48 pages 1 hour read

Waris Dirie

Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad

Nonfiction | Autobiography / Memoir | Adult | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


Desert Flower: The Extraordinary Journey of a Desert Nomad is a memoir published in 1998 by the Somali model, author, and activist Waris Dirie and author Cathleen Miller. The book recounts Dirie’s harrowing life story, from her roots as a member of a nomadic family and the abuses she suffered as a child to her rise to international fame as a fashion model, an ambassador and advocate for women's rights, and an author. The novel foregrounds Dirie’s Resilience and Determination, emphasizes The Cultural Differences Between Africa and the Western World, and stresses The Pain and Trauma of Female Genital Mutilation. In 2009, Desert Flower was adapted into a film starring the Ethiopian-born model and actress Liya Kebede.

This guide refers to the 2011 HarperCollins Perennial edition.

Content Warning: This guide as well as the source text include violent and disturbing descriptions of female genital mutilation, rape, and attempted rape.


Dirie’s memoir opens in the desert of Somalia, where she lives with her parents and five siblings as pastoral nomads in the tradition of Dirie’s father’s ancestors. The family is cut off from cosmopolitan influences and moves around frequently with their goats and camels, searching for water and vegetation. Life is challenging; most days, Dirie only has camel milk as her sustenance. Her parents often send her to walk for days looking for water to bring back. Nevertheless, Dirie’s main impression of her childhood is one of joyful freedom. She enjoys playing with her siblings, talking each evening with her family, and being at one with nature.

When she is five years old, Dirie undergoes female genital mutilation (FGM), an excruciating procedure that nearly kills her. At the age of 13, Dirie learns she is to be wed in an arranged marriage to a 60-year-old man. In exchange for her hand in marriage, Dirie’s father is set to receive five camels from the groom. To avoid marrying the old man, Dirie runs away from her family. Her ambition is to reach Somalia's capital city, Mogadishu, where her mother is originally from. Dirie hopes that the relatives she knows in and around the city will accept her into their home.

First, however, Dirie must cross a stretch of desert full of natural and man-made dangers. Dirie is approached by a lion and is sure that she is going to be killed. Numerous men, including a truck driver she hails from the desert-side highway and a man who says that he is taking Dirie to her uncle, try to rape her. She manages to fight off these men.

Dirie finally arrives in Mogadishu with the help of her cousins, whom she connects with in the city of Galcaio, and stays with her older sister, Aman. Dirie begins to tire of her life at Aman’s home and wants to live with other relatives from her extended family. Dirie convinces her uncle, who is the ambassador to Somalia in the United Kingdom, to hire her as his maid. She flies to London, England, where she works as an underpaid maid and cook for her uncle and aunt’s family for four years.

When her uncle’s term ends, he and the rest of her relatives decide to return to Somalia and insist that Dirie accompany them. Dirie refuses, hiding her passport and ID from her relatives to prevent them from coercing her into leaving with them.

Eventually, Dirie’s family accepts that they have little choice but to let her stay in London. Dirie finds a Somali woman named Halwu in a department store and talks to her. She ends up staying on Halwu’s floor at the YMCA and gets a job cleaning at McDonald’s, where she is paid under the table, as she has no visa.

A man approaches Dirie, explaining that he wants to take her photograph, but Dirie’s English is poor, and she assumes that the man is a sexual predator. Nevertheless, she keeps his business card and phone number. Halwu calls him and learns that his name is Malcolm Fairchild and that he is a fashion photographer.

Dirie goes to Fairchild’s studio, and he takes photos of her. Agencies become interested in her. She is called to a number of castings and ends up on the cover of the 1987 Pirelli Calendar. Dirie then has a small but memorable part in the 1987 James Bond film, The Living Daylights, starring Timothy Dalton.

A corrupt lawyer convinces Dirie to marry an old Irishman, who dies months later. Immigration is suspicious of this union as well as of her next, to a friend’s brother, Nigel. Dirie acquires a passport through Nigel that allows her to travel to Milan, Paris, and New York. Dirie makes high-profile appearances in ad campaigns for some of the world’s biggest fashion and beauty brands, including Chanel, Levi’s, Revlon, and L’Oréal, and she walks in runway shows around the world.

Dirie takes part in a documentary about her life for the BBC in 1995. Through this opportunity, she has an emotional reunion with her mother in Ethiopia. Dirie invites her to come back to the United States or England with her, but her mother remains to care for her father.

In 1997, Dirie tells the magazine Marie Claire about having undergone female genital mutilation. She reveals that her two sisters were given the same painful procedure, and one died. The United Nations (UN) contacts Dirie, and she becomes an ambassador for them, speaking out globally against the practice of FGM.

One night, Dirie meets a drummer named Dana Murray at a nightclub in New York. They have a whirlwind romance, and within a year, Dirie is pregnant with their first son. They cannot marry because Nigel won’t grant her a divorce, but they stay together. She gives birth to Aleeke in 1997. His name means “lion” in Somali.

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