A Trial by the Elders

At first, I felt an enormous sense of relief The nightmare that I would be returned to Kenya, or sent back to Germany, receded, and I was euphoric. I registered in Ede with various offices, constantly taking buses; then Refugee Aid gave me a secondhand bicycle of my own. I bought another pair of jeans: I never wore long skirts any more. I was constantly cycling places, registering for things.

My first imperative was to learn Dutch. Now that I was a recognized refugee, I was eligible for lessons at the refugee center, taught once a week by a woman volunteer from the village. But once a week wasn't enough for me; I wanted more. This Dutch volunteer, blessed woman, persuaded a real language school in Ede to accept me, and she told me she would pay for the classes; I could pay her back in weekly installments out of my pocket money. So I began cycling three times a week to my Dutch class at Midlands College in Ede. The leaves were turning, I remember, and I felt so happy riding my bicycle through the forest, with a sense of purpose and an overpowering impression of good fortune.

Haweya's letters were full of her fights with Ma and the growing rift between Ma and Abeh, as well as constant requests for clothes. She said all the Somalis in Nairobi were shunning my mother, saying she was behind my disappearance. She refused to talk to anyone: the whole community—all the Farah Goure family, my stepsisters, Arro and Ijaabo, everyone—thought Ma had plotted my escape to take her revenge on my father. They thought I was too docile to have come up with such an evil stratagem on my own. I felt horrible thinking about what Ma was going through.

It grew cold. The rain never stopped, and the caravans shook in the wind and froze on the outside at night. One day that was too wet to cycle, I waited at the bus stop, so cold I thought I might cry……..

Early in December, I received a letter from my father, addressed to the asylum-seeker center. He had tracked me down. "My Dearest Liver," he began. My father used to call me his liver, which in Somali is very meaningful, because without a liver, you cannot survive. (Haweya was his eyes. Mahad he called his heart.) "In our game of hide-and-seek I finally got you."

My father's letter was intended to persuade me to return to the proper path, but it was also couched in such a way that I could do this with my head high—and with his honor intact. He feigned to believe that I was still planning to live with the husband he'd chosen for me, that I'd somehow just made a short detour. And he told me that he needed $300 for an urgent operation on his eyes. "Although you have yet to get enough allowance, still I feel you can come up with a few hundred dollars because you are very influential," he wrote.

My father knew that I would become frantic at the news that his eyesight, always weak, was now failing. He assumed I would go straight to Osman Moussa to get the money: How else could I come up with such a sum? The husband is the maintainer of the wife—-and, if necessary, the wife's family. Father ended his letter, "Your house shall be either a source of honor or a source of disgrace for me, God be with you." He knew me, and he thought that to save his eyes, I would agree to go back to my husband.

Several days later, Osman Moussa called the asylum-seeker center. Someone came to the caravan and said I had a call from Canada. My legs shook. I went to the phone, and I spoke to him, and again I lied. I spun a tale. I pretended that I had never really disappeared, just gone to Holland for a few weeks to be with my dear friend Fadumo. He scolded me— “You can't just disappear like that"—and told me to get back to Germany as soon as possible. I said I would. Then I told Osman Moussa about Abeh's letter. He said he was constantly in touch with my father, and that he would deal with it. Apparently he sent the money.

Now I knew I was living on borrowed time. My father, my brother, and my husband all knew my address. There was nowhere else I could go. It was only a matter of time before they came to claim me. I was fright-ened—frightened of the physical violence that might mean. But I had no intention of going with them. That center in little Ede was my only chance to lead my own life, and I wasn't going to let go of it. Somehow, I thought, I would get out of this trap, too.

One crisp January afternoon, Yasmin and I went swimming in the covered pool at the nearby campsite, which was reserved for women once a week. We couldn't swim, but we splashed about, screaming with laughter. When we came home, I went straight to the shower to try to do something with my hair, which was becoming impossible. I had recently cut it short to try to minimize the upkeep.

Yasmin and I were in the middle of a noisy, happy conversation, with the radio blaring, when the door knocked loudly. Yasmin yelled at me to get it, so I emerged, with wet hair and red eyes, and opened the door. I found myself face-to-face with Osman Moussa, standing in the doorway of the caravan in the late afternoon sun with three other Somali men.

I stood there, my hair a fright, my skin blackened from the open air, in my jeans, at a total loss for words. It somehow yanked me back to the old Ayaan: the docile girl compelled by years of habit to offer hospitality. “Asalaam Aleikum," I greeted him. “Would you like to come in?"

