On the surface Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I have a lot in common: we are very close to the same age and we both read The Famous Five as little girls in the 1970s. We both have one brother and one sister, and both lived in Holland in the late 1990s, after traveling the world in our early twenties. Beyond that our lives diverged completely.
I grew up in a stable, prosperous English-speaking country while she spent her childhood fleeing her native Somalia to spend years in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya. She began to cover herself as a teen to show her deeply-felt piety to Islam. She was sent around the globe for an arranged marriage to a man she hardly knew, and ended up a Dutch member of parliament.
Ali is probably most famous in America for making the short film Submission with Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh. Submission portrays four young women talking about their husbands’ abuses. The actress portraying all four has verses from the Koran written on her naked body which can be glimpsed through a see-through Muslim covering garment or chador. After the film was shown on Dutch television in 2004 Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch Muslim fanatic as revenge for what he saw as the film’s insults to Islam. This caused a fire storm in Holland and led to the dissolution of the Dutch parliament. Due to threats on her life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding and eventually left Holland to move to America.
Ali is a controversial figure who called the book Infidel because that is what she has become in some people’s eyes as she went from an obedient Muslim girl to outspoken defender of women’s rights and strong critic of practices like female genital mutilation. Whether you agree with her or not, Infidel is a heartfelt and moving portrait of an extraordinary life. Her life started in Mogadisu, which I think of as a war-torn hell-hole, but she knew as a beautiful city of stone and brick buildings and white sand beaches. She went on to live in several countries, squeezing more adventure into a few years, than most people fit into a lifetime. She now lives in the United States and has a husband and small child.
Try Infidel if you enjoy biographies with the drama of novels, particularly those which cover true stories of women caught up in large historical events like Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror, by Susan Nagel or Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming.
I listened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali read her own story. Occasionally her accent made words hard to understand, but I strongly recommend the audiobook as a way to meet her.