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Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations

Hirsi Ali, Ayaan

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"This woman is a major hero of our time." —Richard Dawkins

Ayaan Hirsi Ali captured the world’s attention with Infidel, her compelling coming-of-age memoir, which spent thirty-one weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Now, in Nomad, Hirsi Ali tells of coming to America to build a new life, an ocean away from the death threats made to her by European Islamists, the strife she witnessed, and the inner conflict she suffered. It is the story of her physical journey to freedom and, more crucially, her emotional journey to freedom—her transition from a tribal mind-set that restricts women’s every thought and action to a life as a free and equal citizen in an open society. Through stories of the challenges she has faced, she shows the difficulty of reconciling the contradictions of Islam with Western values.

In these pages Hirsi Ali recounts the many turns her life took after she broke with her family, and how she struggled to throw off restrictive superstitions and misconceptions that initially hobbled her ability to assimilate into Western society. She writes movingly of her reconciliation, on his deathbed, with her devout father, who had disowned her when she renounced Islam after 9/11, as well as with her mother and cousins in Somalia and in Europe.

Nomad is a portrait of a family torn apart by the clash of civilizations. But it is also a touching, uplifting, and often funny account of one woman’s discovery of today’s America. While Hirsi Ali loves much of what she encounters, she fears we are repeating the European mistake of underestimating radical Islam. She calls on key institutions of the West—including universities, the feminist movement, and the Christian churches—to enact specific, innovative remedies that would help other Muslim immigrants to overcome the challenges she has experienced and to resist the fatal allure of fundamentalism and terrorism.

This is Hirsi Ali’s intellectual coming-of-age, a memoir that conveys her philosophy as well as her experiences, and that also conveys an urgent message and mission—to inform the West of the extent of the threat from Islam, both from outside and from within our open societies. A celebration of free speech and democracy, Nomad is an important contribution to the history of ideas, but above all a rousing call to action.

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About the Author:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, was raised Muslim, and spent her childhood and young adulthood in Africa and Saudi Arabia. In 1992, Hirsi Ali came to the Netherlands as a refugee. She earned her college degree in political science and worked for the Dutch Labor party. She denounced Islam after the September 11 terrorist attacks and now serves as a Dutch parliamentarian, fighting for the rights of Muslim women in Europe, the enlightenment of Islam, and security in the West.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1
My Father


When I walked into the Intensive Care Unit of the Royal London Hospital to see my father, I feared I might have come too late. He was sprawled across the hospital bed, his mouth eerily agape, and the machines that were attached to him were many and menacing. They beeped and ticked, and the lines that rapidly rose and fell on their monitors all seemed to be indicating a rapid countdown to his death.

" Abeh," I yelled at the top of my voice. " Abeh, it's me, Ayaan."

I squeezed his hand and anxiously kissed his forehead, and my father's eyes flew open. He smiled, and the warmth of his gaze and his smile radiated through the whole room. I put my palms over his right hand and he squeezed them and tried to speak, to force out at least a word or two. But he could only wheeze and gasp for breath. He strained to sit up, but he couldn't lift his body.

He was covered with white sheets, and it looked as if he were tied to the bed. Bald, he looked much smaller than I remembered. There was a terrible tube in his throat that was giving him oxygen through a ventilator; another led from his kidney to a dialysis machine, and yet another mess of tubes went into his wrist. I sat beside him and stroked his face and told him, "Abeh, Abeh, it's all right. Abeh, my poor Abeh, you're so sick."

He couldn't answer. Trying to speak, he would fall back, his chest pumping, and the machine that gave him oxygen would hiss and gasp for more air. Then, after resting for a moment or two, he would try again. He indicated with his right hand that he wanted a pen to write with, but he could hardly hold it; his muscles were too weak and he made only scratches on the paper. He was struggling so hard to hold the pen that he began sliding off the bed.

The ward was large, and nurses were bustling about changing sheets and giving medication. I noticed that the doctor had an accent and for a moment thought that he was from Mexico. When I asked where he came from he told me that he was from Spain. The ward was run almost entirely by immigrants. I could not tell the nurses from the doctors, and as I looked around I tried to guess the origins of the members of the medical team, technicians, and cleaners: the Indian Peninsula, blacks who I thought were from East or West Africa, people who looked North African, a few women with headscarves over their medical uniforms. If there were any Somali employees in the ward I did not see them, and fortunately they did not see me.

One of the nurses unrolled a plastic smock, tied it around her waist, and asked me to step aside, but my father would not let go of me and I had to pry his fingers from around my hand. The nurse propped him up higher with pillows, staring at me oddly. One of the nurses told me that she had read an article about me in a magazine, so some of them knew who I was. I glanced away and noticed the chart on his bed; it listed my father as Hirsi Magan Abdirahman, although his name is Hirsi Magan Isse.

