My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story
by Krista Bremmer
(c) 2014 by Krista Bremmer. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. 237 pgs.
3 1/2 out of 5 Stars
I came across this book because I normally go to one of the local libraries to write my sermons, and typically tend to sit right next to the biography section because it has a plug for my laptop. As I am contemplating what to say next, I will look at the titles of books and this one caught my eye and so I decided to check it out.
Krista tells the story of her relationship with her husband who is an immigrant from Libya, fleeing from Gaddafi's rule, and also a Muslim, contrasted against her Americanism, and sort of secular religion. I say sort of secular religion because while she talks a lot about Ismail's religious practices, her religious devotion seems to consist solely in Easter and Christmas, but without any really theological meaning behind them. It's not clear what her background is, nor is it really clear what her Jihad is if it is defined, as they have on the cover as, "an individual's striving for spiritual and intellectual growth."
Krista meets Ismail out running in the woods and it might be seen as a story of opposites attracting, except that we never really learn much about who Ismail is other than surface observations. I'm guessing this is done first because this is more about Krista's journey rather than his, and also, perhaps, to provide him with some level on anonymity even in his own story. But when I reached the end I never got the sense that I truly knew him or his level of growth in their relationship because surely Krista could not have been the only person who was changed by this relationship bringing together different cultures and religions.
A large portion of the book is spent recounting a visit they made to see Ismail's family in Libya. It was this experience that began to change her mind and opened her up to the reality of how she sees the world, with the assumption that she sees it the correct way, and therefore others are wrong. She comes to see this for what it is, a sort of paternalism, that she can look down on others, even extend charity and compassion to them, without ever really seeing them for who and what they are, other than the other, someone, in my words, below her.
It is this insight that provides the greatest strength to this work. Her recounting of hearing of Gaddafi's arrest and death on a television in a restaurant, an event that was noticed by the other patrons but quickly dismissed so they could go back to their normal lives as something that happened "over there." Whereas this had real import for their family, and although Ismail "hated" Gaddafi, with all the important that that word entails, he could not stand to see the inhumanity taken out on him, even though he had done inhuman actions. (and can they really be inhuman if they are in fact done by a human?)
It is also her daughter's decision as she enters into the awkward tween years to begin wearing a head scarf that causes her to be uncomfortable, to face her own prejudices, and also to see the world in a new way and the liberation that her daughter finds in the scarf. Seeing a young girl in a bikini at the pool, and seeing herself as a teen in that moment, she says "Now I imagined Aliya in a bikini in only a few years. Then I imagined her draped in Muslim attire. It was hard to say which image was more unsettling."
She comes to see that the world is not black and white, that America is not always good in it's treatment of women, and that Islamic culture is not always bad because of it's treatment of women, that there are positives and negatives to both. That there was a sense of freedom, enjoyment and relaxation found in her female in-laws in Libya, in spite of how she might have originally seen them, that she did not have in America, nor did she know other women to have either.
If there is enlightenment to be found in the pages it is clearly in her exploration of all the assumptions she had held so dear, as so many of us do. My only hesitation in rating it higher was the fact that I wish that I could have gotten to know her husband and her daughter (her son is almost entirely absent from the book) as more than just characters, perhaps even stock characters, that help her come to a new sense of enlightenment.