article

07.28.11

The DSK Maid's Public Battle

In search of a better life, she found herself embroiled in a case of alleged sexual assault by one of the world’s most powerful men. As Nafissatou Diallo goes public, friends reveal new details.

Nafissatou Diallo stood before the microphones, the television cameras and a small crowd on a sweltering Brooklyn afternoon Thursday and spoke so softly that most of the people there couldn’t hear her. She said she’d told her 15-year-old daughter, “I will be strong for you and every other woman in the world.” But she and her family, she said, “cry every day.”

Diallo, a 32-year-old African immigrant chambermaid at Manhattan’s Sofitel Hotel, is an unlikely crusader. She cannot read or write. The pinnacle of her ambition, as far as anyone knows, was to keep her steady job at the hotel. But when she claimed that French politician and managing director of the International Monetary Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn forced her to perform oral sex and tried to rape her in his luxury suite on May 14, she found herself at the center of a sexual-political drama with global repercussions.

Since she made her identity and her personal story public in an exclusive interview with Newsweek/The Daily Beast earlier this week, new information continues coming to light that tends to support her account.

An audio recording that at first seemed to incriminate Diallo as a cynical opportunist in cahoots with a convicted drug buyer in Arizona actually appears to support Diallo’s original account of what happened to her. What’s not on it, in any case, is what “law enforcement officials” told The New York Times last month: Diallo saying “words to the effect of: ‘Don’t worry, this guy has a lot of money. I know what I’m doing.’”

Meanwhile, Diallo’s friends and acquaintances in New York City’s African community have helped to fill in details of her personal life and cultural background.

Taken together, these revelations may not be sufficient to persuade Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., that Nafissatou Diallo is credible enough to put on the stand and establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Strauss-Kahn is guilty of the crimes with which he’s been charged.

Strauss-Kahn, apart from his plea of not guilty, has yet to give any account at all of what happened in that hotel suite. Since extensive DNA evidence substantiates the claim of sexual contact between Strauss-Kahn and Diallo, his entire defense has been focused on trashing Diallo’s version.

In the savage Twittersphere and the pages of the New York Post, she has been described as a part-time hooker and a cynical manipulator. At one point near the end of June, even the prosecutors who’d indicted Strauss-Kahn in the first place backed away from Diallo, stating that she had lied on her immigration asylum petition, on her taxes, on her request for low-income housing, in her account of what she did after the alleged attack, and in other unspecified cases.

A day later her current lawyers, Kenneth Thompson and Douglas Wigdor, launched a very public campaign to try to force Vance to continue the prosecution. Thompson’s truculent style and his ever-ready accusations of racism reminded many New Yorkers of other high-profile cases in the past, including Thompson’s own prosecution of policemen for torturing and sodomizing Haitian immigrant Abner Louima in 1997. So far, the strategy seems to have been effective. The next hearing in the case has been pushed back from August 1 to August 23.

The accounts from her friends clear up some questions—while raising others—about her reasons for coming to the United States, and about her life since coming here. The reason Nafissatou Diallo cannot read or write, according to one of her closest friends, is that she was never sent to school. Her father was an aged Muslim imam and gave classes in the study of the Koran. But “she was the sister who stays home,” as the friend put it. Her role was to be like a domestic servant for her father and siblings.

Amara Tarawally
Amara Tarawally (The Chandler Police Department in Arizona)

In 2003, according to the same family friend, one of Diallo’s relatives who already was established in the United States with a small business and a growing family, arranged for her to come to America to take care of her children. But when Diallo got to New York, she decided she didn’t want to do that. She wanted to build her own life, and she wanted to bring her own child from Africa to live with her.

Diallo moved out of the family home and took any job she could find, first braiding hair, then working in a bodega in the Bronx where she became friendly with Amara Tarawally, the nephew of the owner. A small-time hustler who sold T-shirts and fake designer handbags, Tarawally eventually was busted last year after buying more than 100 pounds of marijuana in a police sting operation in Arizona. He is now in a detention center there awaiting a decision about his deportation.

In 2004, Diallo managed to win political asylum in the United States. She probably would have qualified anyway because she had suffered female genital mutilation. But because she couldn’t read, she memorized an embellished account of persecution and rape on an audiotape supplied by one of the “consultants” who prey on unlettered immigrants by claiming to have legal expertise.

