………..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-yawtni-il-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 sub-clans, 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 our husbands.

Despite his often eccentric views, even my father would not have tollerated seeing a woman at a funeral.

When I arrived at Heathrow Airport in London a large black car from the Dutch Embassy was there to greet me; another, smaller but even safer, held men from Scotland Yard. We drove straight to the hospital. Now, to my relief, my father lay alive before me. Poor Abeh. He was tied to a hospital bed, old, vulnerable, sick. He smiled deeply at me, and dozed, and then he would wake and gasp for air, trying again and again to speak, but nothing came out, only "Ash hah," gasping for breath. Then he would make kissing gestures to me with his lips and hold on to my hand as tightly as he could. I felt heavy with the burden of everything I had never said to my father and the sheer waste of all the years we had been apart. The only words I could find were trite messages of love, and I said them over and over again. It was too late for anything else.

I hadn't gone to the hospital seeking absolution. I had ceased to believe in the idea that if I did the right thing, such as fulfill my duty to seek forgiveness from my parents and acquire their blessings, my sins would be washed away. Perhaps my presence did not even give him that much pleasure, since he could see that his daughter wore trousers and no headscarf. I went there just for the light in his eyes, for his acknowledgment of me, his love for me and mine for him—a mutual recognition that we had always been precious to each other.

He was using up his last reserves of strength in the effort to tell me something. I will never know what that was. For my father, God was the creator and the sustainer, but God was also ferocious and wrathful. Deep down I understood that on his deathbed my father was terrified that I risked the rage of Allah because I had rejected his faith. Father always taught us that those not forgiven by God will lead a miserable life on earth and eternal fire in the hereafter. But although our beliefs are not reconciled—and never will be, for they are worlds apart—my father did, I think, forgive me. He ultimately allowed his feelings of fatherly love to transcend his adherence to the demands of his unforgiving God.


Visiting hours were approaching. Soon the streams of Somalis that Sahra had warned me about would begin arriving to see my father, and I couldn't bear the idea of any kind of confrontation. So, painfully, I said good-bye to Abeh.

When the men from Scotland Yard escorted me out of the hospital I found myself standing on Whitechapel Road, the center of the largest Muslim population in Great Britain. 

A noisy, tarpaulin-covered street market was across the road, crowded with stalls selling lengths of saris, international phone cards, and spicy lamb sandwiches. On the pavement beside me, standing at the bus stop outside the hospital steps, was a collection of women wearing every variety of Muslim covering imaginable, from a pastel headscarf to the complete, thick black niqaab that covers you completely, with a veil of black cloth that blanks out your face, even your eyes. These were young, strong women, not doddering old ladies; some of them were pregnant, most of them had several small children, and they were out shopping for their families in the sunlight. Several wore a variation that was new to me: in addition to a long robe and headscarf they had an extra face veil fixed on with Velcro, with two thick black strips of cloth strapped so as to leave barely an inch or so uncovered, just skirting the eyelashes.

The phone booths and the signs for the London Underground were British, but I would not have thought I was in England. 

I smelled the lunchboxes of my schoolmates at the Muslim Girls' Secondary School in Nairobi, a heady clash of spices and food, and perfumed hair oils. Here again was the noisy bustle of the street and the mixture of people—Somalis and, I guess, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis— crowded at the market.

At the smells alone I felt a tug of longing for the innocence of youth. I don't know if in other cultures that sense of community is as strong, but for someone who has grown up within a clan, the feeling—the smell— of family is very powerful. Yet my longing was mixed with a dread of confrontation. What if somebody in this crowd recognized me, as people sometimes do, and decided to pick a fight? In the eyes of many of them, I am an infidel and a traitor, who goes about unpunished.

My bodyguards and I got back in the car and drove down Whitechapel Road, slowly, in heavy traffic. Seated outside a halal fast-food shop was a small woman in a long black robe with a black embroidered beak of cloth tied over her nose and mouth, in the style of Algerian women. Two small children were crying in the buggy beside her, and she was trying to jiggle and comfort them while she lifted her cloth beak to try to eat her pastry modestly underneath it. Her older toddler was wearing a veil too. It was not a face veil, but it covered her hair and shoulders; it was white and lacy and elasticized so it fit snugly over her head. The child couldn't have been older than three.

