A blond, West Coast-raised, college-educated, liberal-minded Gen X-er falls in love with a Libyan man 15 years her senior.
This sounds more like the setup to a story in Joyce Carol Oates’ “Sourland” than the beginning of a memoir about the inner peace offered by Islam.
Writer Krista Bremer meets a strange, dark man during her jog down a narrow dirt path through the woods. In an Oates story, that’s when to brace for the creepiness.
But Bremer’s book, “My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story,” is a beautiful account of her jihad, or struggle, to find peace within herself and within her marriage. At bottom, it’s about a woman who decides to make her marriage work.
At the outset, Bremer describes herself as a feminist. She hates the wordwife
, “its harsh, whining sound, its implied servitude.” But she’s in love, pregnant, and in need of health insurance, so she signs the papers.
When she experiences nuptial frustration, she tells herself “that cultural differences were the source of our misunderstandings.” Ismail’s being a Libyan Muslim is an easy way to explain why they’re not seeing eye to eye in the first years of their marriage.
But when Bremer observes Ismail on his native soil and he looks more American than Libyan, she is “seized with a terrifying thought: what if he was in fact maddening onboth
sides of the world?”
In 2010 her essay “Cover Girl,” about her daughter’s choice to wear a headscarf, was featured in O: The Oprah Magazine. A version of that essay is part of this collection. In 2008, Bremer won a Pushcart Prize for “My Accidental Jihad,” the essay on which this book is based.
So here we have even more turning points, and one of them is when Bremer is forced to face the idea that her marital conflicts might be more generic than she’d thought — not caused by her husband’s foreignness, but just by the fact that they’re different people.
This plunge into a middle-class marriage is where the “accidental” part in her title comes into play. She thought she would never be a wife, “would never be ravaged by another’s demands,” but here she is struggling to make it work. If she hadn’t been able to explain away how hard marriage is with cultural differences, she may not have been willing to engage in a struggle (jihad).
The cultural expectations surrounding motherhood set off another jihad. She reflects that in American culture, pregnancy often seems like “a competitive feat of endurance and style, a proving ground for our womanhood and marriages.” The pregnancy/baby should bend to fit the mother’s existing life, and the woman should not skip a beat.
Another turning point is when she receives the message that the expectations she’s placed on herself concerning motherhood are tyrannical. Ironically, the messenger is Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s now-deceased dictator.
Gaddafi wrote in his political manifesto, “The Green Book”: “To demand equality in carrying heavy weights while the woman is pregnant is unjust and cruel as is demanding equality in hardship while she is breastfeeding.”
At the time, Bremer was juggling “a full-time job, a young daughter, a marriage, a fitness routine, and an active social life.” She was frazzled and falling to pieces. Her American doctor advised that a cup of coffee, good diet, exercise and perhaps a yoga class would help her relax during this trying time.
Of Gaddafi’s words, she writes: “I had not expected to discover plain truth here, in the unhinged proclamations of a mad dictator; I did not expect to find myself in grateful agreement with this tyrant.”
Bremer is in no way suggesting that life in Libya would be better than in North Carolina. Several scenes illustrate her deep horror at a lot of what she sees during her visit to Libya; she meets her sister-in-law, who was denied the marriage she wanted and is, in essence, forced into indentured servitude to her parents until they die.
The things she envies about her Libyan in-laws are: the slow pace of their daily lives, the closeness of their family, no worries about putting a 6-week-old baby in day care.
“They would never know the creeping despair that comes from doggedly chasing the elusive dream that women can be everything at once: sexy and youthful, independent and financially successful, extraordinary wives and mothers.”
But what is an American woman to do? Bremer spent years searching through spiritual texts looking for the key that would unlock her peace. After being married to a Muslim for 12 years, she finally decided to familiarize herself with Islam.
A theme that runs through this book is fear of submission. Bremer states: “In my family we don’t submit.” It’s no wonder that she resisted looking into Islam for over a decade; in a sense, worship requires a loss of self, and she makes it clear that this terrifies her.
She was seeing her life as “a tangle of half-dead relationships and routines, diminishing pleasures, faded habits, and brittle assumptions” and needed peace and fulfillment.
Bremer secretly learns how to pray watching YouTube videos and experiments practicing one of Islam’s five daily prayers.
She finds that the weight of her forehead against the ground “broke apart what I’d spent a lifetime trying to protect: my fragile individualism and brittle self-determination.”
By admitting that she isn’t the master of her life, she relieves a great burden and can breathe.
The message is that the “submission” necessary in prayer is similar to the way in which one must submit to the rhythm and needs of one’s family. She is rightfully careful not to say that she learned to submit to the will of her husband — there’s nothing like that in the book.
What she learns about herself through her prayer routine frees her mind in a way that prevents her from wanting to steer the lives of her husband and children and just let them, and herself, live.