There’s a certain fate books face when they make it to your bookshelf rather than immediately being read upon purchase: that of being relegated to the dust-gathering, guilt-inducing, probably-never-going-be-read pile.
Waris Dirie’s Desert Flower fell into that category for me. Bought on a whim among a pile of books (as any bibliophile will attest, you can never just buy one book), it was put aside immediately for the most pressing, must-read purchases and then again later for the abundance of new titles that came upon my radar.
That’s probably in part because I’m not interested in the fashion industry or models (Dirie is a supermodel from the Naomi Campbell era), and because her backstory is relatively harrowing (Dirie is originally from Somalia, has suffered female genital mutilation (FGM), and is now a United Nations (UN) ambassador speaking out about the practice).
I don’t know whether I thought the book would be frivolous or distressing or both, but either way it featured high on the too-hard pile. I even passed over it on Saturday when, having just started to see the other side of a debilitating bout of gastro, I decided I wanted nothing more than to continue recuperating by losing myself in a good book.
My hand paused over The Twelve (the follow-up to The Passage), I Confess, and I Shall Not Hate, but all fell into the too-long or too-harrowing categories themselves. For some reason I finally plucked Dirie’s book from its dust-gathering location, and subsequently devoured it in a three-hour sitting. Why it took me so long to read it I’ll now never know.
The book opens climactically, with Dirie deliriously dehydrated, near starvation, and almost falling prey to a lion. She’s all of about 13 and has run away from home with literally nothing but the clothes she is wearing—not even shoes, because the family was too poor for her to ever have owned some—to avoid an arranged marriage to a 60-year-old man. Her family are Somalian nomads, and her father would be paid five camels for Dirie’s dowry. Her father considers that a good deal; Dirie not so much.
From there Dirie somehow manages to make it to the country’s capital, Mogadishu, and then, through a combination of chutzpah and naiveté, on to London as a housemaid for an uncle who’s based there as an ambassador. It sounds a charmed life, but she’s relegated to the role of cleaner and denied the education and opportunities of her cousins.
Desperate to stay in London when the ambassadorship ends, but lacking formal education, English language skills, and money, Dirie manages through a series of incredible tenacity to make it work. One element of that involves her being discovered as a model, with one of her first ever assignments alongside a then similarly naïve newbie, Naomi Campbell.
The modelling gig perhaps makes Dirie’s story one more fairytale than hard graft it really has been. She continues to experience debilitating ongoing health issues related to the FGM she suffered without anaesthetic in the bush at the hands of a rusty razor-wielding gypsy woman as a child. She endured countless visa issues that saw her resorting to desperate measures not to be deported. Dirie’s is an experience I’m not sure I would have survived. And certainly not with so much grace and humour intact.
Dirie’s is an incredibly pragmatic, accessible storytelling style—you can imagine her holding rapt court at a dinner party, telling stories from the various chapters. It explains why I could absolutely devour the book in short sitting, but also why elements of it continue to remain with me.
Which is just as well, because the statistics on FGM about which she’s trying to raise awareness and stamp out are sobering—and escalating. The UN estimates some 130 million girls and women have experienced FGM and another two million—or 6000 a day—are at risk each year of the same fate.
The laundry list of infections and illnesses that accompany this practice are chilling, not least complications from shock, tetanus, septicaemia, HIV, Hepatitis B, recurring pelvic and urinary tract infections, dysmenorrhea (excruciatingly painful menstruation), depression, and death.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) made a documentary about Dirie, and her book has reportedly been made into a film. Which is all to say that if you’re like me and haven’t gotten around to reading it, you have other options. That written, the book is surprisingly easy and quick to read, so I’d recommend opting for that first. But the documentary/film are likely an equally good way to discover Dirie’s story and the wider FGM issue she now works to combat.