I stood aside as these four large men filled the living space of our caravan. I had no idea what to do. I grabbed a thermos flask and said, "Rest here, I will get us some tea." Then I disappeared into Yasmin's room and explained to her that this man was legally my husband. I begged her to look after the guests; I would be back as soon as I could. Before I left, I pulled on a headscarf.

I went first to Hasna's caravan. Hasna was a Somali woman in her forties who lived in a caravan nearby; she was a busybody, but I knew she understood the code of conduct and would know how to behave. Hasna said she would make tea for my guests at her place—it was larger—and began to bustle. With my duty as hostess taken care of, I went to Sylvia and told her everything. I said that I had lied to obtain my refugee status. I told her that in reality I was running away from a marriage that my father had arranged for me. Now my husband had come to pick me up and take me to Canada.

I thought Sylvia would be bound to tell me that I could no longer stay in Holland, that I must return to Kenya, or leave with this man. But Sylvia said, “What you did to obtain your refugee status is your business. Keep it to yourself. As for this man: if you don't want to go to Canada with him, then just tell him so. Even if you are married to him, he cannot make you do it. If he is violent with you, I will call the police."

I returned to my caravan feeling much more sure of myself Hasna tactfully led Yasmin and the three Somali men away, leaving me alone with Osman Moussa. He swept his arm with contempt around the cramped little tin box that I lived in. "Is this it?" he asked scornfully. "Is this what you wanted?"

"This is it, yes," I said.

"Will you come with me now?" he asked.

"I will not."

I was quiet. There was no shouting or crying; no dramatics. I knew that for Osman I had become a cipher, but I could read him perfectly well. In his eyes I saw arrogance and disdain. This man was offering the moon to a foolish girl who chose to live in a squalid camp among strangers. He thought he had authority over me, that he owned me. But he didn't, I thought to myself I knew now that I had rights in this country. I indicated that we should follow the others to Hasna's caravan, and I took the lead out of the door.

When we got there, Hasna said, "I will talk to her." She took me into her bedroom and lectured me. "Are you mad?" she asked. "Are you stupid? Retarded? This man is handsome and wealthy. What more could you want? What are you waiting for?"

I said, "Soon I will be able to rent my own place. I will work."

"Why are you doing this to yourself?" Hasna asked me. She told me I would be cursed, stricken with poverty and disease and thirty different kinds of damnation. I let her talk, and then I said, "This is too much for me right now."

Finally Osman Moussa agreed to leave. I could see that he was at a loss for what to do. Here in Holland, in a center that was staffed with Dutch security guards, he could not use physical violence to force me to go with him. I was nervous, but also unexpectedly self-confident.

I was ready to confront my family. I had discovered an inner strength. I had tested my self-reliance, and I felt I could manage. I had become resilient, and I had discovered the rule of law. There were potential predators here, too, but I could avoid them. I could ask for help from the police and from Sylvia. She knew my story, and she didn't disapprove of what I had done; instead, she had offered to help me.

A few days later Osman returned. He said he had consulted Father and they had agreed to summon a tolka, a gathering of the oldest, most prominent men among our close relatives. The tolka would meet in the asylum-seeker center on January 26. I agreed.

In the next few days, every Darod woman in the camp must have come to my caravan to try to talk me into going to Canada. They made it clear I was making the biggest mistake of my life. My father had found me a splendid match. They would do anything for half my fortune. Here in Europe, on my own, I would be garbage. They told me spirit stories ending in horrible death and warned me that the djinns would be drawn to me if I disobeyed. They cited every case in recent Somali history in which girls ran from their families and became prostitutes, sick, barren, unmarriageable—because come on, think it through, you're twenty-three, you're not getting younger.

There was a huge, spontaneous uprising of pressure from all these people who did not know me. I just listened to them. I knew what I was going to do.

After two days of this, Hasna returned to my caravan. Hasna was from the Ogaden subclan but had been married to an Osman Mahamud; this made her my closest female relative in the camp, as well as my neighbor. She told me to get dressed: she would host the clan meeting in her caravan after dinner.

On the evening of January 26, Osman Moussa came with eight older Osman Mahamud men and two Macherten men; a huge crowd of men massed outside Hasna's caravan in the dark. Even though we were on Dutch soil, this would be a real, formal gathering of the elders of our clan. Because of the deep shame I had caused, the Osman Mahamud family could not permit me to decide my future on my own.

Hasna and I greeted them. Osman was following procedure by the letter. Some of the men he brought with him were great names, men I didn't even know were in Europe: my family elders, the nobility of the Osman Mahamud. We shared a fifth grandfather or an eighth grandfather. One man was even a Boqor, the direct descendant of the king for whom my grandfather Magan had fought.

