May 23, 2014

There’s a scene in “My Accidental Jihad” in which Krista Bremer visits her husband’s relatives in Libya and sees a wheezing, skeletal old woman lying on a hospital bed in their living room.

In America, someone so fragile would be in intensive care. Here, relatives greet the woman warmly and lean against her bed as they eat dinner. “Dying was apparently as much a part of a busy Libyan household as all the other chaos of family,” Bremer writes.

“My Accidental Jihad: A Love Story” tells how Bremer — an exercise-obsessed, well-off Californian — adapts to being the wife of a Libyan émigré, and flirts with Islam. The memoir, Bremer’s first book, grew out of a prizewinning essay she wrote for The Sun, a North Carolina-based magazine where she is associate publisher.

Bremer herself eventually experiments with Islam and grapples with her daughter’s decision to wear a head scarf. She’s eager to dispel the stereotype of Islam as intrinsically violent. But in backing away from that caricature, she falls into another: that of the noble savage. Ismail, in her telling, is the exasperating but enlightened foreigner with the power to see luxury cars as mere “metal boxes on wheels.”

The book also suffers from an unusual problem for a contemporary memoir: not enough personal information. How did Ismail get from his village to an American doctoral program? (There’s a passing reference to a scholarship late in the book.) What’s this middle-aged man’s job and romantic history? How does Bremer’s nominally Christian family react to her marriage? The book lacks crucial connective tissue, and makes confusing chronological jumps.

Its highlight is Bremer’s trip to Libya, where there’s no need to overstate the contrasts. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s policy on breast-feeding looks surprisingly appealing next to Bremer’s experience pumping breast milk in the toilet stall of an American office. Among Ismail’s fleshy female relatives, she finally understands why he keeps pressing her to gain weight. And it’s in Libya that Bremer has a key insight about bicultural marriages: Not all differences are cultural; Ismail may be “maddening on both sides of the world.”

“My Accidental Jihad” is maddening at times too, though it’s punctuated with moving moments. Krista Bremer has a very good story, but she doesn’t always tell it.

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