by Kati Heng
We should probably start by pinning down what ‘jihad’ means, because a lot of Americans basically associate that word with “Holy War / Reasons for 9-11 Type Terrorism.” That’s really not the case. In the Islamic definition, jihad simply means “struggle,” or in many cases, “to struggle in the ways of Allah.” It’s an important difference to pick up – please don’t start reading this book thinking you’re getting the story of some white lady accidentally lured into a holy war / anti-American extremist group. That couldn’t be further from what’s going on here.
What is this memoir about? Marriage, and what makes a relationship work more than anything. Plus, it’s about author Krista Bremer’s struggle to understand and fully respect the religion of her husband. But really – if you’re going to pick this book up as a primer on a white lady explaining Islam to another white person, you should probably look somewhere else – it’s better as a woman explaining how to listen, love and learn from each other in marriage.
Also what this book isn’t: the tale of a white woman going full-out Islamic, subscribing to her husband’s rules and cultural regulations, adopting the traditional hijab and conservative clothing you traditionally think of when you call to mind Islamic clothing. Really, Bremer and her relatability to whites (me), non-Muslims (me), feminists (me) and women in general are what make this memoir work so well.
The story starts off with a young, fresh-faced Bremer, just out of college with her Women’s Studies classes and English lessons in hand. She’s working at an abortion clinic, interviewing women before their procedures, informing women whether or not that little pink lines shown up on the test. To state the obvious: she’s not in a job for a weak woman, or one who’s of the assumption enabling abortions is gonna get her in trouble with some higher power. At this point, she’s a part-time Buddhist, although one that ignores the rules she doesn’t like (i.e. no alcohol) with conviction.
Bremer’s still young when she moves away from this job, s to the other side of the country. She’s a strong, independent woman in this new setting, running miles along the trails in her new neighborhoods. It’s here where she meets this strange new man, Ismail, a guy that surprises her with his wisdom, his passions and his dedications to his God. Before long, she finds herself in a situation she never expected: young, pregnant and eloped to an older man with a background vastly different from her own. Of course, it’s a crazy big decision for Bremer to keep this baby and the man who fathered it – you can read for yourself the reasons why she makes this choice.
What’s most important in the story is what follows: Bremer’s education into her husband’s past life growing up in a poor Libyan village, what she learns about her own unconscious prejudices and her own selfishness and failings.
A good portion of the book is dedicated to the story of the couple and their daughter’s first trip home to meet his parents, still living across the world in a Gadhafi-ruled Libya. Of course, there are language barriers and cultural barriers – Bremer can barely communicate with her sisters-in-law or mother-in-law, yet she’s not allowed to sit with Ismail and talk with the men. She’s entering the country with a hatred of Gadhafi and his regime, which is only strengthened by the things she sees during her time there (did you think she’d turn around her opinion, realize she was being racist for judging his way of operating without truly experiencing it? The memoir’s not that stupid). Here, she comes into contact with her shortcomings and prejudices as well as a greater appreciation for her husband’s wisdom and his own strain of feminism.
There’s a significant amount of the story telling about Bremer’s own resistance to Islamic culture, a thing her husband never forced upon her. Their children, it turns out, is the one to most notably reflect the differences between the couple’s lives. Bremer struggles when her beautiful little girl desires to wear hijabs to school and to the mosque and tries to fight her husband’s desire to have their son circumcised in accordance with his religion. It’s fascinating to see this choice of religion through the eyes of a little girl – at this point in my life, I wouldn’t be attracted to wearing a headscarf, but as a child, would it seem glamorous?
What am I doing here? It’s always difficult to describe memoirs to you without ruining the whole book. I guess I’m just trying to prove to you a few basic things: (1) you can read this book and learn no matter what your religion/background (2) you’re gonna learn more about what it takes to make a marriage work than what it takes to be married to a Muslim from this book (3) you shouldn’t be offended (4) you won’t feel preached to and (5) it’ll still probably open your eyes to what it’s like to live in a bi-cultural/religious marriage. So, I’m going to stop trying to summarize Bremer’s story in my own words and just tell you – go read it yourself, please. This is a beautiful story.