Infidel

by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is a stunning memoir. Ayaan Hirsi Ali describes her early childhood in Somali. Displaced from her home at an early age because of her father\’s activism, she grew up in various countries: Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya. With each move she describes the differences in culture, the prejudices she ran into, the struggles thrown into school with a new, unfamiliar language. I was surprised at how the children were raised, at the level of domestic violence and instability in her home, at the brutal description of female circumcision- although I had a general idea of that (recently watched the film Desert Flower– wasn\’t expecting that to be about genital mutilation, but it was, very upsetting- now the book is on my reading list).There was a lot in this book that shook me up. I learned so much about other cultures different from mine. A lot of the early portion of the book is about her upbringing, her family\’s dynamics, her curiosity about sexuality (she read a lot of Western books), her observations of women being oppressed, her exploration into different aspects of Islam and the beginning of her questioning.

She left Kenya to avoid an arranged marriage, moved to Holland and managed to get asylum as a refugee. With a fabricated story and a changed name. She admitted many times to having lied to get into the country, and talks about the problems that caused her later on. As a new immigrant she worked hard to learn about Dutch culture, to learn the language, to study and find jobs- starting with factory work and eventually as a translator. Even when discouraged by others, she insisted on taking classes and exams until she got into a renowned University and pursued a political science degree. She really wanted to know why Holland was so clean, peaceful and well-run when her home country was in turmoil and full of violence. (Just as I was surprised to read how children were raised in Somalia, she was astonished to see how differently they were treated in Holland). She was fascinated by how government functions, became a research assistant for a political party and then was voted into the Parliament herself, after only having lived in the country for a decade. I was impressed.

Working as a translator with Somalis who found themselves in all kinds of unpleasant and dire circumstances, she had learned how prevalent violence towards women was among the immigrant community. When she became involved in politics she was very outspoken against Islamic practices and for the rights of women. Also about how children were educated, how the Islamic community isolated itself and more. Her remarks were often inflammatory and very controversial, and her direct criticism of the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad caused an uproar. A filmmaker collaborated with her on a short film to make a statement about the mistreatment of Muslim women, using quotes from the Quran.  It caused the death of the filmmaker and she had to go into hiding. There was a scandal about her status as a Dutch citizen and she left the country to live in the United States.

It is an awesome book. I was worried the politics and litany of names would make for difficult reading but in fact I found it pretty compelling all the way through. I was fascinated to read about another culture, another way of thinking, and particularly to see her intellectual awakening as she began to question her own religion and upbringing, eventually arriving at atheism. I greatly admire her ethics and drive to help others, even if her delivery method and statements often seemed deliberately offensive. She obviously admired and loved Holland, but when I read a few of her statements about Dutch culture and history to my boyfriend he flinched and said she was being inflammatory again. I got the impression that she sometimes generalized a lot, a mild example being when she described the other girls in her university classes, lumping them into three groups based on dress and behavior. But who among us does not generalize to some degree, comparing what we encounter to what we already know?

Rating: 4/5     353 pages, 2007

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5 Responses

  1. I've been toying with reading this one for some time. I think a lot of the time these days simply speaking the unvarnished truth is an inflammatory act. We're so used to tip-toeing around uncomfortable topics and opinions that when someone comes right out and says whats true it appears inflammatory. But, I've only read one or two brief articles by Hersi Ai, so I will defer to your judgement here.

  2. Bermudaonion- I should read more memoirs. There are so many incredible stories out there.James- Yes, I think you're right. She said what she thought was accurate, based on historical context, and her own experience and observations of how women were treated. I think she could have delivered it in a more tactful manner, though. It was easy to see how people took offense.Jenny- It was horrifying in parts, but overall I did not come away from it feeling sad. I think because I was so impressed at what she made of her life in the end. The part about a meeting of cultures was one of my favorite parts of the book.

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