A young doctor told me that my father had leukemia. He could have lived another year had he not caught an infection, which had become septic. Now, although he was out of the coma that he had fallen into a few days earlier, only the machines were keeping him alive. I asked again and again if my father was in pain, but the doctor said no, he was uncomfortable, but there was no pain.

I asked the doctor if I could take a picture with my father. He refused. He said we needed to ask the permission of the patient, and the patient was not in any state to make that decision.

In 1992, when I left him in Nairobi, my father was a strong, vital man. He could be fierce, even frightening - a lion, a leader of men. When I was growing up he was my lord, my hero, someone whose absence was mysterious, whose presence I longed for, whose approval meant everything and whose wrath I feared.

Now so many disputes lay between us. I had offended him deeply in 1992 by running away from a Somali man he had chosen for me to marry. He had forgiven me for that; we had spoken together, stiffly, on the phone. A decade later I offended him again, when I declared myself an unbeliever and openly criticized Islam's treatment of women. Our last, and worst, conflict was after I made a film about the abuse and oppression of Muslim women, Submission, with Theo van Gogh in 2004. After that my father simply would not answer the phone; he would not talk to me. Sometime after Theo was killed, when I had to go into hiding and my phone was taken away from me, I stopped trying to call him. When people asked, I could say only that we were estranged.

I learned he was sick in June 2008, only a few weeks before his death. I had received a message from Marco, my ex-boyfriend in Holland, saying that my cousin Magool in England was looking for me urgently. Magool is not close to my father's family, but she is resourceful. When my half sister, Sahra, realized how sick my father was, she asked Magool to try to track me down, and Magool called Marco, the only person she knew to whom I had been close when she and I had last spoken, five years earlier.

I phoned my father at his apartment in a housing development in the East End of London. It was late in the evening where he was, a bright sunny afternoon on the East Coast of America where I was. I was shaking. When he came to the phone he sounded just like himself, strong and excited. At the sound of his voice I felt tears welling in my eyes and I said the only thing I wanted to convey, that I loved him, and I heard his smile, so powerful it seemed to come through the telephone.

"Of course you love me!" he burst out loudly. "And of course I love you! Haven't you seen how parents cuddle and connect with their children? Haven't you been out in nature where you see how animals pet and lick their young? Of course I love you. You are my child."

I told my father how much I wanted to see him, but I explained that it might be difficult to arrange security for a visit to his apartment, which is a mostly immigrant area and overwhelmingly Muslim. To visit such a place without protection would be like a very small insect risking a flight through a roomful of huge spiders' webs; the little bug might get through unnoticed, but if it gets caught the consequences are clear. On the other hand, if I went there with police, that would be bound to cause ill feeling, as if I could not trust my own family.

"Security!" my father cried. "What do you need security for? Allah will protect you against anyone who wants to harm you! No one in our community will lay a finger on you. And besides, our family has never had a reputation for being cowardly! In fact the other day one of our most prominent clan members said that he wanted to debate with you. If you want, I can ask them to put together a delegation and take you to Jeddah, so you can debate him in Saudi Arabia! Why don't you arrange a press conference and say that you are no longer an unbeliever? Tell them that you have returned to Islam and from now on you're a businesswoman!"

I laughed quietly at my father, and for a while I just enjoyed listening to him talk. Then I asked after his health. He said, "You must remember, Ayaan, that our health and our lives are in the hands of Allah. I am on my way to the hereafter. My dear child, what I want you to do is read just one chapter of the Quran. Laa-uqsim Bi-yawmiil-qiyaama."

He recited - in Arabic, of course, though we were speaking Somali - a chapter called "The Resurrection": "I do call to witness the resurrection day; and I do call to witness the self-reproaching spirit; Does man think that we cannot assemble his bones? Nay, we are able to put together in perfect order the very tips of his fingers. But man wishes to do wrong in the time in front of him; he questions, when is the day of resurrection?"

I told my father that I would not lie to him, and that I no longer believed in the example of the Prophet. He cut me off, and his tone became passionate, impatient, then retributive. He read me more verses of the Quran, translating them into Somali, and he listed many examples of people like me, who had left Islam but had come back to the faith. He talked about hordes of non-Muslims converting to Islam across the globe, and he told me about the one true god; he warned me not to risk my hereafter.

As I listened to him I told myself that this magisterial lecture was from a father expressing his love in the only way he knew. I wanted to believe that the very fact that he was lecturing me meant that, in some deeper sense, he had begun to forgive me for the person I had become. Possibly, however, it was not that. Possibly he was only doing his duty. Living as a Western woman meant I had shed my honor; I wore Western clothes, which to him was no better than if I walked around wearing no clothes at all. Worst of all, I had abjured Islam and written a book with the brazen, triumphant title Infidel to proclaim my apostasy. But my father knew that his life was coming to an end, and he wanted to make sure that all his children, despite their errors, were safe on a path to heaven.

