagues’ prejudice against Islam was extreme, based primarily on what they saw as “fundamentalist” strictures against women. Ahmed examines these events, questioning various cultural frameworks she has encountered: the men- only mosques where the classical Koran is taught, the white male template of Cambridge, and the written culture so different from the fluid oral traditions she examined on a sojourn in Abu Dhabi. She delicately untangles and eloquently describes the threads of political and personal circumstance that led first to confusion and then to understanding. A beautiful tale that is a celebration not only of women and the author’s native country (with all its flaws), but also of intellectual flowering.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-374-11518-4
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15th, 1999


NonfictionGADDAFI'S HAREM by Annick Cojean
by Annick Cojean
IndieTHE PLACE OF KNOWING by Emma Lou Warner Thayne
by Emma Lou Warner Thayne