Ayaan Hirsi Ali

It often fell to my mother to accompany us to school and back-different schools, because Mahad was a boy-returning alone. She hated having to go out without a man, hated being hissed at by men on the street, stared at with insolence. All the Somalis told stories about women who had been accosted on the street, driven away, dumped on the roadside hours later, or simply never seen again. To be a woman out on her own was bad enough. To be a foreigner, and moreover a black foreigner, meant you were barely human, unprotected: fair game.

When my mother went shopping without a male driver or spouse to act as guardian, grocers wouldn't attend to her. Even when she took Mahad along, some shop assistants wouldn't speak to her. She would collect tomatoes and fruit and spices and ask loudly, 'Flow much?' When she received no reply she'd put the money down and say 'Take it or leave it' and walk out. The next day she would have to go back to the same grocer. Mahad saw it all and couldn't really help her; he was only ten.

My mother never saw her tribulations as in any way the fault of the Saudis. She just wanted my father to do the shopping and the outdoor work, like all the Saudi men did. None of the Saudi women we knew went out in the street alone. They couldn't: their husbands locked their front doors when they left their houses. All the neighborhood women pitied my mother, having to walk on her own. It was humiliating; it was low.

My mother felt my father had failed her in many ways. He made her take on responsibilities she felt should rightly have been his. Somali culture didn't make it any easier. To my father, it was natural to waltz in with an extra eight or ten men he'd invited for lunch. He never told her where he was going or when he'd be back. If the atmosphere became less than congenial at home, he would go to the mosque in the morning and turn up a day or two later. My mother had to wash every little sock and headscarf by hand. She was alone.

I think there were times when she was happy: cooking in the evenings, her family around her. But how many of those evenings did she have? Sometimes, at night, I would hear my parents talking, my mother listing all the ways my father had failed her, her voice tense with rage. Abeh would tell her, 'Asha, I am working to give us a future in our own country.' Or he would say, 'These things wouldn't happen if we were living in a normal country.' Abeh never liked Saudi Arabia and always wanted us to move to Ethiopia with him. But my mother wouldn't do it: Ethiopians were unbelievers.

A few months after our move, my grandmother arrived to help my mother with the household. She didn't like the way Ma talked about Abeh either. 'When you're born a woman, you must live as a woman,' she used to say, quoting a proverb. 'The quicker you understand that, the easier it will be to accept.'

Some time after we moved to Riyadh we started school, real school, in the morning, with Quran school in the afternoon. But real school in Saudi Arabia was just like madrassah. We studied only Arabic, math, and the Quran, and the Quran must have taken up four-fifths of our time. Quran study was divided into a reciting class, a class on meaning, a class on the hadith, which are the holy verses written after the Quran, a class on the sirat, the traditional biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, and a class on fiqh, Islamic law. We learned to recite the ninety-nine names of Allah, and we learned how good Muslim girls should behave: what to say when we sneezed; on which side we should begin to sleep, and to what position it was permissible to move during sleep; with which foot to step into the toilet, and in what posture to sit. The teacher was an Egyptian woman, and she used to beat me. I was sure she picked on me because I was the only black child. When she hit me with a ruler she called me Aswad Abda: black slave-girl. I hated Saudi Arabia.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.