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June 15, 2008|Borzou Daragahi; Tony Barboza; Nick Owchar

BABYLON & BEYOND

Divorced at 10, her story has impact

The scuttlebutt among the reporters in Sana, the Yemeni capital, was that nobody walks out of 10-year-old Nujood Ali's house without giving her a donation.

I would find out that was correct.

But I had assumed that she and her family were trying to capitalize on her fame as Yemen's first preadolescent divorcee -- a story told Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times -- by trying to charge journalists money for interviews.

And I was very wrong about that.

When we arrived near her house, Nujood greeted us on the main avenue, hopped into our car and helped us navigate her sewage-infested shantytown until we reached the $75amonth house her family rented.

We were all shocked by how steady and self-possessed she appeared.

After all, just months earlier she had been forced into a marriage with a man three times her age and beaten until she submitted to his sexual advances until the day she worked up the courage to walk into a courthouse by herself and demand a divorce.

As the interview commenced, it became obvious that she ran this household.

While talking, she would curl up with her younger sister, Haifa, or hold nieces and nephews roaming around the house.

Both her mother and father, the ones who had given her away against her will, bowed to her.

They declined to enter the living room to sit down unless she indicated it was OK.

It became clear that Nujood's family, though living on the outskirts of a modernizing metropolis of 3 million people, came from a world very different than mine.

At one point, I asked Nujood's mother to clear up the question of her daughter's age. Some reports had her at 8 years old.

"She's 10," the mother said.

"What was her birthday?" I asked.

"I don't know," she replied. "There were no birth certificates in our village."

"So how do you know she's 10?" I asked.

"Well, we moved to Sana when she was 3, and that was seven years ago," she said.

Nujood's roots in the villages of northern Yemen made her tale all the more extraordinary to us. Most of the 10-year-olds I know just want to play Nintendo. Nujood spoke of her dream to one day finish her education, become a human rights lawyer and defend the rights of little girls like herself.

"I will tell girls that I was under pressure when I got married," she said. "I'll tell them not to marry until after your education, and marry the person you like."

Once our visit ended, we began leaving the house.

Nujood didn't even give the slightest hint that she expected compensation for agreeing to the interview.

She was full of grace and polite words as she walked us out to the street.

But we all found ourselves reflexively reaching for our wallets and stuffing bills into Nujood's hands, careful to keep away from the eyes of her father, who might try to take the money.

One colleague with us said she was saddened not to pick up the scent of food cooking at Nujood's as lunchtime arrived. She couldn't bear the thought of Nujood going hungry and gave her mother some money.

I found myself discreetly handing cash to Nujood before I entered the car. I wanted to do what little I could to help her succeed.

"Good luck, Nujood," I told her.

-- Borzou Daragahi, in Yemen

From Babylon & Beyond, observations from Iraq, Iran, Israel and the Middle East

For more, go to www.latimes. com/babylonbeyond

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L.A. UNLEASHED

Sea lions looked to have been shot

Federal authorities are investigating the deaths of two sea lions found in Seal Beach with what appeared to be shotgun wounds.

City lifeguards discovered the two adult sea lions north of the Seal Beach pier Wednesday morning, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service sent an agent to investigate, said agency spokesman Jim Milbury.

The sea lions probably died about two weeks ago but just recently washed onto the beach, he said.

Their bodies were being transported to the Marine Mammal Care Center in San Pedro for a necropsy to determine the cause of death, he said.

It is not unusual for dead sea lions to wash ashore, authorities say.

But if the deaths were caused by humans, attackers could face penalties for killing the federally protected species: up to $200,000 per animal and one year in jail, Milbury said.

Two other animals -- either sea lions or seals -- were found dead on the same beach earlier this week with apparent gunshot wounds but have already been buried, authorities said.

-- Tony Barboza

From L.A. Unleashed, all things animal in Southern California and beyond

For more, go to www.latimes. com/unleashed

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JACKET COPY

Thank you, Carrie Bradshaw!

I'm a fan of Kessinger Publishing.

The company is one of the keepers of all those esoteric titles on Egyptian magic and Rosicrucianism that you'd never expect to find unless you happened to be browsing the shelves at Dan Brown's house. When you order a book from this company, you get a reproduction of the text as it originally appeared -- not a new version cleaned up and reformatted in a modern typeface.

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