It’s the unlikeliest of marriages: a secular liberal Westerner and career-oriented feminist, exchanging vows with a Muslim immigrant and son of illiterate Libyan villagers.
The smart set would wager on Enlightenment values as the overwhelming favorite in this cultural matchup. So there is something unsettling about watching the certitudes of contemporary America crumble into dust before the timeless truths of Islam.
Krista Bremer’s memoir, “My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story,” is so vivid and compelling that it’s hard to resist this Carrboro resident’s invitation to witness her spiritual awakening.
Bremer, like many Americans, is wary of the twin harlots of modern life – consumerism and individualism – even as she remains in thrall to their seductions. It is through these fissures that the yearning strains of Quranic recitations penetrate the veil of her education and ambition.
To be sure, Bremer is hardly teleporting back to the seventh century, judging by her promising career as a writer and the microbrew clutched in her hand in the book’s closing scene. Her book contains no worship scenes in mosques, no preparations for a pilgrimage to Mecca.
Her husband, Ismail Suayah, is a Bob Dylan fan with a Ph.D. from UNC-Chapel Hill and a systems engineer on call for clients throughout the globally networked community. But he’s also a Muslim who insists on his son’s circumcision and dutifully buries the infant’s foreskin beneath a fig tree in the garden.
Bremer’s love story starts with a chance encounter in the frescades of Chapel Hill’s running trails. The surprise romance leads to a quick pregnancy, abruptly ending Bremer’s plan to take a writing fellowship abroad. As the couple’s cultural contours come into stark relief, she becomes increasingly troubled by the hollowness of her life.
“I glimpsed for the first time an ominous cloud in the distance, the remote and unsettling possibility that my rituals had no meaning,” she writes of the contrast between her secular Christmas and his intense Ramadan. “I was bottoming out quietly in that stylish suburban middle-class American way.”
Any encounter between Islam and Christendom will be booby-trapped with political and theological complications, but Bremer’s memoir is a personal reflection, not a moral lecture. She has told parts of the story in The Sun , the Chapel Hill literary journal where she works as assistant publisher, and in the News & Observer, O: The Oprah Magazine, New York Times Magazine, Salon and on National Public Radio.
The most riveting section is the travelogue recounting a pregnant Bremer’s extended visit to Libya, where she – and the reader – are subjected to body blows of culture shock.
A seasoned traveler, she is dropped into a Third World society where men avoid making eye contact with her and she can’t venture outside without a male escort. Bremer’s new female relatives pity her taut, runner’s physique, and suggest her womanhood is incomplete without a Muslim headscarf.
Bremer is appalled to realize that one of Ismail’s four sisters, Wajida, has been consigned to a life of drudgery and sorrow as a house slave to her parents, a North African Cinderella with no escape hatch. The girl’s own family ignores this crushed spirit as she serves food and clears away plates, lurking in the shadows like a guilty conscience.
Even as Ismail’s Libyan clan fully accepts her, Bremer never hints at her own family’s reaction to her surrender to Islam. But it clearly troubles some of her socially conscious American friends: “They’d much rather talk about controversial subjects like polyamory or pot legalization than prophets,” Bremer notes.