One Friday afternoon at the end of January 1992, my father came straight from the mosque to our flat. He never did that—never paid us a visit these days—and when he arrived he was completely excited. "Ayaan, my daughter, I have good news for you—the best news—my prayers are answered!" he crowed. "Today in the mosque a blessed man came to me with a proposal of marriage, and I offered him your hand!"

I remember letting him talk while I felt my heels sinking into the ground. I cleared my throat and said no, but he didn't hear me. I said, "I'm not going to marry a stranger!" and my father, bubbling with enthusiasm, answered, "But he's not a stranger! He's not a stranger at all! He's your cousin! He's an Osman Mahamud!" He began chanting back all of this man's names.

I said, "Not a stranger in that sense, Abeh," and he answered, "In what sense, then?" "But I haven't even met him!" I wailed. My father told me, "That's fine—you will meet him tomorrow."

My father had given me away to a man called Osman Moussa, a fine young Somali man who had grown up in Canada. He had come to Nairobi to find and rescue family members who had been stranded by the civil war, and also to find a bride. He thought the Somali girls in Canada were too Westernized, by which he meant that they dressed indecently, disobeyed their husbands, and mixed freely with men; they were not baarri, which made them unworthy of marriage. And the civil war meant that daughters of the best families in Somalia were available for practically nothing.

My father had met this young man in the mosque barely two hours before. He was tall, he told me, with strong bones and white teeth, well fed on milk and meat in North America. Osman Moussa must have approached him. I can imagine the scene, the respectful recitation of lineage, finally the request: "You are the father of daughters, and I seek a bride." My father must have felt so very happy.

Arro was older than I, so my father should really have offered her. But he didn't.

My father chose me, his devout, dutiful, deserving daughter, Ayaan. He offered me to this good fortune, and Osman Moussa accepted me, and the two of them paraded around the mosque announcing their marvelous, God-given match to all the elders of the clan. It never even occurred to them to ask me what I thought.

There was no bride price. Because of the civil war, it would have been indecent to ask for one. But this was a strategic marriage; Osman Moussa could boast that he was married to a Magan, and we would now have relatives in Canada. There were all kinds of reasons for my father to be happy about this match.

I summoned the strength to say to my father "Abeh, what if I am already with some other person?" but he wasn't even listening. He said, "Allah has sent us the answer." He was overcome with his own cleverness.

After Abeh left, still bubbling with joy, I went and told Ma about it. She just said, "Oh, now we are father enough to take responsibility for our daughters' marriages, are we? Fine." Nothing more.

I was in a panic, but I wasn't crying. I rarely cried in those days. I could just see, very clearly and dispassionately, the bars closing in on me.

The next day, my father came to the house with Osman Moussa. The living room was clean, and everyone was excited except me. I just wore normal clothes, a loose dress and headscarf I wasn't going to dress up for this.

This man came in. He wanted to shake my hand. He was very tall, and wore enormously long blue jeans; he looked like a basketball player, with a shaved head and a baseball cap. I was polite. I said, "Hello, come in. I am Ayaan," without looking him in the eye, and fetched my mother.

My father and mother both remained in the room with us—Ma and I sat on the bed—and this man talked about Canada, where he had lived since he was a small boy, and about the refugees and the war.

We didn't make eye contact. Osman Moussa was talking with my mother, trying to pass muster. When I could look up, I scrutinized him—the way he talked, his face—thinking, "Will I like this man?" I was supposed to make a home and a life with him; cook, bear his kids, respond to his whims. And what did I know of him? His Somali was poor, half-learned. He seemed earnest.

A good, believing Muslim would pray to Allah for guidance, wisdom, strength, but I didn't. I felt this was for me to sort out. I found myself thinking about the one night I had spent with Mahmud, and imagining this Osman Moussa in that light. Did I want to go to bed with this man? I couldn't ask Allah to do anything to help me decide about that.

Kennedy had been generous and tender. There was a spark of connection between us: we shared things. He had seen me scrubbing floors and washing socks, and in every situation he liked me and respected me. Even with Abshir, who was so cramped up about rules, there was an attraction between us. But this Osman Moussa was a total stranger. He neither repelled nor attracted me. I felt indifferent, completely without feeling. I didn't detect that he had any special interest in me, either.

The marriage was set for Saturday, six days away.

