Sunday, August 10, 2008

Harlequin Saves

By Joseph Kellard
In her book “Infidel,” Ayaan Hirsi Ali acknowledges several people who made it possible for her to survive the Islamic tribalism she grew up under in Africa, to escape to Holland after her father arranged for her to marry a man she didn’t love and to prosper thereafter. But if I were to cite one overriding factor that saved her, it would be the Western novels she read.

Throughout “Infidel,” Ali brings up these books again and again, particularly in regard to love, sex and marriage. To understand their impact, it’s important to recognize the mind-numbing, repressive culture she had to endure. Ali was born in Somalia to religious, clannish Muslim parents, and her mother taught her to memorize old chants of war and death, raids, and camel herding, and female Somali poetry that never mentioned love, which is, she writes, “considered synonymous with desire, and sexual desire is seen as low — literally unspeakable.”

Fortunately, Ali and her family moved to non-Muslim Kenya, where she attended a British colonial-based school and learned English. There she read “1984,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Wuthering Heights” and tales by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

“Later on there were sexy books: Valley of the Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele,” she writes. “All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas — races were equal, women were equal to men — and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me.”

Here are some other excerpts:

“[T]he spark of will inside me grew even as I studied and practiced to submit. It was fanned by the free-spirited novels … Most of all, I think it was the novels that saved me from submission. I was young, but the first tiny, meek beginnings of my rebellion had already clicked into place.”

“I always found it uncomfortable to be opposed to the West. For me, Britain and America were the countries in my books where there was decency and individual choice.”

“I knew that another kind of life was possible. I had read about it … [T]he kind of life I had always wanted, with a real education, a real job, a real marriage … I wanted to become a person, an individual, with a life of my own.”

“Infidel” is a great study for someone who would like to (further) concretize the crucial, life-sustaining role that art plays in man’s life.

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

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Monday, August 4, 2008

A Monadnock Valley Experience

By Joseph Kellard

My sister, nephew and his friend, Evan, who had never been to New York City before, visited me from Virginia recently. Acting as amateur tour guide, I drove them around Manhattan one Saturday. Once we made it into the city from the Triborough Bridge, Evan, who is 14, expressed awe at the size of some large, modern apartment buildings. As we drove through mid-town, he kept looking upward out the back window. (I was reminded of that line from the first letter in the book "Letters of Ayn Rand": "I am so Americanized that I can walk in the streets without raising my head to look at the skyscrapers.")

Among our stops or the places we passed were Park Avenue, the Metropolitan Museum, Central Park, Trump Tower, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Rockefeller Center, the GE Building, the Empire State Building, Times Square, the Flatiron Building, McSorley's Old Ale House, Wall Street, the still undeveloped property where the Twin Towers once stood, the Statue of Liberty and Brooklyn Bridge.

I noticed Evan continued to take particular interest in the buildings, and he revealed that he wants to be an architect. So later, back on Long Island, I handed him a copy of the 25th Anniversary edition of "The Fountainhead," whose cover features Frank O'Conner's wonderful painting "Man Also Rises." I told Evan he may be too young to understand the book. If so, I suggested he pick it up again in a few years.

Evan told me that his mother's boyfriend had already suggested that he read the novel; that it had "changed his life." (Sound familiar?) Evan also said he liked to read and enjoyed books about "psychology." I said that the novel is very philosophical. He thanked me, and said that after reading the description on the back cover, it sounded interesting.

Afterward, I thought about the young man on the bike who meets Howard Roark while he sits on a boulder overlooking a valley dotted with summer resort homes that he created. No, I didn't create "The Fountainhead," but giving it to a youth like Evan nevertheless reminded me of that famous line from that scene at Monadnock Valley: "Roark looked after him. He had never seen that boy before and he would never see him again. He did not know that he had given someone the courage to face a lifetime."

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and columnist living in New York.

Please post comments about this article. For inquiries about Joseph Kellard’s writing services, email him at: