Wednesday, October 8, 2014

"My Accidental Jihad": The Complex Journey of the Marriage of Two Cultures

“According to Ismail, the prophet Muhammad taught that the greatest jihad, or struggle, of our lives is not the one that takes place on the battlefield but the one that takes place within our hearts - the struggle, as I understood it, to manifest humility, wisdom, and compassion. Ramadan threw me into my own accidental jihad, forcing me to wrestle with my intolerance and self-absorption. And I had been losing ground in this battle, forgetting my husband’s intentions and focusing instead on the petty ways I was inconvenienced by his practice.”

When aspiring journalist, Krista Bremer, turned in her California surfing lifestyle where the next wave took precedence over material wealth or job security, for an educational opportunity in North Carolina, she had no idea that she'd meet her future husband while doing her daily run.  She had no idea that her future husband would be way older than her, have yellowing teeth, nor that he would be a Libyan.

In Bremer's memoir, "My Accidental Jihad", she uncovers what those of us who are married already understand - marriage is hard work.  But, the work that Bremer and her husband, Ismail, encounter possesses it's own complications based on faith (he's Islamic, she's a non practicing Christian) and culture (he haggles over the price of a wedding ring, she just wants to pay what the salesperson asks and is mortified that her husband would even consider arguing the price).

The power in the book stemmed from Bremer's internal grappling with what she loved about Ismail (he is a warm place for her that she didn't know she needed), and what she can't understand or tolerate about him (his need to strictly follow Ramadan restrictive practices which she calls "Ramathon" or his insistence on living on what we need rather than living in excess).

Their accidental love story begins with a love of running on the trails around Chapel Hill, North Carolina and a coincidental meeting at a market where he shows her how amazing fresh tomatoes can be.  They hook up even though he is everything that she never wanted.  He lives in a sparsely furnished attic apartment with meager possessions.  He seems to love cleaning the counters.  He's much older than she is (and he even has, gasp, wrinkles which are taboo in the California landscape she's used to which worships at the alter of youth and false appearances).  After Bremer accidentally gets pregnant, they decide to get married on purpose and begin the precarious balancing act of starting a life together as two relative strangers who know little about each other's histories, dreams and desires.

She traverses the marriage missteps, but is always able to eventually see things from Ismail's perspective like when they are on a used car lot because she no longer wants to be embarrassed by his 1987 Toyota.  Giving into Krista's demands to get a new car, he tells her that all the cars are the same to him.  To her, there was a difference between a shiny new car and a 1987 Toyota.  She reasons, “In that instant, I glimpsed the lifelong challenge of our marriage: I assumed we saw the same thing when we observed the world, but our interpretations of what we were looking at would never be the same.”

At times Bremer's overflowing, flowery language was a bit much. Like when she described her pregnancy nightmares: "At night I dreamed of the taut skin of my belly tearing like tissue paper against the weight of this somersaulting body, of frantically tucking tiny limbs back inside as hot blood spilled through slippery fingers." At other times, she doesn't give enough information about Ismail's history (maybe she doesn't know it?) or about his present situation. He comes off sounding more like an Americanize peasant rather than an older, sophisticated, PhD student who lives simply. She sometimes goes for an easy victory of how Ismail's view of the world and his culture with it's emphasis on family raising, spiritual fulfillment, and an aversion to material possessions are infinitely better than the "thing crazed," lack of faith, selfish, workaholic Americans.

Even with the chronological leaps, the story of Ismail and Krista sustained my interest and even invoked a few tears. Who hasn't had marital strife or communication problems with their spouse who at times feels like a foreigner? Who hasn't questioned the in-law's practices or cringed at the thought of being left alone at a dinner table while the in-law relatives spoke in what seemed like a foreign language? The only difference here is that Krista really did marry a man from a different culture which becomes painfully clear when they travel to Libya to meet Ismail's family. They bring their 5 year old daughter, Aliya, along on the trip, and Krista deals with the language barrier, culture barrier and with her early pregnancy pains as well.

Marriage can often be a wrestling match of intolerance of the other's point of view or self-absorption. It's a precarious balancing act to love the differences between us and our partners and not let them tear us apart. Bremer's book "My Accidental Jihad" shows that marriages between even the most dissimilar people can work when they treat each other with respect, and celebrate rather than vilify the differences between them with humility, wisdom and compassion. That's the real magic behind marriages and love stories that last.

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