Infidel (Somalia)

InfidelRecently I read a statement by the Buddhist monk and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. He said it is a mistake to bind yourself tightly to any one belief system; that the way to peace and understanding is to remain open-minded. He cautions people to remember that all religions are guides along the path – not the path itself.

Phrased differently, each way stands for a Universal Truth – it is not the Universal Truth itself. I got that from the Interfaith Amigos…a rabbi, a minister and an imam who began working together and giving lectures on religious tolerance after 911.

It’s a shame there are not more men like this in the world – and I say men advisedly.

The Story of One Infidel

Infidel is the story of a Somali girl who was abused physically, emotionally and verbally by her mother, who used her children to express all her frustration and rage at the way she herself was forced to live. It is the story of how she lost her faith after a series of painful experiences with men who used the religion to justify abusing women. And women who abused children.

The family started out in Somalia, where the grandmother forcibly circumcised her grandson and 2 granddaughters one day while the parents were out – despite the fact that she knew her son-in-law was against it.

When the author was 8 years old, her father started/joined a resistance movement to the corrupt Somali leader everyone called “Big Mouth” – because he would eat you up – and they had to flee to Saudi Arabia.

There, you could not go out as a woman alone. The rich women had drivers but the Somalis were poor refugees so life was very difficult. Pretty soon the family had to flee to Ethiopia – the mother was strongly opposed to that because “Ethiopians are unbelievers” – Christians. Finally they wound up in Kenya.

The father was gone a lot and the mother despised the Kenyans for their strong-smelling food, their blacker skin, and their poverty and ignorance. Much as the Arab Saudis had despised her.

Differences Among African Nations

As an American and one who has yet to travel to Africa, I came to this book ignorant of the following facts:

Clans & Tribes Matter – According to the author, in Somalia, the Muslims are not Arabs. Arabs look down on people from Somalia because they’re “black”. Somalia is composed of many different clans, and Somali children are made to memorize their ancestors going back 700 years. They do this because, before nationhood, the way of wandering herders was to offer hospitality to relatives. So if you needed help, it would behoove you to find a connection with a stranger.

Honor – Girls carry the honor of the family. Rural girls are taught young that if a man tries to rape you, you must shout three times, “It doesn’t matter what you do to me, Allah will see you!” If he persists, you are to run around behind him, reach inside his skirts, grab his tender bits, and squeeze as hard as you can. You must hang on until he passes out. If you fail and he rapes you anyway, it’s your fault. As a teen, the author was told several times that “Women cannot be aroused by looking at a man–that’s impossible. That’s why men don’t have to cover themselves but women do.”

Dress – Girls in the bush have to move about doing lots of chores that don’t allow for the wearing of a complete hijab, so it was a shock for the little kids in this family to enter Saudi Arabia and see “invisible” women in black robes with only eyes and hands showing.

Scientific Knowledge – The Saudis seemed a superstitious lot, and Ayaan’s dad would roll his eyes when he talked about how ignorant he felt they were. Once, during an eclipse, the neighbors started coming to the Somali family’s door saying the world was ending. They said the Day of Judgment had come, begging the children to pray for them because Allah listens to the prayers of small children the most. Of course, this scared the bejeepers out of the kids. When their father came home from work, he explained that it was a natural phenomenon that would pass, and that the sun would NOT, in fact, rise in the West the next day. This was in the late 1970s.

Telling Time – The children ended up in school in Kenya, unable to speak the language and unable to tell time. You see, during the author’s childhood, the Somalis had an ancient solar calendar, but also used the Gregorian and Islamic calendars. In Saudi Arabia they used a lunar calendar that started from the year the prophet Mohammed was born, and Kenya of course uses the Christian calendar of the West.

So in Spokane, as I write this blog, it is the Year of Our Lord 2014. But in Iran the year is 1393, while in other parts of the Islamic world it is 1435. Confused? Me too.

Tribal Systems: In Somalia, all the tribes speak the same language. They may fight over dominance, but they’re basically the same people. In Kenya, however, all the tribes speak different languages.

Love Your Friends? Then Convert Them

A part of the story I really related to was when Sister Aziza, one of the author’s Quran teachers, tells the class that they must try to convert their Christian friends or those girls will burn in hell. I was told exactly the same by a few zealots in the Lutheran church about my best friend, a Mormon. Not surprisingly, neither she nor her parents appreciated my earnest attempts to save her soul. I was hurt and confused when I got a lecture from my mother about respect! (Ironically in the context of this book, I quit going to the Lutheran church after college because I began to feel it treated women like second-class citizens.)

