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My Accidental Jihad
by Krista Bremer

Published: 2014-04-22
Hardcover : 304 pages
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Fifteen years ago, Krista Bremer would not have been able to imagine her life today: married to a Libyan-born Muslim, raising two children with Arabic names in the American South. Nor could she have imagined the prejudice she would encounter or the profound ways her marriage would change ...

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Fifteen years ago, Krista Bremer would not have been able to imagine her life today: married to a Libyan-born Muslim, raising two children with Arabic names in the American South. Nor could she have imagined the prejudice she would encounter or the profound ways her marriage would change her perception of the world.

But on a running trail in North Carolina, she met Ismail. He was passionate and sincere—and he loved adventure as much as she did. From acquaintances to lovers to a couple facing an unexpected pregnancy, this is the story of two people—a middle-class American raised in California and a Muslim raised by illiterate parents in an impoverished Libyan fishing village—who made a commitment to each other without forsaking their own identities.

It is the story of a bicultural marriage—and aren’t all marriages bicultural? In any marriage, we might discover that our mate is foreign to us, with very different language, memories, and assumptions about home and family. How we respond to difference shapes our world.

Profoundly moving and often funny, this meditation on tolerance explores what it means to open our hearts to another culture and to embrace our own. It is Krista Bremer’s unexpected struggle to reach beyond herself, her accidental Jihad.

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IN NORTH CAROLINA I missed the ocean, but less than a mile from my new house I discovered a network of running trails that snaked through the woods alongside a creek. I ran for miles beneath a dense canopy of leaves, losing myself in the rhythm of my breath the same way I’d lost myself in the motion of the waves. I ran in the early morning, when the woods were nearly deserted except for a tall, dark man, his graying hair cut close to his head, who leapt down the trail like a jackrabbit on long, toned legs. When our paths crossed, he swerved off the trail to let me pass and flashed a broad smile. I began to look for him, to listen for the distinct sound of his gait on the path. We became friendly, and sometimes I wished he would switch directions and run with me for a few miles.

One Saturday morning, just as I reached for a tomato, he appeared by my side at our local farmers’ market. A disarming smile played across his face as he lifted the vegetable out of my palm and replaced it with another: plumper, deeper red, its taut skin yielding to my thumb. In California I had only known one kind of tomato: waxy and faded, shaped like a kiwi, stacked into tall pyramids in the grocery store every season of the year. I was used to grabbing a couple from the top of the pile and adding them to my cart without even stopping to examine them. They were all the same anyway: flavorless and mealy. I had not yet learned that a tomato could be read like a book, that if I lifted it to my nose and smelled it like a flower, or pressed my thumb into its flesh, it would tell me a story.

“My name is Ismail,” he said, his vowels bent and stretched by an accent the likes of which I had never heard. Was it Irish? Moroccan? I had no idea.

I nodded and smiled. “I know you from the woods.”

“Next time we should run a few miles together.”

Caught off guard, I agreed to meet him at the trailhead the following day, though I regretted my choice as soon as I turned my back to him. His obvious interest in me was a weight I didn’t want to carry with me down narrow dirt trails. My body knew the work of tending to men like a mother’s breasts knew to leak in response to a baby’s hunger. Before I even realized what was happening, their need became mine; I smiled more brightly, nodded more enthusiastically, drew out even the most reticent man with probing questions. But that was the last thing I wanted to do during my precious time alone on the trail. I ran to feel free, to become like the deer I often glimpsed through the trees. If he was by my side, I feared I would not be able to outrun the good girl, the polite girl, the bright smiling one who tap-danced across the silence.

The following morning when I arrived at the park that backed up to the woods, he was leaning against his car in the parking lot, smiling. I knelt on the asphalt to lace up my running shoes and we started slow down the trail, making polite conversation. As we jogged past a playground, I commented that I had always feared swing sets as a child: those rickety frames groaning and rocking as children frantically pumped their legs higher and higher into the air. Once, while swinging on her belly, my sister had caught her leg on the ground: her knee had buckled backward. I still remembered how she had howled with pain. He probably thought my fear was silly, I added; all children loved swing sets.

He shrugged his shoulders. “I never played on one,” he replied in such a deadpan way that I thought he must be joking. “On the Libyan coast, where I grew up, we made our own swings?—?from ropes hung between palm, olive, or apricot trees.” I fell silent, trying for a moment to imagine a childhood without playgrounds. “Do you have any siblings?” I asked.

He nodded. “My mother gave birth to thirteen kids. Eight survived.” He went on to tell me about his younger brother whose nose had poured blood for days?—?and about the local healer who burned rubber on the fire and forced the child to inhale its toxic black smoke. He told me about the slippery, long leech that emerged from his brother’s nose days before he died?—?and about the daylong pilgrimage his parents made to the shrine of a Muslim saint in a remote village to pray and make an offering so that Ismail would be cured from his own chronic nosebleeds and survive childhood. Swept away by his stories, I lost track of time and distance as we wove through the trees.