For this full confrontation, I planned to obey the codes of good behavior. But I didn't dress in my long skirt. I wore jeans and a tunic. And I didn't cover my hair with a headscarf. My clothes were correct—they didn't display any skin—but my message was clear: things had changed.

The men trooped, stooping, into the tiny space, and settled down on the bench and a few chairs, their faces in shadows cast by Hasna's candle. Abdellahi Moussa Boqor, the man who was Crown Prince of all the Osman Mahamud of Somalia, began. He was regal: his authority seemed to fill the whole tiny caravan. He spoke for half an hour, first to explain the procedure that the gathering would follow, then about the values of the clan. He praised my father. He said how precious marriage is, how important our honor and our name. He appealed to me: the country is falling apart, this is not what we, from the higher-level clans, should be doing to each other. When he stopped, the next man spoke. All eight Osman Mahamud elders took their turn, according to rank.

I remained quiet, sitting up quite straight, and sipped with two hands from my tea. I had broken the most sacred rules of the clan—I had placed a hideous, irreparable stigma on my father—but I knew how to behave. I would not be rude. I would not stoop to hysterics or insults. I had my feet exactly so, as you are required to sit, and I was looking at the men's mouths, not their eyes, which would have been immodest—only once in a while glancing up, to show I was listening, and nodding. I knew this was now my trial. At stake was my right to rule my own life.

Then Abdellahi Moussa Boqor said, "Now I think Osman Moussa himself should say something." Osman Moussa went on and on about honor and family, about the clan and the war. He acknowledged that he didn't know me; he had been a little too sure of himself, not inquiring about me at all, taking everything for granted. But now, he said, he was really prepared to get to know me: who I was as an individual, not just as the daughter-of.

Then Abdellahi Moussa Boqor spoke to me directly. I had still not uttered a word. "You understand that even though this is not the proper place, this is a formal sitting?" he asked. I nodded. He said, "Now it is for you to think about your answer. We cannot permit you to say yes and then disappear again to the next country. If you say yes, you must mean it. Your answer will be final." I nodded again.

He said, "We will now pause so you can think about it. We are all prepared to come back tomorrow in order to hear your answer, or we will hold a gathering at my house, or at a house nearby." I knew that it was time for me to speak. I said, "I know my answer."

I looked into his face and said, "It is no." I surprised myself, I was so calm and determined. I have never felt so right about anything in my life. I said, "I don't want to stay married to Osman Moussa, although I respect him and he has not mistreated me in any way I understand what you are doing for me and how extraordinary this is, and I understand that my answer is final."

The Boqor paused for a moment. He was clearly taken aback. He said, "May we ask you some questions?" and I agreed. He asked, "Has Osman Moussa been violent?" and I said, "No. He has always been completely correct in every way."

"Is he stingy?"

"No, he has been very generous."

"Do you know something about Osman that we don't know?"

"No, I don't know him at all."

"Is there someone else?"

I said, "No."

With every question, he was offering me a way to explain myself in a way that would justify my behavior and lessen the stigma on my honor and on my father's good name. But I was determined not to lie, not to claim that Osman Moussa had hurt or cheated me in any way. It would not have been fair. I simply didn't want him.

Finally Abdellahi Moussa Boqor asked, "So why are you doing this?"

I paused for a moment, and then the words just came out of my mouth. "It is the will of the soul," I said. "The soul cannot be coerced." The language I used was grandiloquent, not at all the language you'd expect from a woman, let alone a twenty-three-year-old. Abdellahi Moussa Boqor stared at me, and then he said, "I respect this answer. I believe all of us should respect it." He turned to Osman and said, "Do you accept it?"

Osman said, "I have to."

Then the Crown Prince told the gathering that Osman's acceptance should be seen as honorable and brave and should enhance his reputation for wisdom. He embraced Osman Moussa and patted his back. All the men present did the same.

I felt bad about what I had done to him. It wasn't this poor man's fault. I said, "I will pay you back one day, you know, for the air ticket and all the expense," because this had been bothering me.

Osman Moussa was deeply insulted. He said, "In addition to everything you have already done, this is really rubbing salt in the wound." According to the honor code, it was not required, but I had not meant to insult him. I said I was grateful.

All the men stood up then, and one after another each man cupped my hands in their two hands, and left. They were full of respect. There was no violence. We were Osman Mahamud, not Arabs, and the Osman Mahamud very rarely hit women. But I looked out of the caravan as they walked into the blackness of the night and I knew I had done something I could never, never undo. There was no regret, but I knew that I had cut myself off from everything that was meaningful and important to my family.