The accounts from her friends clear up some questions about her reasons for coming to the United States.

Diallo then applied for assistance from the widely respected International Rescue Committee, which helped her to get her job at the Sofitel laundry. She soon moved up to the maid service. But that created new problems for her in her Muslim community, according to several elders who spoke with Newsweek/The Daily Beast. Working as a hotel maid was seen as demeaning, and also as the kind of job that puts a properly modest Muslim woman in too close proximity to unknown men. That she often declined to wear the Muslim headscarf known as the hijab also brought criticism. Among conservative Muslims, the fact of her employment as a maid alone could be enough for her to be branded a prostitute.

By her own standards, Diallo was achieving a level of independence and, indeed, liberation she could never have imagined in Guinea. But she was barely on speaking terms with some of her siblings, according to family friends. So her life fell into a very predictable and very limited routine, says Blake Diallo, the manager of the Café 2115 in Harlem, which serves West African food. Blake is not related to Nafissatou, he said, although he sometimes calls her “sister.” He’s Senegalese, not Guinean, and does not speak her Fulani language. But he became one of her few male friends, he said.

“She don’t like men; she don’t trust them,” said Blake. “She don’t hang out with nobody. What she knows is work, pick up her daughter from school, pick up food”—often at Café 2115—“go home and watch Nigerian movies.” Blake said he did not know Amara Tarawally, who had won Nafissatou’s trust so thoroughly that she gave him access to her bank accounts, through which tens of thousands of dollars were moved quickly in and out from various locations around the country. When Newsweek/The Daily Beast interviewed Tarawally in the Arizona detention center, he described himself as her fiancé. But, judging from his record with other women, that’s a term he has used rather casually. Nafissatou described him in her interview as a man she “used to trust.”

In a wide-ranging, three-hour interview, Nafissatou told Newsweek/The Daily Beast that she made two phone calls on May 14, the day of the alleged assault in the Sofitel. One was to her daughter; the other to Blake. Three days later, in an effort to defend her reputation, Blake spoke with several French journalists. He says they published distorted versions of his remarks, including a story that when Nafissatou called him, she told of dramatic injuries that in fact she did not have. In an interview on Tuesday at the café, Blake said that when she called him late on the day of the attack, she told him what had happened but “specifically we didn’t talk about her body.”

As Blake remembers the conversation, she said “somebody tried to do something very bad to me,” then tried to explain in French, “somebody tried to rape me.” Blake told her to calm down and asked where she was. “I am at St. Luke Hospital with the police and the doctors,” he recalls her saying. “They are checking for evidence.”

Blake says that when he saw breaking news reports on the big flat-screen televisions in the restaurant saying that Strauss-Kahn had been arrested at JFK for allegedly assaulting a maid he made the connection right away. “I tell her this is the most powerful guy in the world; this is Dominique Strauss-Kahn,” says Blake. “How did you be with him? I tell her, he is more powerful than Obama.” Blake told Nafissatou “they are going to blow you up with so many questions; you know they got so many questions.”

Blake says he went straight away to his computer to look for a “high-profile lawyer” who would take Nafissatou’s case. The name he came up with was Jeffrey Shapiro, a personal injury lawyer specializing in lawsuits. “Just to protect her, that was my concern at that time,” says Blake. “Because I knew what she was dealing with, [was Strauss-Kahn’s] power.”

In the interview, Nafissatou said she didn’t really understand how important Strauss-Kahn was until she saw a television report about the arrest the following morning on New York’s Channel 7. That afternoon, according to Blake, he and Shapiro went to visit Nafissatou at the Holiday Inn police had moved her to. While there, said Blake, “somebody calls her and they were speaking Fulani.” He said he presumed it was one of the several calls that Tarawally made to her from the detention center in Arizona.

Not surprisingly, the tape played by the prosecutors on Wednesday this week includes talk about lawyers. But, according to Nafissatou’s current attorney, Kenneth Thompson, it is Tarawally who suggested that there might be money to be made, presumably through a lawsuit. “Nafi Diallo’s first reaction is ‘wait, wait, wait,’” Thompson said, “suggesting she wasn’t worried about that. She then makes a comment like ‘he can deal with it,’ which I took to mean her lawyer could deal with the issue.”

Mike Giglio contributed reporting.