Two shop fronts farther down was a huge mosque, the biggest mosque in London, my escorts told me. 

A small crowd of men stood outside it, all wearing loose clothing, long beards, and white skullcaps. All these people had left their countries of origin only to band together here, unwilling or unable to let go, where they enforce their culture more strongly even than in Nairobi. 

Here was the mosque, like a symbolic magnetic north, the force that moved their women to cover themselves so ferociously, the better to separate themselves from the dreadful influence of the culture and values of the country where they have chosen to live.

It was just a glimpse, and yet I felt an instant sense of panic and suffocation. I was right back in the heart of it all: inside the world of veils and blinkers, the world where women must hide their hair and their bodies, must cower to eat in public, and must follow a few steps behind their men on the street. 

A web of values—of honor and shame and religion—still entangled me together with all those women at the bus stop and almost every other woman along Whitechapel Road that morning. We were all very far from where we had been born, but only I had left behind that culture. They had brought their web of values with them, halfway across the world.

I felt as though I was the only true nomad…….

Just as I had lied about my identity when I sought asylum in Holland, my father too, it seemed, had lied to cheat the asylum system so that he could live in Britain. The tribal hero, the preserver of the culture of Islam and the clan, took handouts from the unbelievers on a false pretext, with a fake passport, though, unlike me, he had nothing but contempt for their values and way of life. Before he died he had even applied for and received British citizenship, not because he wanted to be a British subject but because of the instrumental benefits of free housing and health care. 

At the same time, he continued to lecture me never to be loyal to a secular state; he repeatedly urged me to return to the true faith. If I had stayed with him for a week he would have trapped me in a week-long lecture. He would have asked me to reunite with the family—his wives, their daughters, some of whom probably think I should be put to death and who certainly consider me a whore.


We who are born into Islam don't talk much about the pain, the tensions and ambiguities of polygamy. 

(Polygamy, of course, predates Islam, but the Prophet Muhammad elevated it and sanctioned it into law, just as he did child marriage.) 

It is in fact very difficult for all the wives and children of one man to pretend to live happily, in union. 

Polygamy creates a context of uncertainty, distrust, envy, and jealousy. There are plots. How much is the other wife getting? Who is the favored child? Who will he marry next, and how can we manipulate him most efficiently? Rival wives and their children plot and are often said to cast spells on each other. If security, safety, and predictability are the recipe for a healthy and happy family, then polygamy is everything a happy family is not. It is about conflict, uncertainty, and the constant struggle for power.

My grandmother, a second wife herself, used to say that our family was too noble to feel jealousy. Nobility in Somali nomadic culture is synonymous with self-restraint, with resilience. A higher-status clan is more self-conscious, hence more stoic. Expressions of jealousy or any other kind of emotion are frowned upon. My grandmother said she was lucky, and people called her spoiled, because after her older cowife died her husband didn't take another wife for many years, until my grandmother had had nine children. Even then, he only married again because eight of those children were girls.

My grandmother had thought her position was safe, because even though she had given birth to daughter after daughter, for years her husband did not marry another wife. And then he did marry again. And that third wife, to my grandmother's enduring shame, gave birth to three boys. My grandfather had a total of thirteen children.

There was nothing my grandmother could do and nothing she wished to say, so she did not protest. But after that, the worst in her came to the fore: she became mean and petty, exploding with temper at her children, who took the brunt of her anger.

Long after I was an adult, I realized that it was jealousy that finally drove my grandmother to walk away from her husband. After my grandfather's new wife had her second son, my grandmother could no longer contain her shame and envy, and she left their home in the desert, ostensibly to look after her adult children, which included my mother.

My mother's story was similar. 

Even though she was my father's second wife, from the day she learned that my father had married a third woman and had another child, Sahra, my mother became erratic, sometimes exploding with grief and pain and violence. She had fainting episodes and skin diseases, symptoms caused by suppressed jealousy. From being a strong, accomplished woman she became a wreck, and we, her children, bore the brunt of her misery.

