nolead begins Infidel
nolead ends nolead begins By Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Free Press. 353 pp. $26

nolead ends nolead begins


Born six weeks early at barely more than 3 pounds, Somali-born Ayaan Hirsi Ali got off to a poor start fighting back.

Her older brother Mahad regularly picked on her and once pushed her into a feces-laden outdoor latrine. Her devout Islamic mother, who called her "dumb as a date palm," beat her throughout her childhood.

"Ma" tied Hirsi Ali's hands to her ankles with rope, put her on the floor on her belly, then whipped her mercilessly with a stick or wire.

When Hirsi Ali turned 5, a man came at the behest of her grandmother - though against the wishes of her more enlightened, absent father - and genitally mutilated her. He cut her clitoris and labia ("The entire procedure was torture"), then sewed up the area so the scar tissue formed a kind of "chastity belt."

Other not-so-sweet memories of childhood? Hirsi Ali's math teacher in Kenya beat her with a black plastic pipe. Her Kenyan Koran teacher, infuriated by signs of defiance, cracked her head against a wall, fracturing her skull and bursting a blood vessel in her eye. She had to undergo an operation on her skull.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali doesn't think she saw a toy until she was 8. She first used deodorant in her teens. Now, at 37, she appears on the cover of magazines like Marie Claire, a radiant beauty.

The great irony of Infidel, a memoir by the women's activist whose fight against Islamic oppression of women has made her an international human rights heroine, is that it's a tale of keeping the faith.

Faith that life can be free. Faith that a horrible childhood does not require a horrible adulthood. Faith that courage in life matters.

Last year, Hirsi Ali burst upon the world's media with a book and multiple controversies.

The book, The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, documented her battles in the Netherlands where, as a social worker and later a member of Parliament, she faced death threats and experienced the 2004 murder of her fellow documentary maker, Theo van Gogh. Their crime? Bringing attention to the treatment by Europe's Islamic communities of their women.

Controversies enveloped her on several fronts last year beyond her opinions on Islam. Critics charged (and she acknowledged, as she had before) that she had lied about her name, date of birth and refugee status when she originally escaped to the Netherlands. Her neighbors, inconvenienced and angered by the 24-hour security escort surrounding her, sued to evict her from her apartment.

Tiring of the controversies, and sensing greater opportunity and freedom in the United States, Hirsi Ali resigned from the Dutch Parliament and accepted a position as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Now, in Infidel, a No. 1 best-seller in Europe, she tells her harrowing personal story.

Hirsi Ali's mother, Asha, born to a nomadic Somali clan, became a devout Muslim. Her father, Hirsi Magan, a Columbia University graduate in anthropology, helped lead the opposition Somali Salvation Democratic Front that opposed Somalia's post-independence dictator, Siad Barré, which meant he spent considerable time in jail and away from his family.

The book comes poignantly divided into two parts: "My Childhood" and "My Freedom." Notwithstanding the death threats that came later, the first part is certainly grimmer.

"There were so many funerals in my childhood," Hirsi Ali recalls. She, her mother, sister and brother (another sister and brother died as infants) found themselves exiled to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya. Before Hirsi Ali reached her teens, she'd learned Arabic, Amharic, Swahili and English in addition to her native Somali.

She "hated Saudi Arabia," where the teacher called her Aswad Abda, "black slave-girl." Ethiopia, by contrast, "felt like being free," though the poverty and the "frighteningly empty, creamy gray eyes of the blind beggar down the road" scared her.

In Kenya, she for a time refashioned herself as a devout Muslim, wearing the hijab. But she also began to read in English - the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Nancy Drew stories, 1984, Huckleberry Finn, even Danielle Steel - opening up the horizons of a Western life.

She began her pursuit of it when, at 22, she escaped a marriage arranged by her father to a Somali-Canadian she'd never met, and hopped a train to seek asylum in the Netherlands. She earned a political science degree, worked as a translator and political researcher, and gained election to the Dutch Parliament, even as other parts of her life - such as trying to help her depressed sister adapt to the West - came to tragedy.

It's plain that Hirsi Ali took her early bent toward "the world of reason" from her educated father, who "encouraged us to ask questions," who loved the word why? (which her reverent mother hated), "who taught us to be honest because truth is good in itself."

Hirsi Ali explains the arc of Infidel by stating: "I want to make a few things clear, set a number of records straight, and also tell people about another kind of world and what it's really like."

That she does. Infidel teems with amazing passages, whether it's how the Saudis taught their children to hate Jews, or how the Dutch, for all their virtues, recoiled from confrontation with immigrant values. To those who consider life harsh when their flight is canceled by bad weather, Hirsi Ali's tale of suffering provides context.

As if serving as official historian of her own life, Hirsi Ali painstakingly chronicles almost every memory - tactile, moral, emotional - she can. To those impatient for plot twists, her story may move slowly. For those who think: How did this unique woman develop?, the layers of detail make her memoir a magnificent feat of self-scrutiny.

"People ask me if I have some kind of death wish, to keep saying the things I do," Hirsi Ali remarks in her introduction. "The answer is no. I would like to keep living."

That wasn't her wish when she swallowed "forty or fifty" pills from her mother's medicine drawer in Kenya, hoping to kill herself. Today she continues to challenge dogma, to help the very Muslim women pressured to revile her.

If Hirsi Ali is an infidel, she should consider it a badge of honor: a title we give someone who refuses to believe the worst that human beings can think. Yes, she needs bodyguards. But her two books and rising global stature have already immortalized her mind as a symbol of triumph over fear and ignorance.

Contact book critic Carlin Romano at 215-854-5615 or cromano@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/carlinromano.