So much had changed in me in the space of a few months. In Nairobi I had been incapable of standing up for my right to refuse this man. I did tell my father I didn't want to marry him, but I felt unable to act on that. If I had, I would have been disowned, shunned, deprived of the invisible protection of the clan. My mother and sister would also, to a lesser extent, be punished. I would have been seen as prey, like Fawzia and other Somali women who were alone: begging for a roof, potentially a victim of every kind of predator. I just couldn't imagine having the strength to do it.

But now I had a refugee permit. I had a right to stay in Holland, and I knew I had other rights, too. Nobody could force me to go anywhere I didn't want to go. That pink piece of paper giving me refugee status had changed everything. Now I knew that, somehow, I would summon the strength to continue to defy them.

Still, I felt crushed by my guilt. I couldn't sleep that night for thinking about what I was doing to my father.

Early next morning, January 27, I went into my room and began writing the most difficult letter of my life. I began, "In the Name of Allah Most Gracious Most Merciful," and continued:

Dearest Father,

After very warm greetings, I will just get to the point and tell you that I have become a disappointment to you and I have decided to divorce Osman Moussa Isse. No amount of apologies or begging for forgiveness will make you feel any better, but I will just beg you to understand and I am very sorry. Of course I don't expect you to feel understanding towards me but that is that.

Osman telephoned you, and followed your advice to bring the matter to the attention of the male relations (tolka), and we have met and reached an agreement peacefully and honorably (if there can be anything honorable in such a situation). The agreement was that the DIVORCE goes through.

I am very sorry, Father, but that is that. I shall come back to Kenya as soon as I make enough money to pay for my ticket and as soon as I get a visa back. Right now, I go to school.

Father, I feel your unhappiness towards me but please reply and try, when your anger is over, to understand me and forgive me. Maybe it is too much to ask, but I also need your blessings.

Love, Ayaan, your loving daughter.

About a week later I received a letter from my father postmarked January 26, the night the tolka met. I suppose Osman had phoned him. "Dear Ayaan," I read. "I could not believe what Osman told me about you. If it is true, you made me and our family not only mean and disgraceful, but you cause me pain and grief. I could not pray nor could I sleep well since Osman phoned. Look, Ayaan, I cannot withstand this sort of situation any longer. Therefore, either you gracefully obey your husband, or you force me to come to Holland and I and you will decide the matter face-to-face."

I felt lashed by his rage, by how deeply I had damaged his reputation. And I felt real fear: if he came to Holland, my father could beat me, perhaps kill me. I had shamed him, and for that I knew that he had to punish me.

Then, two weeks after the clan gathering, I received another letter from my father. It was written on the pages of the letter I had sent him on January 27; he wrote in red ink—the color you use to write to your enemies. On the first page, he wrote, "As I shall not open your letters, never attempt to write." On the reverse side, across my signature, he wrote:

Dear deceitful fox,

You do not need me and I do not need you. I just invoked Allah to disgrace you as you have disgraced me. Amen! This is the last message you will receive from me, as your letter was the last message I was to accept from you. Go to Hell! and the Devil be with you.

He added, in angry capital letters, "MAY ALLAH PUNISH YOU FOR YOUR DECEPTION. AMEN! YOURS, THE FOOL!"

My fears that my father would kill me became less acute. For him, I was now already dead. And although I was physically intact, I felt as though I had been kicked in the stomach. I was outcast.

I bought a phone card and dialed the number of the Indian family who lived next door to us in Park Road. I asked them to get Haweya. I needed her badly. It was the first time I had spoken to her since I'd left. Haweya said she had read my letter to Abeh and she was proud of me. She said she was sorry for me, too, and she warned me to be careful: Abeh might still come after me. His fury was frightening, even to her.

I told Haweya to bring Ma to the neighbors' house next week. I wanted to talk to her, too. And I begged Haweya to try to persuade her not to reject me.

When I heard Ma's voice, the line crackled so much that it sounded as though she was on another planet. She said, "So you did what I suspected you would." Her voice rose, "Do you know how I am being treated here?" I said, "Haweya told me." Then my mother said, “You have made a terrible mistake, but you will always be my child." She went on, "Your father is very angry. Aren't you afraid that he is going to curse you? His curses are more effective than a mother's."

I said, "We shall have to see." My mother wished me good luck before we hung up. She was very kind. She promised we could speak again. Then the line went dead.

I felt as though I were living through the final episode of my life. I had cast off my father, and now I had disappointed my mother, too. I thought about dying, and waking up in the Hereafter, where you cannot hide from Allah's judgment. There was no end to my sins. I had shamed my parents, rejected a rightful husband, neglected my daily prayers; I was wearing men's clothes and had cut my hair. The book of misdeeds written by the angel on my left shoulder would surely weigh far more than the slim volume of my good works. My father had cursed me, and now I was damned.



Keith Hunt