I let him talk. I didn't make false promises to convert. If I had, that might have helped him leave in peace, but I couldn't do it, I couldn't lie to him about that. I managed to tell him gently that although I no longer agreed with Islam, I would read the Quran. I did not add that, every time I reread it, I became more critical of its messages.

He broke into a series of supplications: "May Allah protect you, may He bring you back to the straight path, may He take you to Heaven in the hereafter, may Allah bless you and keep you healthy." And at the end of every supplication I responded with the required formula: " Amin," May it be so.

After a little while I told my father I had a flight to catch. He didn't ask where to, or why; I could tell that the details of terrestrial matters had little bearing for him now. Then I hung up, with so many more things left unsaid between us, and I almost missed the plane that was taking me to a conference in Brazil on multiculturalism.

At the end of June, after the conference in Brazil, I was scheduled to go to Australia for a colloquium on the Enlightenment. I planned to visit my father in London at the end of the summer. But in mid-August, on my way back from Australia, during a stopover in Los Angeles, I received another phone call from Marco. My father was in a coma.

I called my cousin Magool again, and she gave me the cell phone number of my half sister, Sahra. The last time I'd seen my father's youngest child, in 1992, Sahra was eight or nine years old, a wiry, energetic little kid. I had met her when stopping off in Ethiopia en route from my home in Kenya to Germany. From there, on my father's orders, I was supposed to go on to Canada, to join a man I barely knew, who was a distant cousin and who had become my husband. In those days Sahra lived in Addis Ababa with her mother, who, like my own mother, was still married to my father in spite of his absence. I had played with this little half sister of mine all afternoon, struggling to remember my childhood Amharic, which was the only language Sahra spoke back then and which I too had spoken when I was her age and still lived with my father.

Now, in the summer of 2008, Sahra was twenty-four. She was married and had her own four-month-old daughter. She lived with her mother, my father's third wife.

I didn't tell Sahra that I planned to visit our father in the hospital. It's a hideous thing to write, but I didn't really know if I could trust her with that information. I assume the closest members of my family don't actually want to kill me, but the truth is that I have shamed and hurt them; they have to deal with the outrage that my public statements cause, and undoubtedly some members of my clan do want to kill me for that.

Sahra volunteered the suggestion that if I did go to see Abeh, I should avoid visiting hours, when floods of Somalis would be going to the Royal London Hospital to seek a blessing from my father in order to improve their own chances of getting into heaven. For many, Abeh was a symbol of the battle against President Siad Barre's military regime, a man who had dedicated most of his adult life to overthrowing that regime. It would be the same in the East End of London as it was in Somalia: the many wives, the many children and grandchildren, the elders of the clan and the subclan and the brother subclans, scores and scores of relatives would come to my father to pay their respects. For many of those people I would not be welcome at my father's bedside because I was an unbeliever, an infidel, an avowed atheist, a filthy runaway, and worst of all, a traitor to the clan and to the faith. Some of them would certainly feel that I deserve to die, and to many more my presence would defile my father's deathbed and perhaps even cost him his place in the hereafter.

I felt no such rejection from Sahra, however. She was sweet and hushed, a little conspiratorial, as if by talking with her on the phone I had enrolled her in something clandestine and dangerous.

* * *

I needed to fly to London right away. Because this was an urgent, unplanned, purely personal trip, arranging security was going to be complicated, unlike attending a conference, for which everything is officially coordinated with the police weeks ahead of time. I knew it wouldn't be wise just to go, accompanied by the gentlemen who usually protect me in America. In Britain these men would not know their way around and would not be allowed to carry weapons. If I were rash in my planning I might put others as well as myself in danger.

I phoned a number of friends in Europe who I thought might be influential and asked them to try to help me arrange the protection I needed to make the trip. They spent many hours trying to help me, seemingly without success. One friend was told by a British official that as I was born in Somalia I should ask the Somali Embassy for help; they could approach the Foreign Office to seek security assistance for me. This absurd bureaucratic logic might have been comical in some circumstances, but not in the face of my need to get to London to see my dying father.

When my plane took off for London I still had no idea whether I would have any security protection when it landed. But that no longer mattered; after days of waiting I feared only that I might be too late. I knew that, if my father were to die, I would not be allowed to see his body. He would be whisked away by male relatives to be washed and prepared and buried within twenty-four hours. Women are not allowed to be present at the graveside during a Muslim burial ceremony. It is believed that their presence is disruptive; they might become hysterical, perhaps even hurl themselves into the grave to be with the corpse. It would be unseemly to try to attend.

My father had a contradictory attitude to women. He embraced some modern ideas on literacy, urged his first wife to attend university, and insisted that my sister Haweya and I go to school when my mother resisted the idea. He believed in women's strength and he repeatedly insisted that a woman's role was valuable and important. But as he aged he became more orthodox in his Islamic convictions that we must cover ourselves, marry, and submit to ...

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