As our breath quickened we fell silent, focusing on the ground before us, the pounding in our chests, the burn in our upper thighs. I was surprised by the easy silence between us. We fell into a steady rhythm, running side by side on a path padded with fallen pine needles, sidestepping stones and coiled roots that looked, at first glance, like undulating brown snakes. When the trail narrowed he took the lead, sweeping aside thorny vines before they could scrape my bare legs, warning me about sharp stones underfoot. I stole glances at his long, muscular legs, his nylon shorts clinging to the half--moon of his bottom. After he ran through the gossamer threads of a spiderweb, he frantically swiped at his face, over and over, like a squirrel grooming itself, for the next mile. I smiled to myself, realizing he was afraid

of spiders.

When the trail widened we ran side by side once more, and he challenged me by lengthening his stride. We panted and gulped at the thick, moist air, our breath falling into a fast rhythm. He stole glances at my face and backed off when my flushed cheeks and jagged breaths told him it was too much. We sweated and strained, picking up our pace and then falling back, like a dance: I followed as he ran faster, and when I began to slow down he did, too, matching my pace so closely that it would have been impossible to tell who was leading and who was following. The deeper we went into the woods, the longer and harder we ran, the lighter and more fluid I became. The self-consciousness cleared from my head, and all that was left was our breath, the heat of our straining bodies, the pine branches above us gently sweeping the sky clean. At the end of the trail, when we approached our cars and slowed to a walk, a shyness asserted itself once again between us. We were flushed and awkward with a startling new intimacy, achieved without skin ever touching skin.

A few weeks later, a purple bruise spread across the horizon and gusts of wind blew the leaves skyward, revealing their green undersides like flashes of a pale thigh when a skirt catches the wind. There was a hurricane warning. Long lines of nervous shoppers snaked through the aisles of the grocery store: people stockpiled water and batteries or shuttered their homes and made arrangements to stay with friends. I was at home, packing an overnight bag so I could stay at a friend’s house outside of town, when the phone rang. It was Ismail.

“Let’s go for a run,” he suggested in a daring tone of voice. For weeks we had been meeting at the trailhead in the evenings; running with him had become a comforting and predictable part of my routine. I glanced out my window at the street: glistening wet asphalt, swaying trees, a warm wind pressing against the windows. I loved nothing more than to run in a downpour: to explore deserted streets, drenched with rain and sweat; to stomp through puddles in muddy socks and waterlogged shoes. I left my bag yawning open on the bed, slipped off my pants like shedding skin, changed into shorts and a T--shirt, and jogged down the block. We met on a street between our houses, a gust whipping at our faces, and began to run down the middle of the empty street just as the warm rain began to fall. He matched my pace for a while, then darted ahead like a dog let off the leash, tucking his legs beneath him and sprinting for the pure joy of being alive. He doubled back to check on me, then darted out ahead once more. Drenched by the rain, I followed him through town and back to his house, where he promised me a towel and a glass of juice.

We made our way along the narrow shoulder of a busy street. Only a few feet away cars sped through puddles, spraying our shins with mud. Turning down a steep driveway, we crossed the front lawn of a white clapboard house. I followed him up sagging stairs, into a sparse attic apartment whose slanted ceiling forced me to duck unless I was in the center of the room. The tiny living room was decorated with garage--sale furniture and the dark, narrow kitchen could only contain one of us at a time. A faded square rug the size of a bath mat was laid out in one corner. A small bookshelf contained a few books, and along one windowsill, fossils were lined up neatly like a little boy’s rock collection. But the room was mostly empty. If the contents of his entire apartment had been hauled out to the curb, the whole pile would have looked ready for the dump.

Poor ?was the word that came to mind when I looked around at the shabby space?—?but when he handed me a glass of cold fresh--squeezed juice, and we went outside and sat on the landing to drink it while listening to the patter of the rain on the roof, I realized this was not an accurate assessment. The apartment looked out on a lush green tangle of woods. Quiet and spare, it lacked none of the essentials: fresh food, comfortable furniture, good books, privacy and natural light. It was just that it contained so little else. Humble and clean, it felt more welcoming than my own rental, where the bed was unmade and the sink was piled high with dirty dishes. Each item in his apartment?—?the shiny rocks on the windowsill, the clean--swept linoleum floor, the worn bedspread smoothed tight?—?seemed to glow from his loving touch. Images of my previous boyfriend’s spacious home flashed through my mind: brand--name clothing strewn across the floor, CDs precariously stacked on a pricey music system, liquor bottles spread across the kitchen counter. The absence of clutter or excess in Ismail’s small apartment made it feel far more spacious to me than much bigger homes.

Seated shoulder to shoulder on the top stair of his apartment, holding our juice glasses, we stared out at the woods. The wet hurricane wind reminded me of ocean spray.

“I miss the ocean,” I murmured.

