Jihad, an Arabic word meaning strife or struggle, has many connotations in our culture, few of them romantic. Yet romance is at the center of Krista Bremer’s moving memoir, My Accidental Jihad, though struggle is a key element as well.
One day while jogging in North Carolina, Krista, a graduate student, met an older Libyan man, Ismail. He was not exactly the person she’d envisioned as Prince Charming. He was graying of hair and yellow of teeth, not to mention that he struck Krista as utterly foreign, completely other. But when she was with him, she felt herself relax, as though she were settling into a deep pool of water. She felt at home. And then, to paraphrase Charlotte Brontë: Reader, she married him.
The memoir tells the story of their marriage in unrelenting candor and gorgeous prose. Intimacy with Ismail forces Krista to evaluate her American life with a critical eye. Do Americans really need so much stuff? She compares Ismail’s gentle and loving care of his few things with the habits of a previous boyfriend, who left piles of designer clothes littered across the floor. Krista is deeply glad to be with Ismail. But does he really have to use a 15-year-old coffee maker? Holidays are also difficult. For Krista, Ramadan is a mystery. She doesn’t like the way it changes her husband, who gets testy while fasting. She finds it hard to support him, to lay a single date and a glass of water neatly on the table for him to break his fast at sundown. Her reservations about Ramadan, though, pale next to his confusion about Christmas. Seeing Christmas through Ismail’s eyes, Krista simultaneously realizes how silly the holiday rituals are, and how terribly attached she is to them.
Years after their rushed nuptials, the pair hosts a belated, extravagant celebration of their love. It’s a dramatic event, full of grand gestures such as a friend who went to great lengths to play a piano outside. The next day, Ismail and Krista return to the site of the party to clean up. As she wipes a stained table, Krista reflects, “Ours will always be a sticky marriage.”
The brilliance of this book is that the author never lets herself or her husband off the hook. Instead, she presents an honest—and at times painful—portrayal of a beautiful union.