My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story
At first, it seemed to read like a script for one of those carefully constructed films about interracial, inter-cultural, inter-faith relationships that somehow turn out happily ever after, without straying too far from anyone’s comfort zone.
We know the kind only too well, where middle-class America runs into the mystical and slightly exotic, where an unusual attraction teases out both altruism and rebellion on both sides. In a post-9/11 world where America’s jaded liberalism is slowly regaining its balance, the real-life encounter between a privileged career-oriented Western woman and a traditionally raised Muslim immigrant from Libya no longer seems all that incongruous or dangerously radical.
But as Krista Bremer soon reveals in her aptly titled memoir, MY ACCIDENTAL JIHAD, the storyline is rarely predictable or camera-ready when the relationship flows into marriage and then children. Love, understanding and professed open-mindedness are often no match for the everyday realities of family history, culture and assumptions that simmer just below the surface of both Krista’s life and the sparsely revealed background of her husband, Ismail. (Presumably due to privacy issues, this contemporary memoir doesn’t even contain a single photo within its pages.)
"In the candid pages of this in-progress love story, the marriage --- apart from the usual challenges of cross-cultural parenting --- also has its ups and downs. Some of them are inherent with any couple, others a direct response to conflicting norms that can take a lifetime to sort out."
Nowhere do shattered assumptions exert greater impact than when Krista, pregnant with their second child, travels back to Libya with Ismail and their young daughter to meet his extended village family. Surrounded by chattering robed women whose daily lives are spent largely confined within multi-generation family compounds, the near total absence of privacy, freedom of movement and fresh air threaten to drive her crazy; boredom comes in a close second.
An epiphany of sorts emerges when, at the point of emotional and mental exhaustion, she abandons resistance to the unfamiliar lifestyle and language that surround her every waking moment. She begins to notice small but significant details about the customs, habits, gestures, affections and feelings of women who seem to have no identity apart from their male relatives. Without personally accepting the traditions in which they are unconditionally embedded for life, Krista gradually comes to a deeper understanding of the dynamics of Muslim families and their faith.
The experience gained in Libya stands her in good stead once the family returns to the U.S. and she learns to grasp the subtleties of marital discord and reconciliation through a more tolerant lens. And when her daughter announces one day that she wants to wear a hijab (a close-fitting traditional headscarf that entirely covers the hair, neck and shoulders), Krista struggles to overcome the discomfort of going out in public with a child who looks so “foreign.”
In the candid pages of this in-progress love story, the marriage --- apart from the usual challenges of cross-cultural parenting --- also has its ups and downs. Some of them are inherent with any couple, others a direct response to conflicting norms that can take a lifetime to sort out.
And perhaps this is where the meaning of jihad, loosely defined as the inner journey of the soul toward ultimate understanding and enlightenment --- that is, toward true Islam, or peace --- exerts its true power. What is often called accidental in human terms can be seen as a gift of the universe in spiritual terms.
Against the popular and misleading backdrop of media buzz about “jihadist militants” wreaking terror in distant lands, Krista Bremer’s sometimes uneven but always passionate MY ACCIDENTAL JIHAD goes beyond naïve altruism and domestication of The Other to open up some thought-provoking questions about global human relationships.
Reviewed by Pauline Finch on April 24, 2014