Marriage to a Muslim sets Chapel Hill woman off on her own journey

tgrubb@newsobserver.comApril 20, 2014 

  • If you go

    There will be three opportunities in April and May to meet Chapel Hill author Krista Bremer and hear her talk about, “My Accidental Jihad.”

    • The events kick off at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. in Chapel Hill.

    • May 6: Chatham County Literary Council Spring for Literacy Luncheon, 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. at Galloway Ridge in Fearrington Village. Bremer will be the keynote speaker. Tickets are $50 and available online at, or call 919-542-6424. Proceeds will help Chatham County adults learn to read and write English.

    • May 31: Bremer will speak at 11 a.m. at McIntyre’s Books, 220 Market St., Fearrington Village

  • An excerpt

    It made no sense for me to fall in love with this older, foreign man who rented a tiny, sparse apartment in which he collected nothing but old things. He didn’t not have a perfect, muscled body. He did not buy me expensive jewelry or silky lingerie or whisk me away to a hotel to drift through long weekends on bedding as white and pillowy as clouds. But there was something about him that made me feel like I could finally exhale and embrace silence; opening up to him, I was also opening up to myself.

— Krista Bremer found a new understanding of intimacy, culture and herself when she moved to Chapel Hill and fell in love with Ismail Suayah.

Her hope is that the story of their unexpected journey – “My Accidental Jihad” – will generate important conversations about love, family and intimacy, Bremer said.

The Chapel Hill resident and associate publisher of The Sun magazine will talk about the book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Flyleaf Books, 752 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.

The story is about a secular woman who grows up in California, moves East and marries a Muslim man, Bremer said, but it’s also a tale of how marriage creates bicultural families by melding people with different experiences.

“It seems to me that even if you marry someone from your hometown, you eventually arrive at a place where your mate seems impossibly foreign, and you have to navigate that,” she said.

Bremer appears to first grasp the depth of their differences while watching Suayah haggle over her wedding ring before taking her to the hospital for the birth of their first child.

The differences became more acute and sometimes volatile during Ramadan, she said, when he and other Muslims fast to manifest humility, wisdom and compassion.

Ramadan also spawned Bremer’s own “jihad,” or struggle, with her intolerance and self-absorption, she writes.

“The prophet Muhammad taught that the greatest struggle of our lives is the one that takes place in our own heart,” she said. “To overcome our egos and become more patient and humble and generous for the sake of our families and our communities.”

But nothing prepared her for the shock of visiting the impoverished Libyan village where Suayah grew up. Bremer stumbles through the culture, at times anxious or angry at the seemingly incomprehensible differences she encounters. She sadly marvels how Libyans had adapted to the Gaddafi regime’s “heavy weight of oppression,” and she chafes at the limits on her own solitude and freedom.

She only later realizes how Suayah struggles with his own guilt at abandoning his family and cultural expectations to live America.

Libya was like a “relentless intimacy,” Bremer said.

“I was almost never by myself. Just being in such a closed family situation, I found it both maddening and transformative,” she said. “It had quite an impact on me. It made me rethink how I am with my need for privacy and my individualism, my ability to be with other people.”

Years later, she is forced to confront her intolerance and anxiety again when her daughter Aliya chooses to explore her father’s Muslim heritage.

The shock at realizing her family was the diversity in their Chapel Hill neighborhood had subsided by then, she said.

“At the end, I say that my husband is not the only immigrant in this relationship, because in order to be married to him, I’ve had to leave behind this real comfortable place where I once lived, where I used to imagine all Muslims were one way or I used to have my own preconceptions,” she said. “Not only that, but it has become clear to me how prejudiced people sometimes are against my husband and other Muslims.”

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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