“Me too,” Ismail said. I told him about wading into the steely gray Pacific Ocean on misty overcast mornings, paddling out to contemplate the endless horizon while the swell of gathering waves rolled gently beneath me. He described the azure water of the Mediterranean that lapped at Libya’s barren, rocky coast. He told me about spearfishing along a reef for hours at a time on blistering summer days, returning home only when he had caught enough fish to feed his entire family. He described the dusty road he walked each day to the one--room madrassah where he went to school, and his village’s closetlike library where four boys crowded around the same book, waiting patiently to turn the page until each had read the previous one. He told me about the packs of wild dogs that roamed the desert perimeter of his village?—?how one night they had surrounded his father as he walked home alone in the dark, snarling and baring their teeth. The biggest one had lunged, and Ismail’s father had grabbed for the animal’s throat, howling and slobbering like a madman and clutching at that matted fur, and when he finally released his grip the animal dropped lifeless to the ground and the rest of the dogs scattered. The world he described was to me as fantastic and remote as a fairy tale. I was riveted.

As he spoke I studied his face close up for the first time, taking in unsettling details I had not noticed when we ran side by side: Fine wrinkles spreading from the edge of his eyes. A receding hairline. Yellow stains on his teeth. I glanced down at his threadbare T--shirt with faded lettering advertising a race from a decade ago. No, I said to myself. No way. None of the details I took in matched up with the mate I had imagined for myself.

For as long as I could remember, I had understood life to be a game of acquisition, much like the board game I had loved to play as a child. The key to winning the game of Life was to start with a college education, because it meant receiving a bigger fistful of colorful bills each payday I passed on my way to the finish line. The next step, after a short bend in the road, was to get married: to add a little blue peg beside my pink one in the front seat of a car whose backseat allowed up to four children. Each passing year would bring more: a starter home, twins, a pay raise, a foreign sports car. I would spin the wheel of chance and count my steps forward, and my life would progress as an unbroken series of expanding opportunities. At the end of the game, when I reached retirement, I would reside at Millionaire Estates or Countryside Acres?—?each of which had its own distinct appeal. Then it was time to count the money. The one with the most cash always wins.

An older, darker, poorer man was not part of this game?— especially not this middle-aged man with his thick accent and tiny apartment he rented for four hundred dollars a month, to which he invited me without a trace of shame or self-consciousness, as if his possessions had nothing to do with who he was. Perhaps this aspect of him felt more foreign than anything else.

The only piece missing from the board game, its past and future laid out in tidy squares, its neat calculation of the dollar value of major life events, was unbidden emotion. When Ismail laid his hand over mine at his kitchen counter, my heart was not troubled by the cheap wood paneling on the walls behind him or the chips in the mismatched cups on the linoleum counter. The heat from his palm passed through my skin and into my bloodstream, then flowed straight to my grateful heart, which received it without criticism or judgment. Ismail lived alone, but like the boy who made the velveteen rabbit real by loving it until it was threadbare, he brought his shabby belongings to life through loving attention. He slept beneath a worn cotton blanket as soft and familiar as an old T-shirt. He wore a twenty-year-old down jacket covered with carefully sewn patches. He brewed his coffee in a ten-year-old machine, its white plastic streaked brown where steam had scalded it for the past decade. The machine no longer allowed us to pour a cup until the entire pot had brewed, at which point it emitted a phlegmy cough and a long sigh, like an old man clearing his throat in the morning. That sound was our cue to wait a few more minutes while the last of the coffee dribbled into the carafe. Ismail stood in his small kitchen waiting?—?not while eating or surfing the Internet or occupying himself in other ways. He just stood before the machine as if politely waiting for it to be done speaking. Once he had poured and drunk a cup, he returned to his machine and began to carefully dissemble it piece by piece, like a boy with a model airplane, lovingly wiping its stained surface with a cloth and digging into each crevice to draw out grounds which would otherwise clog its old arteries.

His bedroom window looked out onto his vegetable garden, which was overgrown with pungent basil, crisp skinny cucumbers and fat red tomatoes. Fragrant pink peonies exploded like popcorn along the walkway to his door. He waded knee-deep into the flowers with a pair of scissors, bent slender stalks gently toward him, and selected three blooms, which he arranged on his kitchen counter in an old glass bottle he had found in the ravine. He had a passion for music and a vast record and CD collection?—?blues, country, rock, the traditional music of his homeland?—?but he loved silence just as much.

I spent the night with him. In the morning we watched the sunlight dance over his oak floor. The only art adorning the blank white walls of his bedroom was the window itself: a walnut tree drawn sharply against the blue palette of the sky. When I got out of the shower, a cup of steaming coffee waited for me on the bathroom counter. Chipped paint tickled the bottoms of my feet as I sat out on his porch steps in the morning, letting the sun warm my face. A stillness settled over me. He was like a deep pool into which I dove without a second thought, not realizing how thirsty I had been. view abbreviated excerpt only...

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  "My Accidental Jihad"by kipling7161 (see profile) 08/18/14

In a world that has no racial or religious boundaries, this book has a courageous voice that is wise, insightful and committed to a relationship met with challenges and a road not so easily traveled. ... (read more)

  "The author does a good job of providing the reader with a better understanding of Islam."by thewanderingjew (see profile) 05/24/14

To better understand the message of the book, I looked up the definition of jihad and found several; they all had one term in common, struggle. Jihad is a striving toward belief and a strivi... (read more)

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