Nujood’s father, Ali Muhammad al-Ahdal, carries one of his 16 children from 2 wives, all of whom once begged for a living. Picture courtesy of Bored Melo.Wordpress
Picture of a child bride with a new husband many years her senior, courtesy of Danish Affairs The original source of this copyright cannot presently be ascertained as the photograph has been replayed in various media.
Picture from Getty Images courtesy of Zimbio.com shows Nujood Ali with Shada Nasser in New York after being awarded Glamour’s Women of the Year Award in 2008, a prestigous title shared only by Nicole Kidman, Senator Hillary Clinton and Condoleezza Rice among others. Shada Nasser is a famous Yemeni human rights lawyer.
The following is a book review only, of I am Nujood Age 10 and Divorced. For further reading of the socialogical structure, impact and damage on the subject attributed to child brides in Yemen, please click on accompanying links or view suggestions at the end of the article.
Clearly, a Yemeni memoir designed to flaunt its striking title to a hilt with little Nujood Ali’s portrait studiously positioned to gaze down at the customer from a wall calendar height of a tall store shelf, signalling a note of impish triumph!
Published by Random House Australia as part of an intriguing March catalogue, I would myself happily fall victim to the courageous child bride’s charms. Vivid photographs on the web reveal an apple-cheeked, cherubic little girl, shyly masquerading adult eyes behind a momentarily statued doll-like demeanour.
All at once, there springs an immediate maternal desire to hold this adorable elfin thing close, to hug her once pained body and to ruffle her hair, hopefully not trapped in that moment of playfulness, by a thick veil.
Instead I consoled myself by settling for the paperback I am Nujood Age 10 and Divorced bought with keen interest, from Dymocks on Collins Street in Melbourne, Australia when I visited last month.
Yet, as the classic saying warns, never judge a book by its cover.
In a naive effort to annul her lawless marriage, the gentle Nujood would nurture an iron will soldiered from a dogged determination, indomitable spirit and fearful sensibility with which to hurriedly thumb down a runaway taxi-ride to the courthouse one unlikely morning.
A dangerous decision of course as Yemeni girls and women are disallowed the liberty of solitary rides in vehicles helmed by men. As luck would have it, thanks to the kindly presence of three renowned judges sitting that morning in the courtroom, justice would quickly lay its reviving gladdening hands on Nujood and with such a tonic grandeur that Nujood would in turn, clasp her golden age in a firm handshake as a series of worldwide accomplishments not known by a common rule of thumb would swiftly spiral her quivering ambitions to fame.
Yet at the tender fleeting period of either eight, nine or 10 years old – no one knows for sure as born in Khardji, an isolated Yemeni village, holding just five lone houses, a river, host of jerry cans and some useful cattle where only seasoned mules dared thread the winding stony patches – Nujood’s birthday was never recorded.
Often bogged down by the little girl’s persistent queries, her benovelent mother whom Nujood called Omma, would hold true to an old memory that measured the counting of fingers and seasonal sunrises. This insisted Omma to an impatient Nujood, matched a total of 10 long years.
Despite the invisibility of running water, electricity cables, confectionary and toy shops in the child’s earlier years, life had regaled itself to a humble gaiety as she played indulgent games with her siblings and daydreamed happily by the river.
Sadly, even this temporal destiny fades as her family is soon dragged into a neighbourhood scandal involving two of Nujood’s older sisters. One is raped. Grudging disbelieving villagers blame Nujood’s father her aba and an unfortunate farmer, for soiling the village’s honour. Blades are drawn. The debacle ends when Nujood’s family agrees to leave in less than 24 hours, taking nothing with them.
Nujood’s father ferries his two wives and their many children to the capital’s slums. Unable to work from a subsequent nasty habit of chewing khat – a drug of abuse – all day long with newfound acquaintances, Nujood’s brothers resort to a life of begging to make paltry ends meet. Her mother sells sentimental possessions. However, Nujood manages a brief season in school and even makes a best friend. A splendid preliminary achievement considering that 70% of Yemeni women are currently illiterate.
One day, to prevent a further debt from his already meagre existence, Nujood is pulled out of school, bought for a necessary dowry by strangers and wed in haste minus the accompanying celebrations, to a short stocky delivery man three times her senior. All this in the blink of an eye. To make matters worse, she is sent back to live in the forsaken and somewhat barren Khardji land, with her new husband.
Her horrors begin when a rackety car is sent to pick her up and she sees her husband clearly for the first time. After a risky and sulky ride with a couple of female in-laws in tow, she reaches her new home only to be greeted with surliness by a mother-in-law missing two front teeth and wearing feathery skin…the unwelcoming matriach.
Later, despite screaming and running helter-skelter in a frienzied attempt to escape, Nujood’s virginity is violently snatched from her. Her husband’s initial feeble promise to her family not to engage in sex until his gullible bride experienced her first menstruation, flies out the window.
