JULY 28, 2014
AT FIRST Krista Bremer’s memoir, My Accidental Jihad, would appear to be a chronicle of the author’s relationship with her husband, a tale of overcoming differences and learning to compromise. Even after she meets her groom-to-be, Bremer, a grad student living in North Carolina, isn’t thinking about long-term personal goals: prior to her unexpected pregnancy and subsequent marriage, she’s largely unconcerned with commitment, faith, or a higher calling. Bremer values the physical, and lives as if she might find meaning through punishing her muscles on a surfboard or a trail. Then, out for a run on the University of North Carolina campus, where she — a California blonde — has just moved to do graduate work in journalism, she meets Ismail, a tall, attractive, older man from Libya. Ismail draws her in with his quiet confidence and purposeful ways. They fall in love.
My Accidental Jihad traces the genesis and the life of this union: from the lovers’ first encounter, to the birth of their baby, to Bremer’s eventually meeting her in-laws in the Middle East. But this is not a simple tale about the rewards and challenges of marrying a foreigner; rather, My Accidental Jihad documents Bremer’s personal coming of age, as she defines her sensibilities and values independent of Ismail’s. While her husband causes her to consider her life’s meaning, and though she emphasizes her growing acceptance of her wifely role, Bremer’s real struggle, to develop a stronger sense of self regardless of her marriage, is at the heart of her memoir.
The first half of the story centers on the contrast between husband and wife. Ismail’s decisions are guided by his religious beliefs, whereas Bremer initially portrays herself as a flighty surfer girl who hasn’t given her existence much thought. The early chapters of the book convey the all-encompassing nature of infatuation, even as Bremer tries not to portray Ismail as more powerful than he actually is:
He was no genie; he was my friend and my lover, and we were laughing together in his small apartment on a late Sunday afternoon. But part of me was still caught up in a feverish dream in which he was a genie sprung from a bottle, whose only purpose was to grant me my heart’s desire. He was the tall, dark stranger who with a word or gesture could make me beautiful and happy, make my life meaningful and whole.
The truth is that Bremer does want someone to save her. Or, at the very least, she wants the ease of having someone else make decisions about her life for her. Because she has previously lacked direction, it feels easy to have Ismail guide her choices. It is he who decides they will marry when she is pregnant. His home they share. He has strong opinions, she doesn’t. It turns out, however, that Ismail is neither a genie nor the man in Bremer’s feverish dream. He does things that madden her, and he holds views about gender that conflict with the feminist ideals she has always taken for granted. Her writing reflects how at odds she is with her desire to portray their romance as enchanting, with her determination to portray Ismail as a real human being.
This is a potential pitfall of memoir — to glamorize or demonize the other: in this case, Bremer is inclined, at first, to characterize the Islamic or Libyan experience as mystical and exotic, and to portray Ismail himself as magical, in order to highlight her Western shortcomings. But the reader comes to see Bremer’s awe and wonder for Ismail’s expressions of faith as reflective of her own upbringing. When she has to explain the American holidays of Easter and Christmas to Ismail, who constantly asks why, she struggles to find the answers within herself:
Having always been surrounded by people who celebrated them the same way I did, I had never thought too much about holidays. I had never imagined I would have to explain the significance of chocolate bunnies that laid caramel eggs in nests of shredded green plastic each Easter, or the blazing smile of the jack-o’-lantern on Halloween, or the tree that rained dry green needles onto the living room carpet each December. Each time he posed a question, I felt a sharp loneliness. […] It was difficult for [Ismail] to understand holidays untethered from meaning and drifting in an ocean of desire and delight.
Bremer’s inability to convey the why of Easter and Christmas rituals does not mean they are devoid of meaning, but when she attempts to define her traditions for Ismail she realizes her experience with holidays is as generic as a Hallmark commercial. Ismail’s traditions mark moments of like sacrifice or remembrance, but until meeting him, she is uninterested in this kind of symbolic significance.
As impressed as she is with Ismail’s faith, his traditions still make her uncomfortable. A strength of this memoir is Bremer’s admission of frustration — both with the person she married and with his strict observance of rituals and routine. She shows him to be sometimes inflexible and unresponsive, but she is able to portray her marriage with depth and complexity. For example, in one chapter, Bremer wants, in theory, to support Ismail when he fasts for Ramadan. But his weakened state causes angry words and marital conflict. This inspires a conversation about the purpose of the jihad, or struggle:
Ramadan revealed to me the limits of my compassion. I recalled a conversation I had with Ismail in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when the word jihad often appeared in news stories about Muslim extremists who were hell-bent on destroying the United States. According to Ismail, the prophet Muhammad taught that the greatest jihad, or struggle, of our lives is not the one that takes place on a battlefield but the one that takes place within our hearts — the struggle, as I understood it, to manifest humility, wisdom, and compassion.
