The Winged Life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali

By Abraham, Pearl | Michigan Quarterly Review, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Winged Life of Ayaan Hirsi Ali


Abraham, Pearl, Michigan Quarterly Review


In 1995, before most of us in the West knew the name of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, I published a novel in which the newly married fictional heroine stepped off the bus and disappeared, leaving her sleeping husband aboard. It wasn't until Hirsi Ali published Infidel in 2006 that we learned the details of her real-life 1992 escape, when, enroute to Canada and an arranged marriage, she boarded a train to Holland and broke free.

When I wrote the breakaway scene of The Romance Reader, a novel set in a Hasidic community in upstate New York, I considered it an example of how fiction, meant to catch life, can be better than reality, lighter-footed because winged, as real life is largely not, but Hirsi-Ali's personal experiences as depicted in her memoirs, Infidel and Nomad, come uncannily close to winged fiction. This strangely fortuitous quality, I want to argue, reveals something about Hirsi Ali herself, a characteristic that's remained elusive to her readers, reviewers, and interviewers.

The parallels in our stories are not entirely surprising: We both emerged from religious and culturally repressive societies. I was raised in the Hasidic worlds of Jerusalem, Brooklyn, and Monsey, New York; the Somali-born Hirsi Ali came of age in both a tribal and an Islamic culture, complete with the repressions and personal violations we've come to expect from both.

Her trajectory is distressingly familiar: the entrapment of an arranged marriage brought Hirsi-Ali to a point of crisis. In the dramatic arc of storytelling, such a crisis demands a decisive action that will serve as the climax, from which the story can then drop towards resolution, or irresolution, depending on the author's sensibility, whether she is comfortable with complexity and nuance rather than easy answers. Dramatically, Hirsi Ali's story satisfies: she tells no one when she boards a train to Holland. She even changes her name, making it difficult for her father to find her. Elements in this marriage plot would qualify it for the genre of romance, that is, if love not escape were the way it ended; indeed, by Hirsi Ali's own account, this chapter of her life was inspired in part by the romance novels she and her friends read.1

Illicit paperback romances, she writes, passed secretly from one young reader to another, awakened her to the possibilities of love between men and women: "The allure of romance called to us from the pages of books . . . these were trashy soap opera-like novels, but they were exciting - sexually exciting. And buried in all of these books was a message: women had a choice. Heroines fell in love, they fought off family obstacles and questions of wealth and status, and they married the men they chose." She and her sister and their friends learn from these novels that somewhere in the world love is the standard, not the exception, in marriage. But these romances with their happy endings also set Hirsi Ali up for the painful disappointment of her own very real life experiences, with an early secret marriage to a dashing cousin and its fumbled and painful consummation, and then the second more respectable one arranged by her father, from which she escapes.2

Though Hirsi Ali's life story has the drama of a good novel, her response to the world as she finds it shows none of fiction's nuance, ambiguity, and moderation; in her writings, lectures, and interviews, she reaches for the simple solution and quick answer. Always and everywhere, she insists on depicting Islam and Muslims as the enemy, her tribal culture as backward. Our multicultural values and sympathies, she argues, are a form of suicide. Accommodating this religion and its religious schools will bring an end to Western freedom, she warns, without noting that freedom of religion is one of the freedoms our constitution guarantees. In Nomad, she tells of meeting with a priest at the Vatican to try to inspire the church to a fight against Islam, and it is as if she had never heard of the Spanish Inquisition. …

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