Writer Krista Bremer met Ismail fifteen years ago on a North Carolina running trail. A romantic relationship developed through an unexpected pregnancy, eventual marriage, and subsequent spiritual growth. Krista’s recent memoir, My Accidental Jihad, details her jump into the deep space of marriage and an unexpected faith journey.
Deonna Kelli Sayed speaks with Krista and Ismail — “Ish” for short — about the bicultural nature of all marriages, Krista’s writing process, and her evolving spiritual journey.
We had been married just over 24 hours and had just finished dhuhr prayer when a friend of the family, my mother-in-law’s dearest friend, kneeled in front of us and grasped our hands in hers, with a look of tenderness and concern.
“Now I need to tell y’all something. This right here, right now? You think this is the love but I have to tell you, this isn’t the love.”
We looked at each other, eyebrows raised, knowing smiles on our lips, the wisdom of those in their early twenties (which is to say none), and indulged her speech.
“This isn’t the love,” she said again. “The love comes later.”
That was all she said, but I took it in and stored it away in the back pocket of my mind, something to pull out from time to time and smile about.
Of course I disagreed with her. We were in love. The shy smiles, the touch here, the kiss there; I had found my happily ever after.
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The division of labor in our household is wildly disproportionate whenever we are trying to get out the door. I get everything and everyone ready. If we’re traveling, I pack. Picnics, I pack. Dinner invitations, I pick out everyone’s clothes and prepare a dish to share. Birthday parties, I buy the gift and wrap it. And, maybe I’ll throw in a load of laundry, take out the trash, and clean the kitchen. My husband, Hadi, has his list, too: He gets himself ready and loads up the car if I haven’t gotten to it first.
We’ve been married for seventeen years, but these moments can still fill my mind with the words always and never. Hadi is always late. He never helps us get ready. I always have to do everything all by myself. I never get to take my time getting ready so I always look like a harried mess.
Most of the time, Hadi knows what I am thinking. “I’m in trouble, aren’t I?” he’ll say as we’re getting into the car. Sometimes I say, “Yes,” and spew every frustration that comes with doing too much for too many people. Sometimes, I fume wordlessly, a quiet grump in the front seat. But on better days, I remember this truth: The very thing I hate about my spouse in one context is the same thing I love in another.
Sanem and I took turns crossing the street to each other’s townhomes for afternoon tea, at least once a week, for seven years. In our nearly identical kitchens, we put out similar spreads, a smaller tea pot steamed above a larger tea pot, honey-colored tea served in little glass cups, warm bread, an assortment of cheeses and jams, and cookies for our kids. Sanem was from Turkey, my family was from Iraq, and our tea rituals mirrored one another. While our children played in the upstairs bedrooms, Sanem and I talked about our faith, our families and their impending visits. We discussed decisions we were trying to make, from furniture pieces and home improvements to clothing purchases and afterschool activities for our kids. We got through illnesses, births, and deaths in both our families. Some evenings we simply helped each other cook dinner, but our visits together always left us feel better about our days. On those afternoons, when our husbands came home from work, we weren’t bottles of pent-up emotion, ready to pop. We’d already poured some of our thoughts and frustrations onto each other.
Last year my family and I moved out of state for my husband’s work. Sanem helped me decide what furniture, clothes, and kitchenware to give away, what to bring. She brought us dinner after a long day of packing and breakfast the following morning. She was there when our moving van left, but she couldn’t bear to watch my minivan pull away.
In our new life in a new place, the afternoons stretched in front of me, a wasteland of lonely. I’d pick up my children from school, make them a snack, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was waiting someone to arrive, waiting for the company of a friend. The waiting made me itchy with restlessness, but there was no time to share these feelings with my husband when he came home from work. These were our family’s busiest hours, dinner, homework help, and bedtime. At the end of the night, my husband did his best to sympathize, but he could not offer me the same comforts, time spent over a warm cup of tea, the validation that comes with hearing another person say, ‘It’s the same for me, too.’
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At the age of 24, I have yet to hear my parents utter the words, “I love you” to me, or to each other despite 34 years of marriage.
Growing up, I always felt like I did not know what love was because, unlike my American friends, I did not grow up hearing those three words. During my teens, I subconsciously battled with the concept of love. When my friends dropped the “I love you” line at the end of every encounter or long telephone conversation, I didn’t know how to reply. To make things more complicated, the media used the words “I love you” very loosely: songs, TV shows, and books all sold a story of love.
I convinced myself that “American” love and “Muslim” love were distinctly different. However, this idea vanished after I began college and met friends from different backgrounds. I was shocked to find that some of my non-Muslim friends related to my upbringing.
On my wedding day, my father won’t walk me down the steps to my husband. He won’t lift my blusher and give me a kiss on the forehead. He won’t have a twinkle of tears in his eyes. He won’t take my hand and place it in my fiancé’s, and then take a step back as I begin a new journey with another man by my side.
He won’t do any of this, because he won’t be there.
It’s not because my father has a terminal illness, or because he passed away. It’s more painful than that. My father has chosen to leave during one of the most pivotal times of my life. As my wedding day draws near, his selfishness weighs down on me more and more.
When a daughter is born into a loving family, she is cherished and treated like a princess and dressed up like pretty little doll with colorful plastic bangles and trinkets.
The beautiful princess is told fairy tales before being tucked into bed. Her mother speaks about the knights that saved Cinderella, Rapunzel and Snow White. Then, this little girl begins to dream of her very own Prince Charming and she starts looking for him as soon as she turns sixteen years old. Some girls get lucky and bump into him without trying. Others have to face mothers, grandmothers, sisters, aunts and cousins who love them as single women — until they hit a certain age. Then, some princesses find themselves unmarried or maybe divorced and still without children.
At that point, the fairy tales are over — unless you consider the types of mothers/aunties/cousins who are metaphors for trickster witches; it is often women who make girls feel miserable about the state of their lives. No matter how educated, talented and beautiful a single woman may be, she is always sidelined and frequently humiliated because she is unmarried. It seems that some women can’t imagine alternative realities for themselves or for their daughters.
I’m tired of fairy tales. We need new stories about our future that go beyond marriage saving us from a life of ruin and despair.