Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Things you shouldn't read while eating

I was quite surprised to find Ayaan Hirsi Ali's Infidel selling in Malaysian bookstores. I'd have figured a book like this would never have made it onto the shelves in a country where Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses is still haram*. But there you have it, I spotted Infidel in an MPH, grabbed it, and now I take every oppurtunity I can to read it in public.

Infidel is a singularly remarkable book, telling the story of a singularly remarkable woman. My respect for her knows no bounds, and hers is a story of a world far removed from what many of us know, surrounded as we are by the comforts of glass, steel and concrete. That having been said, I had the misfortune of reading this passage, telling of an episode in a refugee camp on the Somalia-Kenya border during Somalia's civil war, while having lunch in 1U:

One morning when I went to get water with all the throngs of other women I heard that a woman had been attacked in the night. She had been arrived alone, and she was from a small subclan; she had no men to protect her. Kenyan soldiers had taken her out of her hut in the night and raped her.

I went to see her in the tiny rag hut she had made for herself. She was one big wound. Her face was swollen and covered in dried blood, her clothes were torn, there were marks all over her legs. She was shaking uncontrollably. I touched her hand and asked if I could help her but she couldn't talk. All she could say was Ya'Allah, Ya'Allah, "Allah have mercy on me."

I went to get her more water, and all the people nearby told me, "You shouldn't be seen with that woman. She is impure. People will say you're the same." All I could see was a human being who was abused, who was on the verge of death, but to them, she was an outcast.

I knew she would die soon. I walked all the way to the UNHCR tent and found a Sri Lankan woman and told her, in English, that there was a woman alone who had been raped. I explained that Somalis would leave this woman to die. She came to the tent with some guards and took her away. I told Mahamed and the others about it and they said, "Of course it is not the woman's fault, but you know, there are so many problems. You can't save everyone here." I did know that, but we could have taken care of each other. Two days later, again there was another story of a woman who had been raped. It began happening all the time. Kenyan soldiers came at night to rape Somali woman who were alone and without protectors. And then all these women would be shunned and left to die.

This is what my grandmother had meant when she warned me: if you are a Somali woman alone, you are like a piece of sheep fat in the sun. Ants and insects crawl all over you, and you cannot move or hide; you will be eaten and melted until nothing is left but a thin smear of grease. And she also warned us that if this happened, it would be our fault.

It was horrible. Everyone in that camp called themselves Muslims and yet nobody helped these women in the name of Allah. Everyone was praying - even the woman in that hut had been praying - but no-one showed compassion.

I lost my appetite for quite a while after reading that, not least because the paragraphs before and after the above extract told, in ghastly detail, the horrors of a Somali refugee camp.

Anyway, I must recommend this book. To anyone, really. Doesn't matter if you're atheist or not, hers is a tale well worth hearing and her life is a powerful and moving testimonial against ideological dogmatism.

*which really just further reinforces the image the local religious authorities have of being illiterate, delusional, anal-retentive, Quran-waving hypocrites.

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