A Somali-born former member of the Dutch Parliament writes about her circumcision at the age of five and other events that shaped her life
Infidel. By Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Free Press, 353 pp., $26.
By Janice Harayda
In November 2004 a Muslim fanatic shot the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street and used a butcher knife to stab into his chest a letter to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, then a member of the Dutch Parliament. Hirsi Ali had worked with Van Gogh on a film of about female oppression under Islam, called Submission, that included shots of a naked, battered woman covered with writings from the Koran.
Infidel begins with a gripping account of the murder. And the scene sets the tone for much of the rest of this memoir of Hirsi Ali’s childhood in Somali and elsewhere, her flight to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, her election to Parliament and her eventual move to the United States and her work for a conservative think tank.
Much of the coverage of Infidel has focused on some of its more harrowing events. These include the day that 5-year-old Hirsi Ali and her 6-year-old brother and 4-year-old sister underwent circumcisions arranged by their grandmother, with the job done in the author’s case by a man with scissors “who was probably an itinerant traditional circumciser from the blacksmith clan.” But Infidel has equally memorable portraits of later events, such as the treatment Hirsi Ali received after asking for asylum in Holland. The Dutch government, until it could act on her request, gave her free meals and housing in a tidy bungalow in a compound with a swimming pool and tennis and volleyball courts. It also provided her with free laundry services, legal representation and health care, and a “weekly allowance” to cover her basic needs. Does this help you understand why so many people want to emigrate to the Netherlands and other welfare states?
For all its insights into such topics, Infidel isn’t always credible or persuasive in its arguments. Hirsi Ali admits that she lied to Dutch officials to get refugee status for herself and, later, for her sister, which raises questions about whether she is always telling the truth elsewhere. And while she waged a brave and admirable campaign to get the authorities to keep track of the “honor killings” of Muslim women who had been raped or otherwise “stained” their family honor, she adds: “I am also convinced that this is the largest, most important issue that that our society and our planet will face in this century.” More important than nuclear war?
Some people have called Hirsi Ali “the new Salman Rushdie” because she has received death threats. But her fascinating memoir has much more to offer to most American readers than the frequently opaque magical realism of The Satanic Verses. If you belong to a reading group looking for books that will inspire passionate debate, you could hardly find a memoir more likely to ignite sparks.
Best line: On what the author learned at a Muslim center in Nairobi: “There were so many rules, with minutely detailed prescriptions, and so many authorities had pronounced on them all. Truly Muslim women should cover their bodies even in front of a blind man, even in their own houses. They had no right to walk down the middle of the street. They should not move out of their father’s house without permission.”
Worst Line: Quoted above, about how the registration of honor killings is “the largest, most important” issue of the century.
Reading group guide: A reading group guide to Infidel for book clubs appears in the April 3, 2007, post directly below this one. The post is archived under “Totally Unauthorized Reading Group Guides on One-Minute Book Reviews.
Published: February 2007
© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.