The following is an excerpt from a new memoir called My Accidental Jihad by Krista Bremer. Fifteen years ago, Krista was a California surfer who dreamed of a comfortable American life. On a running trail in North Carolina, she met Ismail. Kind and sincere, Ismail came from another world: he’d been raised in an impoverished village in Libya. When Krista and Ismail made the decision to become a family, Krista embarked on a journey she never could have imagined, her own accidental jihad.
In North Carolina I missed the ocean, but less than a mile from my new house I discovered a network of running trails that snaked through the woods alongside a creek. I ran for miles beneath a dense canopy of leaves, losing myself in the rhythm of my breath the same way I’d lost myself in the motion of the waves. I ran in the early morning, when the woods were nearly deserted except for a tall, dark man, his graying hair cut close to his head, who leapt down the trail like a jackrabbit on long, toned legs. When our paths crossed, he swerved off the trail to let me pass and flashed a broad smile. I began to look for him, to listen for the distinct sound of his gait on the path. We became friendly, and sometimes I wished he would switch directions and run with me for a few miles.
One Saturday morning, just as I reached for a tomato, he appeared by my side at our local farmers’ market. A disarming smile played across his face as he lifted the vegetable out of my palm and replaced it with another: plumper, deeper red, its taut skin yielding to my thumb. In California I had only known one kind of tomato: waxy and faded, shaped like a kiwi, stacked into tall pyramids in the grocery store every season of the year. I was used to grabbing a couple from the top of the pile and adding them to my cart without even stopping to examine them. They were all the same anyway: flavorless and mealy. I had not yet learned that a tomato could be read like a book, that if I lifted it to my nose and smelled it like a flower, or pressed my thumb into its flesh, it would tell me a story.
“My name is Ismail,” he said, his vowels bent and stretched by an accent the likes of which I had never heard. Was it Irish? Moroccan? I had no idea.
I nodded and smiled. “I know you from the woods.”
“Next time we should run a few miles together.”
Caught off guard, I agreed to meet him at the trailhead the following day, though I regretted my choice as soon as I turned my back to him. His obvious interest in me was a weight I didn’t want to carry with me down narrow dirt trails. My body knew the work of tending to men like a mother’s breasts knew to leak in response to a baby’s hunger. Before I even realized what was happening, their need became mine; I smiled more brightly, nodded more enthusiastically, drew out even the most reticent man with probing questions. But that was the last thing I wanted to do during my precious time alone on the trail. I ran to feel free, to become like the deer I often glimpsed through the trees. If he was by my side, I feared I would not be able to outrun the good girl, the polite girl, the bright smiling one who tap-danced across the silence.
The following morning when I arrived at the park that backed up to the woods, he was leaning against his car in the parking lot, smiling. I knelt on the asphalt to lace up my running shoes and we started slow down the trail, making polite conversation. As we jogged past a playground, I commented that I had always feared swing sets as a child: those rickety frames groaning and rocking as children frantically pumped their legs higher and higher into the air. Once, while swinging on her belly, my sister had caught her leg on the ground: her knee had buckled backward. I still remembered how she had howled with pain. He probably thought my fear was silly, I added; all children loved swing sets.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I never played on one,” he replied in such a deadpan way that I thought he must be joking. “On the Libyan coast, where I grew up, we made our own swings—from ropes hung between palm, olive, or apricot trees.” I fell silent, trying for a moment to imagine a childhood without playgrounds. “Do you have any siblings?” I asked.
He nodded. “My mother gave birth to thirteen kids. Eight survived.” He went on to tell me about his younger brother whose nose had poured blood for days—and about the local healer who burned rubber on the fire and forced the child to inhale its toxic black smoke. He told me about the slippery, long leech that emerged from his brother’s nose days before he died—and about the daylong pilgrimage his parents made to the shrine of a Muslim saint in a remote village to pray and make an offering so that Ismail would be cured from his own chronic nosebleeds and survive childhood. Swept away by his stories, I lost track of time and distance as we wove through the trees.
As our breath quickened we fell silent, focusing on the ground before us, the pounding in our chests, the burn in our upper thighs. I was surprised by the easy silence between us. We fell into a steady rhythm, running side by side on a path padded with fallen pine needles, sidestepping stones and coiled roots that looked, at first glance, like undulating brown snakes. When the trail narrowed he took the lead, sweeping aside thorny vines before they could scrape my bare legs, warning me about sharp stones underfoot. I stole glances at his long, muscular legs, his nylon shorts clinging to the half-moon of his bottom. After
he ran through the gossamer threads of a spiderweb, he frantically swiped at his face, over and over, like a squirrel grooming itself, for the next mile. I smiled to myself, realizing he was afraid of spiders.
When the trail widened we ran side by side once more, and he challenged me by lengthening his stride. We panted and gulped at the thick, moist air, our breath falling into a fast rhythm. He stole glances at my face and backed off when my flushed cheeks and jagged breaths told him it was too much. We sweated and strained, picking up our pace and then falling back, like a dance: I followed as he ran faster, and when I began to slow down he did, too, matching my pace so closely that it would have been impossible to tell who was leading and who was following. The deeper we went into the woods, the longer and harder we ran, the lighter and more fluid I became. The self-consciousness cleared from my head, and all that was left was our breath, the heat of our straining bodies, the pine branches above us gently sweeping the sky clean. At the end of the trail, when we approached our cars and slowed to a walk, a shyness asserted itself once again between us. We were flushed and awkward with a startling new intimacy, achieved without skin ever touching skin.
Available wherever fine books are sold.