(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s autobiography, focuses on her childhood in four African nations and her personal awakening to a wider world in the Netherlands. In Somalia, her birthplace, bloodlines were crucial. Within a dizzying system of clans and subclans, she was originally known as Ayaan, daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan, and like every other child she was taught to recite her ancestry as far back as eight hundred years, to the beginning of her father’s great clan, the Darod. After her father, Hirsi Magan, was jailed for his opposition to Somalia’s Marxist ruler, she alternated between life with her mother, Asha Artan, and grandmother in Mogadishu and in the northern desert.

Hirsi Ali’s story is one of extreme violence, which, she hastens to point out, was the accepted method of child-raising. Although her mother and grandmother preferred the boy Mahad over his two sisters, the children received almost daily beatings. For Ayaan and her sister, Haweya, life also included obedience, heavy work, and the custom of genital excision, also known as female circumcision. Justified in the name of Islam (even though the Qur՚n does not mention it), excision was usually performed at around age five to keep girls pure until marriage. Infidel includes a horrific description of this procedure, arranged by their grandmother for both Ayaan and four-year-old Haweya, for whom it was extremely traumatic and possibly contributed to her later disintegration.

Following his escape from prison to Ethiopia, Hirsi Magan began to organize other exiles against the Somali government. Although he wanted his family with him in Ethiopia, Asha protested that the country was Christian and therefore unsuitable. When the war between Somalia and Ethiopia began, she convinced her husband to move them instead to Saudi Arabia, birthplace of Islam. However, just as his family arrived, he was called back to Ethiopia, leaving them isolated in a very strict society where Asha was forced to ask clan members for financial support.

Hirsi Ali’s first real encounter with the power of Islam was in Saudi Arabia. There, buses were completely segregated, as were schools. Boys and girls studied in separate buildings, where education consisted primarily of Arabic, mathematics, religion, and beatings by her teacher. Laws for women were harsh: in Riyadh, the capital, men locked their wives in their homes whenever they left. Her mother could not even enter a taxi without a man to accompany her.

Ultimately, the family was deported to Ethiopia. Hirsi Magan was an important man there, broadcasting to Somali exiles, but life was too dangerous. The cook was required to taste their food to prevent their being poisoned, and after a year they fled to Kenya. In Nairobi, Hirsi Ali attended a Muslim girls’ school where she became fluent in English and Swahili, and where her father again left them.

As the older daughter, Hirsi Ali was expected to cook and do all the housework. If she complained, her mother tied her wrists to her ankles and beat her. She began to rebel against the customary subjugation of women, rejecting her mother’s dependence on others and questioning Saudi-influenced restrictions within Islam. Even as she secretly devoured forbidden novels, she longed to understand the words of the Prophet Muhammad, rather than accept them blindly. Asha hired an itinerant teacher to instruct her daughters further in the Qur՚n, but when Hirsi Ali challenged him, his response was merely to shout at her. Because she would not listen, he came to their flat while she was alone and beat her and smashed her head against the wall, fracturing her skull. She attempted suicide.

A new female teacher, firm but gentle, who taught religious education at school and wore the full hidjab, strongly influenced Hirsi Ali. She became more conservative and for a time wore a black robe, yet she still felt that she was losing herself. She sought logic and consistency in her religion but perceived inconsistencies: If Islam taught that men and women are equal, why should women obey men absolutely? Why was a woman’s testimony only worth half of a man’s?

Hoping to work, Hirsi Ali and her sister attended a Kenyan secretarial school that was much more worldly than what they had previously known. In 1990, relatives convinced their mother to allow them to travel to Mogadishu. Hirsi Ali found a job in a United Nations telecommunications office, where she quickly became aware of government corruption and increasing political unrest. Troubled Somalia was on the verge of civil war as a rival clan attempt to...

(The entire section is 1893 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

America 196, no. 19 (May 28, 2007): 23-24.

Booklist 103, no. 12 (February 15, 2007): 30.

Commentary 123, no. 4 (April, 2007): 67-71.

Harper’s Magazine 314 (February, 2007): 85-86.

National Review 59, no. 7 (April 30, 2007): 48-50.

New Criterion 25, no. 8 (April, 2007): 86-88.

The New York Times 156 (February 14, 2007): E1-E11.

The New York Times Book Review 156 (March 4, 2007): 14.

Newsweek 149, no. 8 (February 26, 2007): 38.

The Washington Post, February 4, 2007, p. BW05.