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Somalia’s Desert Flower

4 minute read

Her story is the stuff of fiction: the daughter of Somali desert nomads, Waris (“desert flower” in Somali) Dirie fled her family when she was about 13 to escape marriage to a man old enough to be her grandfather. She landed in London as a servant to wealthy relatives and worked as a cleaner at McDonald’s before becoming a supermodel, a James Bond girl, a U.N. special ambassador and a best-selling writer. Her second book, Desert Dawn, was published in Britain last week.

Hard to believe? Only until you meet Dirie. A warm but somehow elusive woman in her mid-30s — she doesn’t know her age, nomads having little use for calendars and clocks — she radiates a luminous beauty with a whiff of the wild and free. Dirie is strikingly attractive, but her dramatic rags-to-riches journey was fueled not just by looks, but also by resilience. She calls it the power of the spirit. “I felt the power,” she says when relating how she overcame some crisis or other in her life. “Believe in yourself, and nothing can stop you.” That strength sustained her when she nearly died after being circumcised at the age of about five with a dirty razor blade. It saw her through her desert escape and the vagaries of a frenetic life on the international modeling circuit.

Dirie wrote about all this in Desert Flower, her 1998 autobiography, which topped the British, German (1.75 million copies) and Dutch best-seller lists. In Desert Dawn, which was written with Jeanne D’Haem and first published in Germany a few months ago, she tells of her horrific journey last year to find her mother, who lives in a village in her poverty-stricken homeland. Dirie found spiritual nourishment in her family’s courage, faith and humor, but also much to distress her. She writes movingly of Somalia’s dire poverty and of the problems caused by the entrenched attitudes of its tribal culture, which keep the country divided and so often in turmoil. Especially troubling to her is how these views ensure that women have few rights and remain subjugated by men.

Dirie has been speaking out about one aspect of this subjugation: female circumcision, practiced on 2 million girls a year, most of them in 28 African countries but also in immigrant communities in Europe and the U.S. The U.N. appointed her in 1997 as a special ambassador to seek an end to this practice, after she caused a furor by suddenly revealing her own experience to a reporter. Talking about such intimate personal details is excruciating for her, but she vows she won’t stop.

Sustaining her now is not only the power of the spirit but also her five-year-old son, Aleeke, whom she calls “the light of my life.” Now parted from his American jazz musician father, Dirie is currently living with Aleeke in Wales. She is vague about her future plans — excited about a proposal for a National Geographic documentary on Somalia but uncertain about staying in Britain. “I can enjoy anywhere, and I can leave it,” she says. “Life is about moving on.” She is, as she adds, a nomad after all.


TIME: Has any progress been made in stopping female circumcision?
Dirie: It’s a subject that is increasingly talked about, and more women are campaigning against it all the time. But there is a long way to go, and things move slowly. You have to change attitudes. But apartheid was ended in South Africa — it can happen.

TIME: How were you different from your siblings?
Dirie: I always wanted to know the reasons for things and didn’t like when I was smacked for asking or pushed away or ignored. So I became my own person. I was considered different. Inside I felt I was right.

TIME: Do you regret giving up modeling?
Dirie: No, life is about changes, and I had better things to do. It was fun, but it was meaningless. It’s sad how many girls in the West make modeling their dream and goal. They should keep a focus on something else at the same time.

TIME: And the movie Elton John was going to make of your life?
Dirie: That has faded out.

TIME: What next?
Dirie: I have started the Desert Dawn Foundation to raise money for schools and clinics in Somalia. What I saw there broke my heart. These people have nothing, really nothing.

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