Our second meeting was more intimate. Osman Moussa and his sister came, and I asked Haweya and Mahad to be with me, to help me evaluate this man. Ma left us five young people alone. I asked about prayer; I wanted to find out how religious this Osman Moussa was. I felt I had to make some sort of decision fast, even though there seemed to be no way I could stop the arrangement from proceeding. He clearly had Brotherhood leanings but was not quite as devout as Ijaabo, judging by his clothes; he wore jeans and a baseball cap. But although he was less stalwart in his devotion, he seemed even more concerned than Ijaabo about policing the piety of others.

I asked, "What do you expect of a wife?" Osman's sister was mortified, and said, "Maybe we shouldn't be here if you're going to discuss such things!" But Osman Moussa belly-laughed and said, "You're going to give me six sons. We will be a home for all the Osman Mahamud."

He went on and on about how Somali girls who grew up in Canada, as he had, were all practically whores, drinking alcohol, going to discos, not covering themselves, and sleeping with white men. They were out of control; he would never choose one to be the mother of his children. For the mother of his six sons this man needed someone like me, who dressed like me, who was dutiful, irreproachable, and the daughter of such a devout man, the marvelous Hirsi Magan.

We grilled him subtly in the Somali epics we had learned from our mother, some of them composed by the Abdihalin brothers' great-grandfather, to our eternal wonder. He knew none of them. Worse still, instead of admitting his ignorance he pretended he knew what we were talking about, which made him seem small. We asked him Grandma's old riddles; he failed them. We switched to English—we assumed this man's English must be better than his limping Somali—and Haweya asked him what kind of books he read. He said, "Hmya. I read, you know, stuff" Irealized that his English was half-learned, too, and he clearly read nothing at all.

I summoned enough courage to ask him to take off his baseball cap, which he did. I thought perhaps I might fall in love with his head of hair or something. But though Osman was only twenty-seven years old, his head was already as bald as the bottom of baby Abbas. Baldness is associated with wisdom among Somalis, but this man had nothing to show for losing so much hair at such an early age.

Mahad brought up politics; all kinds of talk was going on about peace then. He asked, "So when we all go back to Somalia, what would you contribute?" Osman Moussa said, "I'll obviously have a place in government. I've lived outside the country, and I'm an Osman Mahamud. The only solution for Somalia is for the Osman Mahamud to rule. We are the only people with experience at governing."

The three of us didn't even have to discuss it: the man was an idiot. He thought the Osman Mahamud were the chosen people; he was dull, trite, and a bigot, a dyed-in-the-wool Brotherhood type. I remember thinking, "No, surely Abeh could not do this to me?"

When Osman Moussa finally left I tried to pull together the courage to take matters into my own hands. I put on my coat and went to Buruburu, where my father was living. When he opened the door I said, "Osman Moussa came to our house today and Haweya and Mahad and I tested him. We think he's a pea-brain. He's not eloquent, he's not brave enough to admit his shortcomings, and he's a bigot."

Just like that. That way my father couldn't ignore what I was saying, as he mostly did. He had me come and sit down and said, "Now tell me." "I don't think this man and I are compatible," I said.

He said, smiling broadly, "On the basis of one afternoon?"

I told my father, "You thought on the basis of one minute that we would be compatible, so I may think on the basis of one afternoon that we are not."

But Abeh said, "No, I know more than that. He is the son of the son of the son of"—he quoted the lineage. "He has a good job in Canada, he doesn't chew qat, he is clean and a conscientious worker, he is strong. I am giving you to him to ensure your safety."

He went on, "The ceremony will be Saturday, at Farah Goure's house. The sheep have been bought, the qali has been hired. Your saying you don't want this—it's not a question. We are living in bad times. Surely you won't reject my choice of a husband for you just because he doesn't read novels."

He reduced it to the smallest thing. Imagine how trivial my opposition would sound to Abeh if I added: but he has no hair! Still, I sat up straight and told him, "I am not going to do it."

My father said, "I can't accept a no from you for something you haven't even tried."

I asked, "You mean I can't say no before I get married?"

He answered, "Of course not. Everything is all arranged."

Nobody tied me up. I was not shackled. I was not forced at gunpoint. But I had no realistic way out.

