In the acknowledgements of her haunting yet heroic autobiography Infidel, secular activist and ex-Muslim Ayaan Hirsi Ali thanks several people who helped her to survive the brutal Islamic and tribalist cultures from which she was raised in Africa and Saudi Arabia. But the people who likely helped her most are those she never met, specifically authors from Emily Bronte to George Orwell to Danielle Steel.
When I read Infidel, I recognized that Ali refers throughout to the Western novels that she read as a youth. She notes the impact their stories had on the development of her independent thought and views on love, marriage and sex. These novels above all else, she reveals, are what saved her from cultures that sanction female genital mutilation (so that women may not experience sexual pleasure) and arranged marriages. Their ideas and themes fundamentally ignited her decision to flee ultimately to Holland to seek asylum after her father arranged for her to marry a man she did not love.
Ali was born in Somalia to parents who were observant Muslims and deeply clannish. Her mother taught her to memorize old chants of war and death, raids, and camel herding, as well as Somali poetry that was devoid of romantic love. Love is, Ali writes, “considered synonymous with desire, and sexual desire is seen as low — literally unspeakable.” Moreover, she was raised, especially as a female, not to think for herself, but to submit to an authority, whether Allah or her father.
Fortunately for her, though, she and her family moved to Kenya, a non-Muslim country, where she attended a British colonial-based school and learned English. She began to read such novels as Wuthering Heights, Huckleberry Finn, and 1984, as well as tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. About the fiction that she read that pertained to love and sex, Ali writes in Infidel: “Later on there were sexy books: Valley of the Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas — races were equal, women were equal to men — and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me.”
Here are other passages in which she writes about the mostly Harlequin-type novels that she readily indulged:
[T]he spark of will inside me grew even as I studied [the Koran] and practiced to submit. I was fanned by the free-spirited novels … Most of all, I think it was the novels that saved me from submission. I was young, but the first tiny, meek beginnings of my rebellion had already clicked into place.
I always found it uncomfortable to be opposed to the West. For me, Britain and America were the countries in my books where there was decency and individual choice.
I knew that another kind of life was possible. I had read about it … [T]he kind of life I had always wanted, with a real education, a real job, a real marriage … I wanted to become a person, an individual, with a life of my own.
Clearly, the expectation and vision for a better life that she derived from the pages of Western novels served as the spiritual fuel, romantic and otherwise, for Ali to escape her suffocating existence. And for readers of Infidel, this feature of the book serves as a concrete example of the life-sustaining, savior-like role that art, even so-called trashy novels, can and does play in man’s life.
* This is a revised version of a blog that I wrote in 2008.