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The struggles of a bicultural marriage

Thursday - 7/10/2014, 6:39am  ET

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Krista Bremer is the author of 'My Accidental Jihad,' a book that details the joys and struggles of a bicultrual marriage. (AP Photo)

WASHINGTON -- Fifteen years ago, Krista Bremer was a Southern California surfer girl, raised in a secular middle class family. When she became running partners with Ismail, a Muslim man from a small fishing village in Libya, her life turned upside down. Shortly after, the two got married.

Plenty of couples merge their lives and cultures when they marry, but few are as extreme as Bremer's union.

"Whether we marry someone from the other side of the world … or we marry someone from right down the street, we still arrive in marriage with very different notions about home and family and love and what those should look like," says Bremer, who wrote the book "My Accidental Jihad" to share her experiences with raising children, understanding religion and embracing another culture.

"And we have to negotiate these differences. And we also arrive at a place where the mate we've chosen seems impossibly foreign."

When Bremer met Ismail, she had some hesitations about entering into a partnership with him; so did others. At the time, she thought Muslim men were controlling. Now, she says, that was her biggest misconception.

"It wasn't just me, but I think even people who cared about me warned me about this possibility that he might try to control me or pressure me to convert to his faith. And that has absolutely has not been the case at all."

Bremer says her husband's approach to religion has made her marriage easier. He has never asked her to convert to Islam, and doesn't expect her to in the future.

"His understanding of his faith is that it teaches that many paths lead to God. And also that there can be no coercion in matters related to faith," she says. "We have an approach with one another where we have been committed to allowing one another to be who we are and not try to change the other person fundamentally."

However, getting used to another religion and its practices wasn't easy for Bremer in the beginning.

"The first time I saw my husband pray, when I saw him put his forehead to the ground, I was so disturbed by that image. I was so uncomfortable with it. And I think that's partly because I associated ‘surrender,' which is what Islam means, with defeat," she says.

Now, "surrender" has become somewhat of a theme in Krista and Ismail's marriage. She says it has become clear to her that "one can't get through marriage or through life in general without being able to gracefully surrender to the things that happen that we cannot control."

Krista and Ismail are raising their two children to be open to all religions and cultures -- a decision that has left them both less than happy at times.

When her daughter, Aliya, was 8 years old, she decided she wanted to wear a headscarf.

"I had always encouraged my daughter to be an individual and to resist peer pressure, and in that brilliant way that our kids do, she found the particular form of expression that really sent me over the edge. And that was to put on a headscarf," says Bremer, who says her daughter's decision was extremely difficult for her to accept.

She thought back to her childhood in Southern California and all of the physical exposure she experienced throughout her life.

"Ultimately, I concluded if some women find freedom in exposing their bodies, then it must also be valid for other women who find freedom in covering their bodies," Bremer says.

The headscarf did not last forever. Her daughter, now 13, is still exploring her identity.

"She has been on a pendulum swing from pious to punk rock," Bremer says. Recently, she dyed her bangs pink and "nearly gave her dad a heart attack."

"Right now, we're trying to focus on the core values of faith, and these are core values that are shared by all faiths. I'm more concerned with how she carries herself and how she treats other people, regardless of the color of her bangs or the outfit she has on."

Meeting the in-laws for the first time is an intimidating experience for nearly everyone, but flying to an impoverished village in Gaddafi's Libya to meet your husband's Muslim family is a whole different undertaking.

Bremer didn't know what to expect when she met Ismail's family, and was worried they wouldn't accept her, given the pretty significant differences between them. But that was not the case.

"I really felt this open-hearted acceptance from the very beginning. My mother-in-law and my sisters-in-law literally embraced me when I arrived and then for the whole month I was there, I was rarely out of physical contact with them," she says.

The balance in her bicultural marriage, she says, involves compromising and accepting one another without forsaking their own identities. She uses the word "jihad," which means "struggle," to describe her marriage and her bicultural family.

"It's the struggle to overcome our selfishness and our intolerance and our judgment … that, to me, captures the work of marriage and family, and that struggle is also the struggle to negotiate these differences in our bicultural marriage."

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