Nujood is forced to engage in unnatural sexual encounters by night together with a sorry kitchen life by day, at the behest of a wrinkled mother-in-law and unsympathetic womenfolk that count for family; who with sadistic relish pull at her hair and beat her with a stick when childlike sobs taunt them with a yearning for the old life, now viewed as a distant memory in a faraway town.
In fact, Nujood will lend herself to crying fits every night until to chasten her, her husband finally resorts to beatings with a stick. “Beat her harder, that will teach her,” egged on her mother-in-law.
One day to placate her continued tears and with forced reluctance, Nujood’s husband takes her home for a few days. Her woes fall on deaf ears and her parents urge her to return to her husband. Shocked at the unsympathetic reaction and hingeing on a reckless whim winged by faith, Nujood devises a plan. She collects her mother’s bread money coins entrusted to her for a morning errand and steals a ride to the courthouse in a wild attempt to plead her case. A judge one of three popular ones, spots her sitting alone, demands a curious puzzled dialogue and Nujood’s life is thus, changed forever.
One judge later invites the relieved trusting Nujood home to live out the long holy weekend with his wife and daughter. The spent girl is showered with toys, dolls, delicious meals, baths and genuine affection. Eventually, a few telephone calls placed by the judges result in Shada Nasser, a famous Yemeni human rights lawyer being engaged for Nujood’s case. Nasser is simply too startled and admirable for words. The media is soon informed and the whole world rushes in to support Nujood with open arms. An Iraqi woman tries to give her gold, others bring toys, dolls and bundles of currency
However, according to Yemeni law, Nujood’s husband must escape prosecution. Of course, much to Nujood’s consternation, he denies all accusations of ill-treatment and swears he thought she was 13. On the contrary, he is paid back a fraction of the dowry price as compensation. Nasser herself donates the money so Nujood would be granted her divorce without hassle.
Meanwhile, there are minor turmoils surrounding the family courtesy of the older siblings, but nothing so severe that can’t eventually be sorted out.
Sadly, I nursed mixed feeling about the memoir.
It failed to arouse in me, the essential compassion necessitated from threading through the disturbing agonizing events. My personal conjecture settled on the fact that the narration itself while beautifully absorbing and picturesque in several parts, failed to live up to the powerful clamour conveyed by the title; a liner I fear, may have been sensationalised, with a plot toppling in expectations. It resulted in unease and me questioning the troubling fact that I may have so easily resorted to being the cold reader.
To my relief, on the night, I was to leave Melbourne, I read a review in The Weekend Age. The critic although pleasant and empathic towards the premise of the story, making sure all the while to praise the narration also hinted broadly that ‘I am Nujood Age 10 and Divorced’ had failed to engage him emotionally. This disappointing reflection echoed my conclusion to the short review; not of Nujood’s drama but of the tricky approach to the memoir’s voice.
The cover states that the memoir was written by Nujood Ali with Delphine Minoui. The reader is treated to the first person, the tale of Nujood’s short life being told as a little girl would turn raconteur – one with kindergarten education – in her own voice. One gets the niggling suspicion that it isn’t Nujood’s voice at all. I am of the conclusion that a fair bit of creative licence has gone into Nujood’s adult and sophisticated reasoning of her entire situation.
“Once the capital was behind us, the highway became a black ribbon snaking along among mountains and valleys…
“To block out everything around me, I decided to observe the smallest details of the landscape.. “there were old fortresses in ruins perched on promontories; …”
I’m sorry but the above isn’t the voice of Nujood at all. It doesn’t project the simple raw tones of a trembling wee girl who at the time knew just how to count to a hundred, write her name in Arabic and memorize the Quran. The sophisticated vocabulary and sharp scenic observations hints of an articulate foreign speech & that of silent thought…one totally alien I’m certain, to anything even closely resembling a fraction of what may have proved Nujood’s own mismatched or rather, disjointed descriptions. And so the heavily laden prose went on and on.
Clearly, a rarity for me…when I watched a memoir struggle with identity. It is a tortured form of storytelling when one narrator from a dissimilar culture would clamber into another narrator’s soul to speak. As a reader, you are led to believe that it is the latter’s voice when the personality reflects that of the former. What is missing is a Yemeni mood, dialect, accent, style of speech oh…what is missing is the speech of a little girl.
How excellently the story would have read if Minoui had simply condensed this work of non-fiction as a case study for students eager to devour the subject of child brides or one of literary analysis while speaking to Nujood for interviews and descriptive encounters on the tragic Yemeni tribalism so clearly buried in primitive ritual and tradition.
Then there would have been room for a cultured ‘Westernised’ vocabulary.
Another sore point.
