Beguiling, they leave me speechless, breathless, bewitched. Waris Dirie is no different. She appears here almost as she does on the cover of the book, DESERT FLOWER: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad. She is draped in the same stunningly vibrant fabrics, in the same photo shoot.
I love her face. Regal, quietly mesmerizing, graceful, arresting. One can only imagine what it means to stand before that dark, almond-eyed gaze and witness the beauty of the mouth, those lips forming words, softly whispered lavender-tinted words…
I am a book connoisseur, a collector of words and stories. And as such, I browse the shelves of bookstores in earnest, my joy a fountain right up there with climactic ecstasy. What stops me while I’m out cavorting one Saturday, a few years ago, is the queenly carriage Waris projects effortlessly from a bright purple and yellow-texted cover of her 1998 book. Yes, I realize it took me a moment to read it, but I come to my books in a special way. I go to them when it is time for me to do so, whenever that time may be from the moment they take residence on my bookshelves. It is much like people and possessions coming to us when the time is ripe. So I stare at Waris, imagining how different the name, one I’ve never encountered. I note she has captured her experiences with the assistance of writer Cathleen Miller. There are photos in the center of the book. I have gazed at them often. They are pretty portals into a life I anticipate sharing when that special moment arrives and I curl up on my bed or on a living room sofa and officially meet Dirie narratively.
Before I share with you, I thank Ms. Miller for capturing Waris’ story, Joe Grant for photographing a ray of sunshine, and Fattuma Ahmed Aden, for birthing an unforgettable DESERT FLOWER.
Waris exhibits inimitable strength from the first sentence: “A slight sound woke me, and when I opened my eyes, I was staring into the face of a lion.” She is waking from a nap under a tree. Exhausted and weak, she hasn’t eaten for days, her legs thin and wobbly. Had she longed to flee, that was out of the question. There was no outrunning or out climbing the young male lion flicking flies with its long amber tail under the African sun. So Waris did what there was to do: she spoke with Allah, pleading for Him to take her now. Preferably fast.
But Spirit had a wealth of living for Waris to do!
Yet why was a little Somali girl sitting in the mid-day sun, alone?
She was running away from her an arranged marriage to a man older than her father, running in the unknown direction of Mogadishu. I love the beautiful simplicity of her language to summarize the moment: “By midday I’d traveled deep into the red sand, and deep into my own thoughts.”
She was consumed with questions, the Unknown, air she could not help breathing. It was no small feat to be a girl child in a wilderness with wild men, animals, hunger, snakes, thirst, fear and darkness. But the Divine is ever present. She calls out to God: “Take me—direct me.” It is when I read that sentence that I know why I’d been drawn to the book, for I was in a similar place in my life, calling out to the Universe to direct me, in all ways.
What follows is a whirlwind of a story with Waris hitching a ride on the back of a truck to Mogadishu. The men inside the cab plan to rape her, but she outsmarts them, bashing one in the head with a large stone and leaping into the night from the back of the pick-up.
That tiny voice within, she learns to trust.
The weave of the narrative flashes back to her life as a nomad, and we experience how her family fate intertwined with that of the herds. Her people raises cattle, sheep and goats. We meet her pet goat, Billy, and learn of Waris’ deep love for animals. We learn a man’s worth is measured by camels, one hundred of which being the price of a murdered man. We witness her sisters bearing up under female circumcision and the tragic death of a beautiful, older sister, Halermo, who bled to death, alone in the desert night.
Waris is a perceptive child, with the adult responsibility of guarding the herds and helping with the nightly milking. Although her early life, compared to many of today’s children, was difficult, her great pleasure “was pure at being a child in the wilderness, the freedom to be part of nature and experience its sights, sounds, and smells.”
Like Dr. Halima Bashir, Waris Dirie is the rebel of her family, although she views the actions that dub her as such as “perfectly logical.” I admire her spirited, take-charge attitude. She fights back when her brother pops her. She questions authority. She speaks up to her condescending Uncle Ahmed. And she refuses to allow her father’s second wife to disrespect her beloved, long-suffering mother by taking the young girl into the dessert and leaving her hanging upside down, naked, high above the ground, overnight.
As for marriage, I am perplexed how Waris’ mother fled her family’s strong-arm hold on her heart, demanding that she not marry Waris’ handsome nomad father for her mother was a gorgeous city girl, from Mogadishu, her family well off. Yet her parents forget this and young Waris feels she has no other recourse: she must leave, go into the dessert and thereby into the lived fantasy of her life. So…I remember that, too, was blessed.
It was the path that led to Waris leaving Africa to reside in Heathrow, England, in the elegant home of her Auntie Maruim and Uncle Mohammed, an ambassador. While in Great Britain, she works as her relatives’ poor relation. Each day she walks little Sophie, her uncle’s niece, to and from school and is discovered as a world-class, ravishing supermodel. Fashion photographer Malcolm Fairchild follows her one day. Waris is stunning and Fairchild eventually gets the courage to follow her home to ask if he can photograph the tall, lovely miss, and the rest is fashion history.
Throughout the biography Waris Dirie nurtures a biding faith that everything will always work out when times got rough. She fights to remain in Britain, as her Auntie wants her to return to Somalia when her uncle’s term as ambassador is complete. She ends up walking into a tainted marriage to remain in England. Her husband turns out to be insane, same as his sister, Waris’ friend girl, who eventually goes mad before the brother. Waris finds a way to stop her smitten male cousin from raping her in her Auntie’s home. Claiming her name is Marilyn Monroe, she braves passport blues when returning to Britain from a risky trip to relish a modeling assignment in Morocco.
While living free in England, Waris is disinterested in men.
Yes, she is a living, emotional woman, but she soon learns that she is different from other women, unstitched women. Sewn up, she is closed to the notion of a boyfriend, and she finds herself blacking because of pressure from blocked menstrual blood, a burden her mother calls a woman’s burden. I love Waris for defying her Auntie’s reprimand that it isn’t African custom to discuss their bodies with white men. A Dr Macrae discovers she’s been sewn WAY TOO tight. He is amazed she’s made it as far as she had, and he later performs corrective surgery. Her circumcision, thought, brings tears to her best friend’s eyes, when she asks to view the deed before Waris’ brave procedure that finally makes urination and menstruation more bearable.
The story rolls out like a claret carpet, and I love it when Waris meets her musician husband, Dana. It is love at first sight, the ensuing romance legend.
If you, too, love cuddling up with a fabulous book, DESERT FLOWER is the book for you. With Waris as your tour guide, step into another world, eat different food, encounter strikingly foreign customs, meet a cast of characters you will long memory. Travel to Somalia without leaving your living room.
Via books, I have been to the Mother Continent several times last year, the year of my intense love affair with African women. One day I shall walk the desert and smell its flowers for myself. Until then, I’ll be content to examine printed flowers and be grateful that women survive the queue of atrocities in the name of tradition, for beside the travesty is the memory of what it means to stand up in the desert and thrive.
Waris’ name means desert flower. In 2008, she launched a worldwide campaign against female genital mutilation and served as a UN Goodwill Ambassador. Now that is what I call a flower worth keeping…..
The Golden Goddess