Of my father's six children who made it to adulthood, three have suffered mental illnesses so severe that they can barely function. My sister Haweya died after three years of depression and psychotic attacks; my brother Mahad is a manic-depressive, unable to hold down a job; one of our half sisters has had psychotic episodes since she was eighteen. Aunts and uncles on both sides of my family have cases of Waalli, or generic "madness," as they call all mental problems in Somali.

Perhaps polygamy invites madness, or perhaps it is the clash between aspiration and reality. All my relatives desperately wanted to be modern. They yearned for freedom, but once they found it they were bewildered and broken by it. Obviously mental instability has biological factors too, but it is also affected by the culture we mature in, the tactics and strategies of survival we develop, the relationships we have with others, and the unbearable dissonance between the world we are told to see and the world in which we actually live.

As I spoke with Magool after my father's death, it occurred to me that the message that Abeh had tried so desperately to tell me on his deathbed was probably that I should look after his wives: his first wife, who also lives in England; his second wife, my mother, who lives in Somalia; his third wife, Sahra's mother; and his fourth wife, a woman whom he married in Somalia after Sahra was born and with whom he had no children. I had almost forgotten about the fourth wife's existence.

I pondered this for some time, something I had never permitted myself to do while he was alive. My father had hurt so many people, as he married women and fathered children and then left them behind, more or less untended. Judging my father by my adoptive Western standards, I found that he had failed in his duties toward his wives and children.

I have never condemned my father or allowed myself to feel real anger toward him. But if I had gone to his side and spoken truthfully to him before he died, I might have had to open an emotional closet I have nailed shut. Now that he was dead I felt contempt for myself, and I was filled with regret for everything he and I might have done differently.

I grew closer to Magool in the weeks after my father's death. My young cousin had grown up smart, independent, a free spirit, tough and yet compassionate, with a no-nonsense attitude toward life. Now she was the suddenly my only precious link to my extended family. Magool had lived with me for over six months in the Netherlands in the early 1990s. Unlike Sahra, she adopted the Western values of individual responsibility in matters of life, love, and family. Because everyone in her environment had tried to convert her back to Islam, she knew how annoying the process was and never tried to convert me. Magool was also my connection to the Somali bloodline to which, whether I liked it or not, I still belonged.


One day I asked Magool for news of my mother, and she told me a story that surprised and pleased me.

All those long years after my father had left my mother alone in Kenya with three children, Ma had refused to say more than a word or two to him. Her mute, awful anger lay between them even before he left us; her silence filled our house on Park Road in Nairobi, until he could no longer bear it. When he came back to Kenya ten years later, she turned away from his outstretched arms and ignored his endearments, even in the presence of family and friends.

After I fled my family and my father moved to London, Ma followed the news about him closely, Magool told me. When she learned that he was dying and suffering, she believed it was because his soul was not being allowed to depart quietly and in peace. My father's kidneys failed, then started functioning again; he would breathe on his own for a while-and then had to be hooked up to the ventilator again. Ma saw all this not as the effects of leukemia or the septic infection that was raging through his body and killing his organs but as a sign of, a prelude to, the explicit tortures of the grave that loom so large in Islamic teaching.

In the hell described in the Quran, flames lick the flesh of the sinful; burning embers will be placed under their feet, their scalps will be scalded and their brains boiled. These tortures are endless, for as their skin is burned it is replaced and burned again. In the suffering of my father on his deathbed, my mother believed, Allah and his angels were giving him a taste of the punishments to come for his wrongdoings…….


When Abeh was absent for weeks on end, I would pine for him. Haweya would ask loudly for him. Ma would cry that she was alone and let down by her husband. But Mahad never asked for our father. He ran around with the boys on the block. Whenever Ma announced that Abeh was on his way home, I pranced and jumped about in joy. Mahad's face fell into a brooding scowl, a look that didn't leave his face until Abeh's departure.