I was born and grew up in Malaysia, a moderate Islamic country. Every suburb owned a mosque which would duly ring out the daily azan call to prayer. Many classmates were Malay and hence, Muslim. While a Christian and living life very closely in the Western sense imbued of course, by my own Indian roots, the Islamic faith floated about me like restful swirling waves all through my childhood and early adulthood. Today, I consider that memory a rare alluring gift. It opened my mind to surprise reckonings. I embraced the possibility of a personal democracy, so lovingly adminstered by my country and one that would permanently shape my libertarian views.
Naturally, I couldn’t agee with reasonings, explanations and philosophies often supposedly told in Nurul’s own voice…the robust undercurrents throughout the book that hinted of how women engulfed in modernism, donning bright colourful headscarves for instance and who engaged in cool pastimes like cafe cultures were the original intelligent heroines and that in contrast to this, all women who wore niqabs were submissive, frightened, oppressive and living in depressive surroundings. But Nujood was cheerful once, born into and living in a household of veils!
Or perhaps then, the clear indication of how rural men encased in tribal folklore were portrayed as ogres, selfish or uncaring – you picked up that impression after a bit -while modern men strolling about with their high education in tow, were haloed in goodness because these were the gentlemen who helped Nujood whereas villagers merely bullied or ignored her.
Women were also portrayed as pained but triumphant heroines…men, the clear losers. For example, Nujood’s elder brother, the daring one, Fares with an inate love for materialism, flees to Saudi Arabia a Dick Whittington in which to try his fortunes.
It is the remembrance of his bravery that wills Nujood to hail a taxi for the courthouse. Later, he returns home, shattered and poor whereas Nujood succeeds in turning her life around. These events are carefully portrayed in close paragraphs that stand dangerously parallel to each other…here is Nujood, the heroine and Fares the sad loser.
So much characterisation was prone to a sweeping stereotyped speculation and a matured Westerner’s point of view towards the Islamic faith in general. Extremism or fanaticism don’t seem to appear separately but as a condensed version of what the Islamic faith as a whole, may represent and not always for the greater good.
I also recognised techniques used for fiction-writing. Subtle comparisons for example of how Nujood on her ugly wedding night would with sobs, remember her grandfather Jad, an ancient hero who cradled her in his lap while her father aba was mean-spirited to have married her off so cruelly. Good measured against the bad in adjoing paragraphs.
I recall too, the blurb on the back book jacket. As she guides us from the magical, fragrant streets of the Old Street of Sana to the cement block slums and rural villages…
Sana is Yemen’s capital and Nujood lived in the capital’s cheaper, dirty streets,. Whereas the cement block slums and rural villages are to be associated with Nujood’s marriage and so the displeasure or dark depression is heightened to create the appropriate stormy mood. But in reality, before they were chased out by disgruntled villagers, Nujood did live in the insular rural region and she was happy.
While on a swing, after her divorce, Nujood would remove her veil and let her hair tumble over…the dismissal of the veil as a sure metaphor for liberation in that few minutes…a celebration for the divorce, so to speak the narrator in this case ‘Nujood being careful to tell us that she was now ‘free’.
I’d settle for brilliant if not contrived writing techniques. As a memoir, Minoui offers the reader a case of tell-and-not-show. She reminds us constantly of what goes on with the plot. She may be seen to preach the politically-correct way to think, feel and act. Alongside, Nujood’s story, I pictured myself at a college lecture.
Once I’d settled with the thought that I would finish the read feeling peace, only if I accepted the notion that with the now familiar employment of psychological and manipulative writing tricks, I could do well to playact this as important fiction, I began to slide in and out of some scenes with joy; beguiled at the romantic descriptions, that successfully lightened Nujood’s story.
Here the description of Nujood’s wedding bedroom.
“…it smelled like home…a musty smell with a hint of resinous incense.. A long woven mat was lying on the floor: my bed. Beside it was an old oil lamp that cast the shadow of its flame on the wall…”
or of her favourite haunt, the rows of colourful bazaars in Bab al-Yemen, close to Sana: “I would stand on tiptoe to better appreciate the goods laid out in stalls… but whose bounty lay heaped up as far as the eye could see: silver daggers (jambias),embroidered shawls, rugs, sugared doughnuts, henna and dresses for little girls my age..”
I also adored Nujood’s use of smells to design her memory bank… “she suddenly loved her father despite the nasty smell of khat… in Bab al-Yemen, “Nujood would have fun trying to sniff out the different smells of cumin, cinnamon, cloves, nuts, raisins – all the scents wafting from the street booths.” and in the courthouse, Nujood loved Shada Nasser’s perfume that always smelled strongly of jasmine.
In all goodness, the story is a fastidious clever arrangement for the uninitiated…and its symmetrical harmony relating to pace and structure is perfect.
Still it was in finally coursing old newspaper reports, that I was filled with an overwhelming indignation of all Nujood had been through. If pictures could speak a 1000 words, I was suddenly flooded with compassion for Nujood’s wounded innocence. Sometimes, there is nothing like a blunt newspaper report to uphold truth in all of its brutal glory.