In Islam, the nikah ceremony is the moment when you become legally bound to your spouse. A marriage contract is signed, but it is not always followed immediately by consummation; the night of defloration usually follows a party that ends in the house that husband and wife will share. My father decided that my nikah on Saturday would not have to be followed immediately by a wedding party—or a wedding night. We could celebrate that with Osman Moussa's family in Canada.

He came to Ma's house the next day to tell me so. "The nikah will be on Saturday, but you can have another gathering in Canada for the wedding night. This way you'll have the whole of next week to get to know each other, before Osman leaves," he told me cheerfully. "And once he's gone you can write each other letters or you can talk on the phone. See? There's ample opportunity for the two of you to get to know each other."

I was cold to my father. I told him, "I'm not coming to the nikah" and all he said was "You're not required." Legally, that is true.

By now, my father was the center of attention. What a match he had made, what a piece of good news in these hard times! He was impatient with what he saw as my bleating.

As if all this were not enough drama for our household, on the next afternoon—Tuesday—Ali Wersengeli, the cousin who had officiated as guardian at my wedding ceremony with Mahmud barely eighteen months ago, blew into our doorway in a righteous rage. He had heard about my coming nuptials with Osman Moussa and had come to assert Mahmud's property rights over my person.

When Ma came to the door, Ali told her I had married Uncle Muhammad's son Mahmud. He said Hirsi Magan must learn of it: the wedding must be stopped.

Luckily, Mahad was home, and he broke in. "What marriage is this?" he blustered. "This can't be true. Who was the guardian? I was not present, and neither was her father. There was no marriage."

My mother collected herself. She was completely composed, as she always was—in public. "Who was the guardian at this supposed ceremony" she inquired haughtily.

"I was," Ali admitted.

"You had no right to act as guardian," Mahad interjected, his voice raised. "I was in Mogadishu. Did you call me? Did you call her father? You could have come and fetched me! Why didn't you?"

"It doesn't matter," Ali said. "The marriage took place."

"Do you have proof of any such ceremony? Do you have a paper?"

Ali had none. They talked. When Ali said he was leaving, my mother didn't beg him to stay, as required by etiquette. "There will be no gossiping about my children," she told him firmly.

Mahad turned on me as soon as Ali had left. "Where is the certificate?" he demanded. There was no point denying what had happened. I admitted to everything—or almost everything. I didn't mention the night in the hotel, but I said I had married Mahmud in Mogadishu the night before he left for Russia, and that he had later fallen for a Finnish girl whom he planned to marry. I went to get the photos she had sent me, and her letter. "So you see, Mahmud wants to forget about it, and I wrote that that was fine," I ended lamely. "It was a mistake."

I produced the paper from the qali that Ali Wersengeli had given me in Mogadishu.

Mahad grabbed it suspiciously. "This is not a legal document—it is rubbish," he announced. "There is no valid guardian."

He tore it up, scattering the pieces on the floor, and launched into a tirade about my irresponsibility. My mother barely said anything. I knew she was incensed, but above all, she was relieved that my marriage to Mahmud was invalid; in an immediate sense she was concerned only with figuring out a way to spare her family from scandal.

Mahad's goal in life now became preventing Ali Wersengeli from intervening before the nikah, which was four days away. First he went to my father and told him that a maternal cousin of ours had arrived in Nairobi, an evil-minded man who was spreading all sorts of groundless rumors about Ayaan out of sheer spite. Abeh, of course, was revolted that such terrible people could exist in this world.

Then Mahad found out where Ali Wersengeli was staying and went to see him. He told him my nikah was scheduled in ten days' time and promised to take him to consult with my father the following week.

By then it would be too late: I would be married.

The day of my wedding I did what I always did every day. I dressed normally and did my chores. I was in denial. I knew that over at Farah Goure's house there was a qali registering my union with Osman Moussa before my father and Mahad and a crowd of other men. Afterward there would be a big lunch with roasted sheep, for men only. I would not be present. Neither my presence nor my signature was required for the Islamic ceremony.

I made lunch at home, and after lunch I went out with Haweya. We walked to the Arboretum and talked about the mess life had suddenly become in the past eight days.

