Read: 20 October, 2008
Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s story is one of extraordinary courage. Growing up in a culture that is oppressive to women, Hirsi Ali first tries to find her sense of self in religion – trying to find the freedom she sought through Allah. The tipping point occurs when an arranged marriage sends her out of Africa and into Europe where, like a bird that has suddenly realized its cage door is wide open, she flies to Holland and seeks refugee status and, finally, comes to terms with the atheism that had been growing in her from her earliest days.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first part is devoted to her childhood in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, and Kenya. I say her “childhood” even though she remained her twenties because the culture as she describes it kept women as children, stiffling their intellectual growth. I think Hirsi Ali would be the first to agree with my use of the term. The second part of her biography opens with her arrival in Europe and subsequent cultivation of her Self.
These two parts are different in more than just content. The first shows a vulnerable girl, a child ruled over by her parents, culture, and religion. Though she does defy the authorities of her life at times, she is by and large kept as a victim. In the second part, we see her as an active participant in her life (despite the regression she suffers after the death of Theo van Gogh). Because of this, these two parts feel very differently. I found the first to be intensely powerful and emotional, frequently reducing me to tears and causing me to sleep quite poorly for a few nights! I think this is the first book that has affected me quite so deeply since childhood. The second part is far more intellectual, an exposé of the conclusions Hirsi Ali has drawn from her experiences. The reading was much slower from that point on, but no less satisfying.
Though I can’t say that I agree with every idea Hirsi Ali espouses, she certainly manages to provide a convincing and rational case for them. My mind was certainly changed on a number of issues. This is a book that satisfies on a great many levels. Though I feel that many (of all faiths and from every end of the political spectrum) may be offended by Hirsi Ali’s writings, Infidel is well worth reading. Hirsi Ali is unguarded as she speaks her mind and this is a rare quality. I recommend that everyone read it and digest it slowly. You may not agree with her conclusions, but you can only benefit from having read them.
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