The results were much the same for the author. Although she describes her own mother as extremely devout – she seemed to be desperately seeking inner peace – Ayaan’s  Christian friends and their parents didn’t appreciate her trying to steal them away from Jesus. It was the beginning of a long awakening from unquestioning faith for the author. A journey that would send her fleeing to the West to escape an unwanted arranged marriage. A journey that would lead her to make a controversial film with a Dutch producer, Theo van Gogh.

Sadly, Mr. van Gogh was brutally murdered by fanatics as a result of this film. But the author refuses to be silenced. She will no longer submit – her issue is not with Allah, but with the entitled bullies who pervert religious teachings in order to have submissive female slaves.

Don’t Just Read This, Do Something

The world is much smaller than it was. Diseases like polio and TB that we thought had been eradicated are coming back. And as the author points out, human rights violations are no longer just happening “over there” in remote and backward parts of the world.

Ayaan’s mother used to tie her hands and feet together, forcing her into a position that in yoga we call “the bow” and then beat her to a pulp. Is this how she herself was beaten by her first husband? Where did she learn to do that? We’ll never know.

My fellow Americans, my fellow Westerners wherever you live: Right here in your town, a man could be beating and raping the woman that he “owns”; he could be forcing her to work as a drudge until she’s worn out and ill. He could be keeping her a prisoner in his house like Ariel Castro kept young Michelle Knight and the others – and he probably thinks it’s all ok because he married her. It’s not legal here, thank God. If you see something, say something. Don’t let this continue.

And if you feel so moved, please donate to Ayaan’s Foundation: It helps women and girls defend themselves against traditional practices like forced marriage, honor violence and female genital mutilation.

Ayaan Foundation

 But what about the good men?

Yes, there are some in the book. Ayaan’s father, even though he eventually abandoned the family. Her brother too has his moments – although he can be a bully, it is Mahad who explains the facts of life to Ayaan when she is terrified by her first period. (Then he gives her all the money he has to buy sanitary pads. This is after her mother has called her names and beaten her.)

Her friend Heweya’s father was portrayed as kind in the book, allowing his daughters to finish school before arranging marriages for them.

And an strange Saudi man, who rescued Ayaan one day when it was raining so hard it was flooding and she’d been left to walk home from elementary school alone. As she fell forward into a giant puddle, crying, with water up to her knees, a giant hairy arm scooped her up from behind and carried her into his home. She was terrified, but he went immediately to his wife and, without a word, dumped Ayaan on her lap. The woman soothed her and gave her warm milk. Eventually her mother arrived to pick her up.

Five star read, this book. It couldn’t have been easy to write so honestly about the raw personal pain the author experienced…but she does so with courage and grace.

The Picnic and Suchlike Pandemonium (England)

PicnicIt’s hard to imagine a more British family than the Durrells. Mother Durrell, born in India. Gerald, the naturalist, raised in Corfu before the Second World War. Larry, the novelist, sarcastic and scathing but unfailingly polite to foreigners and strangers. Leslie, the gun-crazy older brother, slightly deaf and slightly near-sighted but who refuses to get glasses. And Margo, well-meaning, but vague. As completely incapable of mastering a simile or a metaphor as a trash compactor pushing up the daisies.

While teaching English at the NOVA conversation school in Tokyo in the late 1990s, I was introduced to Gerald Durrell’s classic memoirs by my British friend Julia. My Family and Other Animals features English children growing up wild on the island of Corfu. Their friends and neighbors are rural Greeks who delight in what Gerry calls SITUATIONS…and always, always, manage to make a bad situation worse, in a genuinely hilarious way.

In The Picnic and Suchlike Pandemonium, brother Larry returns to England after 10 years away – years which have been taken up by World War II and other depressing events. In her inimitable fashion, Mother decides to have a picnic on the beach in a remote area. Predictably, everything goes wrong.

I read the first chapters out on my deck on a delightfully hot summer’s day last week, Gin and Tonic in hand. Soon I started laughing so uncontrollably I was afraid the neighbors would breach our perimeter to make sure I wasn’t sobbing hysterically. It was that funny.

Yes, It Was That Funny

“Larry came over to where we were sitting and sniffed again. “No wonder *you’re* not complaining, he commented bitterly. “There’s hardly any smell over here. It seems to be concentrated where Mother and I are sitting.”

