Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad by Waris Dirie and Cathleen Miller is one of the most fascinating memoirs that I have ever read. I was thoroughly engrossed with Dirie’s story and felt as though I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough. It’s stories like these that make me not understand why some people choose to not read memoirs (well, the good ones at least!). Because they really are missing out. Memoirs are a great way to learn about new people, new places, and new cultures.
A quick thought – thank goodness I had never seen the cover of this book prior to picking it up from the library, otherwise I might have just passed it by. Yes, she’s got a beautiful face, but there is nothing that makes me want to read this book. Great example of why book covers do matter. The paperback cover (shown right) is better but still needs a little something.
So I must confess that prior to reading Desert Flower, I was unaware of who Waris Dirie is. I was obviously much to young to care about supermodels (late eighties when she became popular) and had little interest in high fashion. So when I began reading I had no idea that her story would take her from Somalia to the runways of New York City.
Waris Dirie begins her story when she is 13-years-old alone in the African desert sun staring into the face of a lion. She is tired, hungry, and ready to die. I immediately was drawn into her story and wanted to know what had brought her to this point of time and place. Living with her family, a tribe of nomads in the Somalian desert, her father announced her marriage to an elderly man. The only way to escape her father’s forcible marriage was to abandon her family and run away. She says:
While my father and the rest of the family were still sleeping, my mother woke me and said, “Go now.” I looked around for something to grab, something to take, but there was nothing, no bottle of water, no jar of milk, no basket of food. So, barefoot, and wearing only a scarf draped around me, I ran off into the black desert night.
As a mother, I was heartbroken by this passage only three pages into the book. Can you imagine raising a child, loving that child, and then knowing that you were giving them up for good? To wake them up in the middle of the night and tell them to run? To know that you may possibly never see them again? That they are on their own, unprotected but still a child? It just seems like the impossible thing to do. But yet her mother made that choice. To send her baby out into the world in order to protect her.
After finally making her way to a city (with setbacks along the way including attempted rapes on her), Waris Dirie finds an aunt and lives between relatives for many years. When an opportunity comes for her to become a maid for a distant uncle in London, she jumps at the chance. After bravely navigating the airplane, customs, and the large city of London, Dirie lands herself in a home which is no home to her. She is treated no more better than a lowly servant and for a long time she never even leaves the house.
Years later her family moves back to Somalia and Dirie knows that her future is not there and begs to be left behind. When they leave, she is literally homeless, without a job, unfamiliar with the city, illiterate, and can’t speak the language. She moves into the YMCA and takes a job at McDonald’s. She attended classes at a foreigners’ free language school to improve her English and learn how to read and write. She also finally made the first friends of her life.
An unrelenting photographer finally convinces her to take some photos for him and the rest is history. Amazed that she could get paid simply for wearing beautiful clothes (she’d always liked clothes), she embarked on a career that would make her a celebrity all across the world. Her story isn’t without its trials and difficulties. She’s got huge visa problems, marries twice for convenience and runs into all kinds of problems. But the story also has it’s beautiful moments. While in the states, she finally finds true love, marries and has a child of her own. She’s also able to travel back to Africa and be reunited with her mother.
Oh my. I seem to be rambling on about her story. I can’t help myself, she’s got an amazing story. What struck me the most out of the book was the female circumcision that Dirie underwent when she was five-years -old. FIVE!! When the ritual was done to her sister, she sneaked in and witnessed it. Although what she saw was horrific, she begged her mother to let her do it as well.
From then on, I dreaded the ritual that I would pass through on the way to womanhood. I tried to put the horror of it out of my mind, and as time passed, so did my memory of the agony I had witnessed on my sister’s face. Finally, I foolishly convinced myself that I wanted to become a woman, too, and join my older sisters.
When the day finally came, they performed the ritual early in the morning away from the village so people wouldn’t be able to hear the screams.
I expected a big knife, but instead, out of the bag she pulled a tiny cotton sack. She reached inside with her long fingers, and fished out a broken razor blade. Turning it from side to side, she examined it. The sun was barely up now; it as light enough to see colors but no details. However, I saw dried blood on the jagged edge of the blade. She spat on it and wiped it against her dress. While she was scrubbing, my world went dark. A my mother tied a scarf around my eyes as a blindfold.
The next thing I felt was my flesh, my genitals, being cut away. I heard the sound of the dull blade sawing back and florth through my skin. When I think back, I honestly can’t believe that this happened to me. I feel as if I were talking about somebody else. There’s no way in the world to explain what it feels like. It’s like somebody is slicing through the meat of your thigh, or cutting off your arm, except this is the most sensitive part of your body.
She finally passes out, only to wake up when she is being sewn together with the thorns from an acacia tree. The result is a tiny opening the diameter of a matchstick which results in tremendous pain while urinating and later while menstruating. “This brilliant strategy ensured that I could never have sex until I was married, and my husband would be guaranteed he was getting a virgin.”
Later, bound, she is taken to a special hut and left overnight. As a child! Can you imagine doing that to your five-year-old and then leaving them in a hut separate from the rest of the family by herself so she could heal?!
Finally, Mama came for me and I shuffled home, my legs still bound together. The first night back at my family’s hut, my father asked, “How does it feel?” I assume he was referring to my new state of womanhood, but all I could think about was the pain between my legs. I was all of five years old, I simply smiled and didn’t say anything. What did I know about being a woman? Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I knew a lot about being an African woman: I knew how to live quietly with suffering in the passive, helpless manner of a child.
After transplanting herself in London, Dirie came to realize that what had happened to her was not normal and eventually got the courage to see a doctor and later underwent surgery to undo some of the damage.
As a result of her experience, Dirie has become passionate about educating people about female genital mutilation. She became a UN Goodwill Ambassador in the fight against genital mutilation, and then later concentrated her efforts on the Waris Dirie Foundation. Of her work she says, “Female Genital Mutilation has nothing to do with culture, tradition or religion. It is a torture and a crime, which needs to be fought against.”
I quoted the most horrific parts of the memoir and they are disturbing. I highly recommend reading the rest of her story. Truly amazing to see how far people come in their lives and the obstacles that they overcome.
Dirie has written two additional books, Desert Children and Desert Dawn exploring more about her return to Africa, being a high fashion supermodel, and her crusade to stop female genital mutilation. I hope to be able to pick them up at some point.
Links of interest: Waris Dirie Foundation website which campaigns against female genital mutilation.
Published: William Marrow, August 1998
Hardcover, 224 pages. ISBN: 0688158234
Desert Flower is available from your independent bookstore, Powells and Amazon.