Other than school, Quran school, and a few visits to relatives, Haweya and I virtually never left the house. We were not allowed to dress up and go out. We were stuck inside, bored senseless in the hot, small flat in Mecca, and later in the much roomier house in Riyadh. But Mahad would dress up and go out with my father to manly locations, such as the mosque or the souk or to some formal Somali lunch or dinner.

The Friday prayer was another source of sibling rivalry. Every Thursday night that our father spent with us, Ma ironed my father's and Mahad's thaubs, the long, white shirt-like robe that Saudi men wear. She set out their imamah headscarves and black igal cords, and during dinner Abeh would instruct Mahad on how to behave and whom he should greet. Ma would call Mahad her prince and tell him that how he behaved would reflect on Abeh's good name and our own.


Haweya and I begged to go with Abeh to the beautiful mosque, to listen as the men gathered outside to talk politics and tribal affairs and washed at the communal taps and bent in unison. We vowed that we would put on our best faces and not bring shame to the family. The answer was always the same: a girl's honor was best preserved at home.

Every Friday morning we watched Mahad and Abeh leave and felt deprived of the world outside the door that shut in our faces. The world outside was for men. We were born girls. It was Allah's choice.

Our role—or mine really, for Haweya was too small—was to help prepare the elaborate Friday lunch. We would serve it after the men filed out of the mosque and walked to the tribunal of justice, known as Chop-chop Square. 

There men and boys would take their seats and watch the sinners being punished with stonings, floggings, amputations, or beheadings. Abeh rarely lingered there, but Mahad, in passing, saw enough.


Mahad never had an appetite for lunch on Fridays. He was not cheerful or excited when he returned from the weekly visit to the mosque and Chop-chop Square. He became more silent and brooding. His behavior toward Abeh grew steadily worse. It was as if he deliberately sabotaged every simple instruction. He also became more violent to me, and even to Haweya, for whom he had always had a soft and protective spot. He would beat us. As small children we had often fought, but now his kicks and punches were much crueler, and he had even begun throwing things. It was as if he had lost all sense of restraint.

Other little boys whom we met while growing up were just as terrified of their fathers as Mahad was of Abeh. 

The sons of Somali relatives who came to visit us, and those whom we visited, were full of awe for their fathers and older men in general. Our Saudi and Palestinian neighbors, in Riyadh and Jeddah were the same. The boys would go out in packs and play on the streets until a father showed up. Then they would all freeze and glide back into their homes with drooping heads. A father's authority was established through physical violence and harsh scorn for any mistakes his son made. Alternately, the boy would be praised—mainly by the women, but sometimes also by the fathers—in terms that seemed, even to us, unrealistic and overblown.


For instance, Abeh would tell Mahad, "You will rule a people. You will undo the oppression in Somalia. You will be a just ruler." Mother would call him a prince and refer to him as the Chosen One. She told him that her father had been a judge and that his grandfather had conquered lands and people, so Mahad's destiny was to be a great leader.


Mahad would respond with excitement. He could imagine becoming a prince. The Palestinian ten-and eleven-year-old boys that he played with, refugees from the Israeli conflict, were also told that they would be heroes who would more or less single-handedly drive the evil Jews out of their land. When the boys went outside they played a game of war, driving out evil Jews, until they were called in to lunch or to prayer or told to make less noise.


At school, Mahad's reports were outstanding, but his Saudi teachers said that he chose to stand apart and did not care to join in group games. At first Mahad used to tell us girls to explain to Mother that in school he was called "black slave." Abeh's response was, "You must give the boy who calls you abid a good reason never to do it again." He would tell Mahad that he, Abeh, had personally defeated large numbers of men in combat, and he would try to teach Mahad how to fight. He would head-butt Mahad, and Mahad was not allowed to show pain or cry even when Abeh butted his little head with his own heavy one.


After a time Mahad stopped telling our parents what was going on at school. When we were eating he would pick up his plate and throw it across the room, accompanied by a gut-wrenching cry. He would beat his fists on the table repeatedly. He would pick fights with other boys. His academic results remained excellent, but his brooding was interspersed with violent rage that he mostly took out on me. Then for months he would be so passive that he had to be physically carried out of bed, and only after a great deal of prodding and scolding would he do anything at all……..






Keith Hunt