Writer and critic of Islam Ayaan Hirsi Ali on her nomadic life and her ejection from Holland
“All my life I have been a nomad,” writes Ayaan Hirsi Ali at the beginning of her second memoir, the appropriately titled Nomad. Often when people make this kind of statement, they’re speaking metaphorically or with a certain melodramatic exaggeration. In Hirsi Ali’s case, her geographical and cultural shifts have been many, profound and life-changing.
She spent her first eight years in war-torn Somalia, then lived under virtual house arrest in Saudi Arabia, before being thrown out to Ethiopia, then in turn to Kenya. From there, she was supposed to move to Canada in an arranged marriage, but on the flight there she took a detour to Holland, where she gained asylum. As she studied and embraced the Dutch way of life, she gradually cast off her tribal attitudes and Islamic beliefs.
With the 9/11 attacks, she decided she was no longer a Muslim and became an increasingly outspoken critic of the religion she was born into. Within a few years, she required police protection and after the film-maker Theo van Gogh, with whom she shot a feminist critique of Islam, was slaughtered in the street, she was forced into hiding. Finally, having become a Dutch MP, she was persuaded to relocate to the US when her own government revoked her citizenship and her neighbours, fearful of terrorism, gained her eviction under human rights law.
The continual uprooting would be enough to disorientate and dispirit even the most stable of minds. Then there’s the added inconvenience of being the subject of repeated death threats (at one stage in Holland, she says, the police were uncovering three or four plots a week on her life). But she seems almost serenely relaxed when we meet in a Soho restaurant.
“I am able to adapt,” she says. “Sometimes, I think it’s because of my early childhood training, when each move felt like a trauma. But there was a period of extreme pain and mental anguish in 2006 [when she was effectively forced out of Holland] and the way I dealt with it was by telling myself that it wasn’t the end of the world. The future seemed much more uncertain when I left Kenya to come to Holland.”
None the less, she feels bitter about how the Dutch government, which had encouraged her to speak out, removed her police protection. “I thought that was disgusting because, indirectly, it’s setting you up for murder.”
For the past year or so, she’s been going out with the historian Niall Ferguson. She was shocked to see the British press coverage about their relationship. “So I asked my publishers, what’s this about? They said, ‘It’s not you. He’s the one who’s a celebrity.”