On the importance of memoirs

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Photo Credit: Amazon

I just finished reading Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage last night.

For those of you familiar with Leila Ahmed, you’re probably thinking “Oh no!” or “Right on!” For those unfamiliar, Leila Ahmed is a controversial figure within Islamic Studies scholarship. Or maybe just with Muslims. I don’t know. I honestly haven’t really read too much of her work. Maybe I should. I feel her views may have evolved.

In any case, I first encountered her work as a freshman in the midst of writing my very first research paper (we didn’t do that in high school – have things changed since then?). At the time, I didn’t wear the headscarf, but was still interested in the topic of Women in Islam. Leila Ahmed came up as THE scholar in this field and I basically used her arguments to justify my feelings on hijab at the time (i.e. it is not required).

Things obviously have changed since then.

Fast forward almost five years later, I felt regret and almost disgust for having taken the self-righteous and arrogant position I once had (I don’t blame Leila for this, this was all on me). For now, I had begun to don the headscarf.

So, when I came across Leila Ahmed’s memoir at Half Price Books a few months ago, I was at once intrigued and a bit hesitant. Did I want to subject myself to more orientalist drivel (I just love that phrase, btw)? But the synopsis (can it even be called a synopsis if it’s a memoir?) mentioned things like Arab nationalism and identity that I thought to myself, “Hey, it’s only $3.50.” I don’t have to buy into everything she says. So I bought the book.

And then read it (well, I read two books in between, because like I said, I was hesitant). But I have to say: since perhaps A Suitable Boy, I haven’t read a book that has caused me to ponder on so many topics on such a visceral level: manufactured nationalism (because it always is), women, feeling “home,” the “liberating” West, interfaith relations in a more pristine time, etc. I didn’t agree with everything Leila wrote, but I do appreciate her telling of history.

Whatever you think of Nasser (he’s the most prominent political figure in this memoir, Leila having grown up in Egypt in the middle of the 20th century – but you can substitute him for almost anyone), depending on what side you are on, the history book you are reading only tells you one side. We like to think of history as objective, factual, empirical in a way. But Leila’s recalling reminded me that there are many more perspectives than we are privy to. I particularly appreciated how Leila herself added many times throughout that her own memory might not have captured all that was going on. And that too reminded me of the importance of memoirs.

As someone who writes about her life with one-time plans to write a memoir, I realized that even if I don’t live an extraordinary life in the sense that I will never be recorded in “history,” that does not mean that my personal experiences don’t have something unique and needed to offer to those interested in the entirety of the human experience. As my last post almost abruptly touched on: What is it like to be a young woman who loses all that weight after the “entire world”* essentially made her feel that her weight was all that mattered? That story, as I’ve lived with for the past 8 years, does not come with a nicely packaged conclusion after that “after” shot.

But that’s not all. What is it like to be a young woman observing hijab in a world (or country) where some people feel that shariah law is going to take over the entire world? What is it like to be a Muslim from India and to be proud of this fact and yet also be concerned about what the right-wing hateful political establishment is doing to your Muslim brothers and sisters still living in the desh?

These are but some of the narratives constantly playing in my mind — and only I can weave them together in the way that I would.

In a world where individuals increasingly feel that there’s nothing we can do, that there are forces more powerful (and sinister, in many cases!) than we moving and shaping the trajectory of our lives, memoirs reminds us that our thoughts and our feelings are still within our control, and that they still matter… to at least someone.

*Remember that my telling will be subjective. But that’s fine.