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ISSN 2041-3254

Infidel: My Life

by Sara Wajid
16 Aug 2007 • Comment (1) • Print
Posted: General Issue [0] | Review

ISBN: 0743289684 Review of: Infidel: My Life (2007), Free Press.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has hurled herself violently into the eye of the storm with her polemical pronouncements on the threat of political Islam, the dangers of multi-culturalism and the need for tight immigration control. She came to international prominence in 2004 after the murder of Theo van Gogh, her collaborator on a short film about Islam, was murdered by a religious extremist. Her memoir, Infidel, covers her upbringing as the daughter of a rebel leader during Siad Barre’s regime in Somalia, the family’s moves to Saudi Arabia and Kenya amid civil war and her ruthless self-reinvention from bogus asylum-seeker and devout Muslim to Dutch MP and Infidel.

Commentators take one of two intractable sides. They either cast her as a brave maverick telling the unpalatable truth that whites are too polite to voice or as self-loathing native informer who won’t join arms with progressive Muslim feminists, and who can teach us nothing but how-not-to-live. Both readings are boringly reductive and take her story at face value, on the narrow terms Hirsi Ali seems to offer it to us – as evidence in the case of progressive liberal secularism vs. Islam.

In fact, it’s as a rare and precious record of refugee life that Infidel has most value. She’s often read alongside other critics of Islam (Irshad Manji, Nonie Darwish etc.). But a Wasafiri review of ‘Yesterday, Tomorrow: Voices from the Somali Diaspora’ by Nuruddin Farah suggest alternative readings. “Farah shows how the status of refugees erases all previous identity traits and reduces people to a common destiny, that of people at the end of history … refugees reinvent the self in order to cope with their disrupted lives by wearing new languages, new cultures and new legal systems … Farah experiences the torn geography of his mind.” Chapter eight titled simply ‘Refugees’ depicts the dark heart of a refugee camp – this unrelenting tracking shot of ‘the first gate of Hell’ is the key passage in Infidel, not the headline-grabbing warnings on the dangers of Islam.

Infidel is most compelling when mapping ‘torn geographies’ of women’s identities; her beloved funny sexy sister Haweya struggles throughout only to die after an awful psychotic breadkdown. She reserves much of the sensitivity and understanding you wish she would bring to bear on her self for Haweya and it’s through her that we learn most about the inner life of Ayaan. Almost as footnotes to her political treatise, Hirsi Ali records the quotidian domestic texture of Somalian women’s lives in tiny blood-boilingly hot flats with broken fans, getting lost in unfamiliar heathen cities, surviving pestilent refugee camps, amusing mischievous children in airport departure lounges, keeping hostile relatives sweet because they know your secrets. She is generous with these stories from the front line and telling them cost her dearly as she says in the introduction, “It is a subjective record of my own personal memories, as close to accurate as I can make them; my relationship with the rest of my family has been so fractured that I cannot now refresh these recollections by asking them for help.” A copy of a letter from her adored but estranged father reads, “Dear deceitful fox”.

As a polemic, Infidel is admirably consistent (whatever you think of her conclusions) and the rallying cry against the subjugation of women unquestionably heartfelt. But it’s the inconvenient emotional truths breaking through the manifesto, like small live green weeds between the concrete paving slabs of evidence, that stayed with me longest. Unruly counter-narratives poke through, such as this description of Mecca.

My mother found comfort in the vastness and beauty of the grand mosque, and it seemed to give her hope and a sense of peace. We all liked going there; we even got ice cream afterwards. Gradually the rituals and stories centred on this place began to mean something to me. People were patient with each other … and communal – everyone washing his or her feet in the same fountain, with no shoving or prejudice. We were all Muslims in God’s house, and it was beautiful.

Too often the breathless pace of events unfolding and her determination to harness her every experiences in service of her political philosophy leaves no room for any emotional verisimilitude. The account of her circumcision is a case in point; the physical description is shockingly vivid. “The scissors went down between my legs and the man cut off my inner labia and clitoris. I heard it, like a butcher snipping the fat off a piece of meat.” But once you’ve stopped reeling you find that she manages to tell you everything about the facts of the experience but somehow reveals little.

Her ‘evolution’ from her Muslim and Somalian values to Dutch ones is painful reading. She described her escape from Germany to Holland as “my real birthday: the birth of me as a person, making decisions about my life on my own. I was not running away from Islam, or to democracy. I didn’t have any big ideas then. I was just a young girl and wanted some way to be me; so I bolted into the unknown.”

From this point she charts her steady ‘evolution’ from her Muslim and Somalian belief system to a Dutch one. I winced at her frequent comparisons between the worst examples of Muslim culture and the most humanitarian ones in Dutch culture. “When Somalis are faced with catastrophic weather, drought and flooding, they all get together and pray. Natural disasters are signs from God, to show humans they are misbehaving on earth. But the Dutch blamed their government for failing to maintain the dikes properly.” She shares little from hereon that you couldn’t glean from newspaper clippings and google hits. The authorial tone now leaves you in no doubt that the implied reader is a European who knows little if anything about a world beyond their borders and who is reading Hirsi Ali because they are already disturbed by the Muslim ‘hordes at their door.’

But even here, it’s impossible to dismiss her life merely as some kind of cultural self-mutilation. She falls in love, makes real deep friendships and flourishes in Dutch society in ways she never could have in repressive Somalia. But in her haste to embrace the new world, she manages to keep no one close who offers her the slightest positive memory of home or more importantly demonstrates the importance of solidarity with like-minded practising Muslims. This is the rub. “I didn’t expect immediate waves of organised support among Muslim women. People who are conditioned to meekness, almost to the point where they have no mind of their own, sadly have no ability to organise, or will to express their opinion.” Ayaan Hirsi Ali was raised a Muslim and she is neither meek nor lacks will to express herself. She is a deeply problematic voice but one we need to hear.

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One Response »

  1. Thanks for this Sara, you’ve managed to do what no one else has: present a more balanced view of Hirsi. Frankly I’d written her off, like Irshad Manji and Peter Tatchell.

    She should do herself a favour and get someone like you to write her life story. She’d have a lot more credibility. If that’s what she wants of course. And I don’t think it is.

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