With her ever-present armed bodyguards just steps away, Somalia-born author Ayaan Hirsi Ali expresses some bewilderment at the avalanche of attention she’s received since publishing her eloquent memoir “Infidel” (Free Press). Perhaps the fascination with Hirsi Ali lies in the fact that Hollywood couldn’t create a more compelling story than the one she’s lived.
The international bestseller chronicles her harrowing journey from a peripatetic childhood (from Mogadishu to Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya), during which she was raised a devout Muslim, followed by her personal and political awakening as an adult that resulted in her renouncing her past (which included genital mutilation and an arranged marriage), becoming an atheist women’s rights activist and earning the title of Public Enemy No. 1 among Muslim extremists.
“I don’t know what generates so much excitement,” says Hirsi Ali, 37, who found political asylum in the Netherlands in 1992, and went on to become a member of the Dutch parliament before coming to the U.S. last year to research immigration issues pertaining to Islamic women for the American Enterprise Institute. “The issue of freedom of women, the right to criticize Islam and the content of my criticism has all been there since the 1700s. … I’ve taken a different path and I’ve survived it. And, of course, I’ve taken on the jihadists.”
In 2004, that battle made headlines around the world when “Submission,” a short film she made with Theo van Gogh about the abuse of women in Islam, resulted in van Gogh’s brutal murder. The killer left a death threat for Hirsi Ali pinned to her friend’s chest with a butcher’s knife.
Hirsi Ali says her gripping tale may be headed to the bigscreen. Her agent, Susanna Lee, and CAA are shopping the book. “I’ve been to see all the producers,” says Hirsi Ali, who would like to see fellow Somali Iman in the lead role. “There’s great interest, but Susanna tells me selling movie rights is much slower than selling a book.”
Vocation: “Most of my work consists of reading, researching, talking to people and trying to publish as much as possible.”
Recent breakthrough: “Prejudice is not just something you talk about. The best way of getting rid of it is by meeting and interacting with people.”
Role models: “Ordinary people who are models in compassion, strength and generosity.”
Career mantra: “Learn as much as you can, stay open to criticism and if you discover you can’t do something even though you badly want it, it’s not bad to give that up.”
What’s next: “My book ‘Shortcuts to Enlightenment,’ where I compare the philosophy of Islam with the philosophy of the West.”