He went back to where Mother was sipping her wine and enjoying a Cornish pasty, and prowled around. Suddenly he let out such a cry of anguish and rage that everybody jumped, and Mother dropped her glass of wine into her lap.

“Great God Almighty, look!” roared Larry. “Just look where that bloody fool Leslie’s put us! No wonder we’re being stunk out; we’ll probably die of typhoid!”

“Larry dear, I do wish you wouldn’t shout like that,” complained Mother, mopping up the wine in her lap with her handkerchief. “It’s quite possible to say things in a calm way.”

“No, it isn’t!”  Said Larry violently. “No one can keep calm in the face of this…this olfactory outrage!”

“What outrage, dear?” asked Mother.

“Do you know what you’re leaning against?” he asked. “Do you know what that back-rest is, that was chosen for you by your son?”

“What?” replied Mother, glancing nervously over her shoulder. “It’s a rock, dear.”

“It’s not a rock,” said Larry, with dangerous calm, “Nor is it a pile of sand, a boulder, or a fossilized dinosaur’s pelvis. It is nothing remotely geological. Do you know what you and I have been leaning against for the past half-hour?”

“What, dear?” asked Mother, now considerably alarmed.

“A horse,” replied Larry. “The mortal remains of a ruddy great horse.”

“Rubbish,” said Leslie, incredulously. “It’s a rock.”

‘Do rocks have teeth?” inquired Larry sarcastically. “Do they have eye sockets? Do they have the remains of ears and manes? I tell you – owing either to your malevolence or stupidity , your mother and I will probably be stricken with some fatal disease.”

Leslie got up and went to have a look, and I joined him. Sure enough, from one end to the rug protruded a head which undeniably had once belonged to a horse. All the fur had fallen off and the skin, through a motion in the sea water, had become dark brown and leathery. The fish and gulls had emptied the eye sockets, and the skin of the lips was drawn back in a snarl, displaying the tombstone-like teeth, a discolored yellow.

“How damned odd,” Leslie said. “I could have sworn it was a rock.”

“It would save us a considerable amount of trouble, if you had invested in some glasses,” remarked Larry with asperity.

“Well, how was I to know?” asked Leslie, belligerently. “You don’t expect a bloody great dead horse to be lying about on the beach , do you?

“Fortunately, my knowledge of the habits of horses is limited, answered Larry. “For all I know, it may have suffered a heart attack while bathing. This in no way excuses your crass stupidity in turning its rotten corpse into a chaise lounger for Mother and me.”

“Bloody  nonsense,” said Leslie. “The thing looked like a rock. If it’s a dead horse, it should look like one; not like a damned great rock. It’s not my fault.”

“It not only looks like a dead great horse, it smells like one,” Larry said. “If your nasal membranes hadn’t been, like your intellect, stunted from birth, you would have noticed the fact. The rich, ambrosial smell alone would have told you that it was a horse.

“Now, now, dears, don’t quarrel over the horse,” pleaded Mother, who had retreated up-wind and was standing with a handkerchief over her nose.

“Look,” said Leslie angrily, “I’ll bloody well show you.”

He flung the cushions aside and whipped away the blanket to reveal the horse’s blackened and semi-mummified body. Margo screamed. Of course, when you knew it was a horse, it was hard to see it as anything else – but to do Leslie justice, with its legs half-buried in the shingle and only its blackened, leathery torso showing, it could be mistaken for a rock…

And the Misadventures Continue…

As the Durrell family finishes their picnic away from the pong of dead horse, they rest secure in the knowledge that the radio (in which Mother believes implicitly due to its fidelity during WWII) – the radio has forecast fine, warm, sunny weather. They wake from a nap to find the skies as dark as midnight and a thunderstorm upon them. Walking back to the car, they find that Margo’s husband Jack has left the top down on the Rolls and the car is awash with water.

Driving slowly to the nearest village, the car eventually breaks down. They find a farmer in a field who agrees to loan them his horse and cart. “Molly” has an uncanny knack of returning to her owner, it seems, no matter how late he’s been out at the pub. Unfortunately after a few hours it becomes clear to the Durrells that no matter what they wish, Molly is returning to the farmer post-haste: Sans pub and telephone where they might potentially have called for help…

Brother Larry’s comments must only be imagined, if you don’t wish to laugh yourself into a jelly.

Each of the 6 stories in this book is delightful save for the strangeness of the last one – Some sort of haunted tale that reads like fiction Gerry wasn’t able to publish elsewhere? Never mind, it’s worth a read for The Picnic alone.

Jolly fine, chaps, carry on!