Bremer’s title comes from this passage, this understanding of her husband’s religious observance. “[It] threw me into my own accidental jihad,” she says, “forcing me to wrestle with my intolerance and self-absorption.” The paradoxical phrase that becomes the title, “accidental jihad,” does not imply that her marriage — the obvious central conflict in the book — is accidental. Instead, it points to a deeper truth: that Bremer’s battle with herself — the one she doesn’t expect — is surprising, and difficult, and yields the greatest return. This is where the true meaning of My Accidental Jihad starts to emerge: it is not found merely in a comparison between an American woman and a Libyan man. It is in examining Bremer’s inner struggle — to define her own sense of belief and learn to live with another fully developed human being — that we see the true purpose of the book.
Faith and devotion play into all aspects of this story, even Bremer’s descriptions of nonreligious fanaticism. She writes with humor, for instance, about her conversion to motherhood — of the piety, holiness, and devout observance that comes with the territory.
I studied the latest parenting scripture and sat in a circle on the floor with other women who had recently been born again into motherhood, having pious discussions while our children played with wooden toys beside us. We were passionate and uncompromising about our beliefs. Co-sleeping, extended nursing, and toddler hour at the public library were holy; baby formula, epidurals, and Disney were evil. We glowed with the certainty of the chosen ones and spoke in hushed and sympathetic tones about the unsaved — those who had not been able to conceive, whose sad stories affirmed our own blessings.
Bremer’s language in this passage is tongue-in-cheek, and, even so, demonstrates the beginnings of her desire to seek deeper meaning for her actions, to codify her beliefs. It makes sense that motherhood — into which she is thrown without much planning or consideration — eventually inspires her to look for spirituality.
The second half of the memoir is devoted to Bremer’s travels with her husband to Libya — “crowded, generous, broken, resilient Libya” — no space to withdraw, or silence in which to compose her thoughts. Bremer encounters Ismail’s brothers and sisters, many of whom have sacrificed freedoms or rights she takes for granted, in the name of family, safety, or of remaining in their homeland. Ismail, on the other hand, is entirely at home, and some of his reactions unnerve Bremer, as when his passport is confiscated at the airport with no promise of return:
“Mish mishkla,” he’d said, shrugging and waving us through the line. No problem. It was the most popular phrase in the Libyan vocabulary, I quickly discovered, one I heard many times a day — always with a cavalier shrug of the shoulders or a wave of the hand — and always in response to the most bizarre and maddening predicaments I had ever encountered.
Though Libya is unfamiliar to her, though cultural norms make her feel out of place, Bremer finds comfort within the closed and separate ranks of the female family, which affirm her motherhood and femininity in new ways. After an argument with Ismail, she says:
They told me what I needed to hear to climb out of this pit of alienation and despair. It expressed what Ismail, with his wounded pride, had never been able to say in moments like these: that I was understood, I was forgiven, and I was family.
Moreover, in Libya, Bremer’s strongest opinions emerge. She finds a more assertive voice. Where previously she has been less articulate about her needs and desires, as she describes her experiences in Libya, her language becomes more decisive. Perhaps because the country offers neither space nor solitude, it pushes her into defining herself more clearly.
In a chapter called “Bartering,” Bremer does her most self-indicting work. In fact, she posits that American attempts to employ tolerance result in a kind of dysfunctional, dehumanizing behavior. When Ismail barters with a handicapped man in the public market, she feels ashamed and pushes her husband to give in to the seller’s demands. She says that this is his responsibility as a man who can afford not to haggle. But Ismail replies that to not haggle — not to treat the man the same as anyone else — would dishonor him. Bremer writes:
As much as I hated to admit it, back home on American streets I would be extremely unlikely to challenge someone who was old or disabled or whose skin was a different shade than mine. I understood words like diversity and tolerance to mean white people being on their best behavior, bringing out their best manners for mostly darker-skinned others whose suffering was undeniably greater. Tolerance meant trying to understand and intuit the needs of the less privileged, like a gracious host [… smiling] brightly and [offering] the best of what she had, secure in the knowledge that later he would disappear back into the dark, and this well-appointed home and all it contained would still belong to her.
In this way, Bremer begins to reject values and behaviors she has taken for granted, and to delineate the boundaries of a new understanding and identity.
And yet it’s as if she wants to deny the true message of her memoir. “Marriage taught me my second lesson in surrender,” she writes. “I learned to submit to my beloved like a mother submits to an infant’s hunger, offering an aching swollen breast and feeling the sweet relief of doing exactly what she was meant to do.”
But though Bremer wants to underscore her acceptance of her wifely role, it is her development of a strong personal identity that illuminates her experience. One might think that My Accidental Jihad is about how marrying a man of a different faith can turn a life around. But more accurately, it is a book about becoming more introspective — about how any successful and lasting marriage involves as much self-reckoning as compromise.