After the nikah, my new husband and I had a week together to get to know each other. I went with him to Uhuru Park. I met his friends. He talked about his life when he was young, his dreams. It was all so nondescript, I've almost deleted it from my mind. We talked a lot about religion: Osman Moussa was very devoted to Islam, and to the good name of his family. He said Somalia was in a civil war because we had left the way of Allah. He talked again about Somali girls in Canada and their loose morals. He never made a carnal gesture toward me because he respected me as my father's daughter and his own distant cousin. We would wait for the wedding party in Canada.

When we were alone together, I felt completely frozen. I couldn't even imagine wanting to go to bed with this man, or waking up every morning beside him.

Not everything was traditional. No mother-in-law inspected my virginity. We were above that undignified procedure. It was all a show thing: I met his friends, and behaved properly, as the daughter of Hirsi Magan should, wearing my black hidjab, of which they thoroughly approved. We all made small talk about the war and current events. I concentrated on behaving properly: speaking softly, being polite, avoiding shame to my parents. I felt empty.

When Osman's friends got angry, it wasn't about people cheating or lying, but about women who didn't wear the headscarf or men who didn't pray often enough. I recognized the attitude from Ijaabo. It was beginning to irritate me more and more.

I accompanied Osman to the airport after six days, when he returned to Toronto. He would expedite the visa papers as soon as possible and I would fly to meet him there as soon as I could: that was the plan. At the airport, he gave me a hug and said, "Look forward to seeing you." I nodded solemnly, said, "Travel safely," and edged out of his embrace. I was aware of being cold, and I felt sorry for it, but I could do no better.

Ali Wersengeli did eventually go to see my father. Abeh closed the door in his face, then came to see me in Park Road. He was always popping by these days with papers to sign and visas to discuss, ebullient with his own cleverness and energized by the new task of preparing my journey. "I hear stories of you and Mahmud, the son of your mother's brother," he said to me. "What is the truth of this?" I told him, "Nothing." So my father went away again, singing. He was always happy these days.

Ali Wersengeli didn't have much of a story, it turned out. There was no proof of any wedding ceremony between me and Mahmud: Mahad had torn up my paper, and Mahmud himself conspicuously failed to assert his so-called conjugal claim over me. Most people swiftly concluded that it was all just as Mahad said: a spiteful rumor. Nobody wanted anything to go wrong for Ayaan Hirsi Magan. Amid all the depressing news and chaos of the civil war in Somalia, I was a symbol of hope: a pious, obedient girl who deserved the marvelous match that her father had made.

A qali is a recognized marriage official, and weeks after the nikah, my father took the marriage certificate drawn up by the qali and officially registered my wedding with the Kenyan marriage bureau. I knew this because one day in June he brought me home an official Kenyan government document written in English and Arabic, with a special box to indicate 'Whether Virgin or Not" and the "Amount of Dowry." The boxes were all filled in for me—the answers were "Virgin" and "Ten books of Holy Quran"—and the document also indicated that I had been represented at my wedding in February by my father. My father told me I must now sign this Kenyan document.

I hesitated, but I was already married to Osman Moussa in the eyes of Islam and every Muslim I knew. What difference could it possibly make if I signed, I thought? So right under my father's signature, in Arabic, I signed it: A. H. Magan.

Abeh worked hard to get me travel documents from the UNHCR office. Within weeks he had my passport, then he went after a visa. Every few days he spoke on the phone with Osman Moussa about it. The Canadian Embassy in Nairobi was crowded with Somalis trying to emigrate, and it seemed impossible to get anything done in the corruption and chaos of the Kenyan bureaucracy. My father ended up enlisting the help of a relative living in Dusseldorf, whose name was Mursal, and together they decided I should go to Germany to wait for the final visa to come in. It would be quicker that way, and more practical.

My father began calling me to his house in Buruburu for what amounted to a series of extra lectures in Islam and how to be a good wife.

We spent several mornings taking up chapters of the Quran on the duties of a wife and formally discussing them. For example, her duty to ask permission to leave the house. My father told me, "You can do the following: you can agree together, early on, that permission is permanently given. That is a form of trust, his trust in you, so you don't have to ask permission every time you go out for groceries."

There is a Quranic injunction to women to be sexually available to their husband at all times. My father didn't go into the details, but he read it: "Your wives are your tillage, go in unto your tillage in what manner so ever you will." He said, "You must always be there for your husband, in bed and outside it. Don't make your husband beg; don't refuse him; don't make him look elsewhere. This is also a kind of permission you give from the onset: you are always available. He can't abuse that because he is from a good family. Force and rape are not an issue because he is a believing Muslim and he is an Osman Mahamud."

