The Magazine

Parallel Lives

Frederick Douglass, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and the flight to freedom.

Jun 23, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 39 • By CLAUDIA ANDERSON
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Seeing Europe for the first time, a young Somali woman was dazzled by its order and cleanliness and its ingenious efficiency. It was "like a movie." Düsseldorf "looked like geometry class, or physics, where everything was in straight lines and had to be perfect and precise."

The buses in Holland were "sleek and clean; their doors opened by themselves." She was spooked by their "eerie punctuality." Policemen were courteous and helpful, not ominous. Garbage collection was an elaborate minuet performed by citizens--"you had to put the garbage containers out at the proper time, in the proper way. Brown was for organic waste; green was for plastic; and newspapers were something else entirely, some other time"--and government, which, if you did your part, "came the next morning and whisked it all away for recycling."

Her first weekend in the Netherlands, this newcomer, who had lived in Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, and Kenya, stayed with the cousin of a friend. Her hostess walked her around the neighborhood.

All the houses were alike, and all the same color, laid out in rows like neat little cakes warm from the oven. They were all new homes with flouncy white lace curtains, and the grass in front was all green and mown evenly, to the same height, like a neat haircut. In Nairobi, except in the rich estates, colors were garish and houses were completely anarchic--a mansion, a half-built shanty hut, a vacant lot all jumbled together--so this, too, was new to me.

It was 1992, and this young woman, transiting Europe en route to Canada and a forced marriage to a distant cousin, had bolted to Holland almost on the spur of the moment after hearing of its lenient policies toward asylum seekers. Her wide-eyed wonder at her surroundings calls to mind a passage from a much earlier memoir in which a young man recounted his own experience of stepping into a new world.

In September 1838, a newly escaped slave walked the streets of New Bedford, Massachusetts. A product of the plantations of Talbot County, Maryland, and the shipyards of Baltimore, this young man marveled at the display of wealth and industry, at the mighty ships and granite warehouses. He noticed, too, that

almost every body seemed to be at work, but noiselessly so, compared with what I had been accustomed to in Baltimore. There were no loud songs heard from those engaged in loading and unloading ships. I heard no deep oaths or horrid curses on the laborer. I saw no whipping of men; but all seemed to go smoothly on. Every man appeared to understand his work, and went at it with a sober, yet cheerful earnestness, which betokened the deep interest which he felt in what he was doing, as well as a sense of his own dignity as a man. To me this looked exceedingly strange.

Proceeding from the wharves to explore the town, he would remember,

Every thing looked clean, new, and beautiful. I saw few or no dilapidated houses, with poverty-stricken inmates; no half-naked children and bare-footed women, such as I had been accustomed to see in Hillsborough, Easton, St. Michael's, and Baltimore. The people looked more able, stronger, healthier, and happier, than those of Maryland. I was for once made glad by a view of extreme wealth, without being saddened by seeing extreme poverty. But the most astonishing as well as the most interesting thing to me was the condition of the colored people, a great many of whom, like myself, had escaped thither as a refuge from the hunters of men. I found many, who had not been seven years out of their chains, living in finer houses, and evidently enjoying more of the comforts of life, than the average of slaveholders in Maryland.

Born a little over 150 years apart, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) and Ayaan Hirsi Ali (born 1969) both had the experience, on the threshold of adulthood--he was 20, she 22--of fleeing the culture they'd grown up in and entering another. For both, it was a run toward freedom. In each case, a short train ride and a name change to foil pursuers were the fateful turning points in a remarkable life they would recount in bestselling memoirs.

Both, growing up, were subjected to various forms of violence and family disruption, and frequently witnessed the degrading treatment of others. Both found in books intimations of a different way of life. Both claimed their inner freedom in a climactic act of self-assertion. For Douglass, this came several years before his escape, when, in a two-hour struggle, he fought off an attempt by the "Negro breaker" Edward Covey to tie him up and flog him. For Hirsi Ali, it came months after her flight, when she quietly faced down a council of ten Somali tribal elders who had found her in Holland and had come to return her to the fold.