We talked about living as a Muslim in the West. Having unbelievers as friends was a gray area, my father said; it's discouraged, but if you can make good, honest friendships with infidels, so long as you don't follow their ways, then such relationships are not forbidden.


We went into what you are supposed to teach children. There is one God, no djinns, no saints, no magic, no intercession. Asking help from a spirit or djinn is forbidden; it puts other beings on a level with Allah. In everything you do, ask yourself, "What would the Prophet do?" Some things are clearly permitted and others clearly forbidden, but in gray areas, my father said, the Prophet was liberal: he would never make anything obligatory if it harmed you. "There is no coercion in Islam," my father said. "No human being has the right to punish another for not observing his religious duties. Only Allah can do that."


It was like Quran school, but more intelligent. We even talked about martyrdom. My father said that committing suicide for Holy War was acceptable only in the time of the Prophet—and then only because the unbelievers had attacked the Prophet first. Today there could not be a Holy War, he said, because only the Prophet Muhammad could call for a Holy War.

This was my father's Islam: a mostly nonviolent religion that was his own interpretation of the Prophet's words. It relied on one's own sense of right and wrong, at least to some degree. It was more intelligent than the Islam I had learned from the ma'alim, and it was also far more humane. Still, this version of Islam also left me with unanswered questions and a sense of injustice: Why was it that only women needed to ask permission from their husband to leave the house, and not the other way round?

My father's Islam was also clearly an interpretation of what the Prophet said. As such, it was not legitimate. 

You may not interpret the will of Allah and the words of the Quran: it says so, right there in the book. There is a read-only lock. It is forbidden to pick and choose: you may only obey. The Prophet said, "I have left you with clear guidance; no one deviates from it after me, except that he shall he destroyed." A fundamentalist would tell my father, "The sentence 'Only the Prophet can call a Holy War' is not in the Quran. You're putting it in there. That is blasphemy."

Osman Moussa paid for all my travel arrangements because I was now his. 

There are rules about these things: you pay for your wife. I did the rounds, bade good-bye to everyone: Halwa, and Ainanshie, and Farah Goure's family. They were now my close cousins, because they were my husband's relatives, too.

I said good-bye to my father the night before I was due to leave. He embraced me, and said we might not see each other again for a very long time. "When we depart, we may intend to return," he told me, "but many things might prevent us from doing so." I eyed him skeptically; I knew that he was speaking from experience.

The day of my departure, Ma overheard Haweya and me talking about what to do. Haweya thought the best plan would be to divorce Osman Moussa as soon as possible once I was in Canada. Once I was divorced, I could travel to America, she said, and live my own life. She spun a whole romantic story for me.

Then Ma burst in and said we were immoral. She said I was a slut and a hypocrite who had destroyed her relationship with her own brother and would wreck the honor of her family and my father's. She said, "There are two conditions if you want me to say good-bye to you and wish you well. The first one is that you promise to stay married to Osman Moussa. You will be a good wife to him and pray to Allah, and be grateful for the destiny your father has made for you. And the second is that you go to your father and tell him everything."

I told myself that my mother was right. I should just go to Abeh and tell him everything; that way maybe he would find me a way out. So I put my headscarf on and went to see him again. I said, "Abeh, I have something to tell you," and he greeted me with his arms outstretched once again. "Ah! Ayaan! My beloved daughter has visited me again!"

I said, "I have something to confess, about mother's brother Muhammad, and his son Mahmud."

Abeh said loudly, "But we dealt with that, didn't we? It's all done, child. Are you worried about your dear old father? My darling, you should be off preparing your departure."

He kept overflowing with words, and my tongue stuck in my throat. I think he may have known that what I wanted to tell him was unwelcome. So I went back home, and I told my mother the whole scene. 

She ordered me to go right back to Buruburu and say it all anyway. I said, "I will miss the plane," and she said, "Then promise me in the name of Allah that you will stay with this man, your husband."

I said no. I told her I wouldn't promise that.

So my mother didn't bid me farewell. I said good-bye to her stiff back, then I left, in a taxi, for the airport.






Keith Hunt