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.
I became Muslim in my early 20s. During those early years, I would entertain myself on nights when I couldn’t fall asleep by conjuring a story where a mythical creature occupied the rural family cemetery beside my childhood home. This idea actually started with something I dreamt involving an early explorer to America who had lost his way. Somehow, in his travels through out the New World, he slipped through a portal that would later become a traditional grave house over the oldest marked plot.
This creature was a Muslim from some undisclosed foreign land, and he’d fallen through the cracks of time and space while exploring the uncharted territory of early America (where all things were possible, including bending the nature of reality). Occasionally, he would pop into my contemporary world from another dimension.
I’d often find him perched on a high limb of a fragrant and large magnolia tree in the middle of the cemetery. In my story, there were rumors of his existence –like a Bigfoot sometimes spotted by hunters — but he remained an unconfirmed myth. I existed as the only person he trusted.
This imagined character was my attempt to create a narrative that linked my identity as a Muslim to the very different experience of growing up as a Southern Baptist. And as silly as the story felt, it provided one example of how imagination – creative third space — offers the ability to rescript our place in the world.
Alas, my conjuring wasn’t so fantastical. Five hundred years ago, a Muslim’s feet may have touched my ancestral land. His name was Mustafa, and Laila Lalami writes his story in the new novel, The Moor’s Account.
This is a fictional interview with a real Muslim about an incident that actually happened.
Announcer: Muslims across the United States are receiving notices of account closures from their banks. Today, we are speaking with writer Deonna Kelli Sayed, whose account at a North Carolina bank was closed without explanation in 2011. Ms. Sayed, thank you for joining us today. Tell us what happened.
Deonna Kelli Sayed (DKS):
My debit card stopped working on a Wednesday.
The first rejection arrived early in the day from a gas station pump, which had politely advised me to “please see attendant.”
The card then failed at one grocery store after another. I knew the account held money. My local bank had not contacted me about any suspicious or fraudulent activity. There had to be some sort of simple, honest mistake.
I walked into my favorite branch to speak with a customer service rep that I had come to know. Minnie was a pleasantly plump older woman wore shades of polite pastels. When she spoke, words flew from her mouth wide and jovial, in the way you’d expect a Southern woman of a certain age to speak.
We met approximately every four weeks. Each month, I paid our monthly bills from a lump sum automatically transferred from my then-husband’s account at a New York City credit union. I often had to wait at least five business days before the funds appeared. There were some months the transfer stayed missing for a full two weeks.
I cringed as automatic payments were due and groceries needed to be purchased for the five kids under my care. God forbid if a holiday fell on a Monday or Friday. My husband lived in the Middle East. I lived in North Carolina with the kids. Our main bank account resided in New York City.
“What are you watching?
This question from my father, as innocent as it seems, makes me lovingly cringe.
“It’s a show Dad.”
“Is it a movie?” he’ll say, sitting next to me on the sofa and squinting at the TV. More internal cringing.
“No Dad, it’s a show.”
“What’s it called?”
Here’s where things get tricky, because A) some of the more nerdy shows I watch have weird names and B) my dad, as a rule, will always mishear the title. I can mumble or enunciate, it doesn’t matter. I call this Dad’s Third Law of Hilarious Misinterpretation.
“Doctor What?” he’ll ask quizzically.
“Firebug? Fire kya?”
There is a lot of affectionate eye-rolling and gritted teeth and repeating myself until he gets it right. Once the title is established, he’ll try watching for a few minutes. He asks questions, tries to follow along. But inevitably, after a max of 8 minutes (sometimes 10 if there are commercials), he’ll shake his head and say “this is weird. You watch weird shows,” before retreating behind his newspaper. I call this Dad’s Second Law of Attention Span.
God bless him, he does try.
Two and a half years ago, I left my financially comfortable global marriage for an expired passport and economic uncertainty. It was the saddest and bravest decision I’ve ever made. The US economy teetered in the worst recession since the Great Depression. There was no alimony, and I had not worked in twelve years.
The fear of “what ifs” loomed in monstrous proportions. I had no soft spots to land and no deep-pocketed family members to help me start over. Leaving meant leaping into a terrifying yet potentially poetic abyss.
Marriage had furled me tight. I couldn’t celebrate my complexities, and I longed for a different rapport with my spirituality. I felt like a fat and undesirable failure, and how I experienced my identity within the relationship wasn’t what I wanted to be out in the world.
When you find that you can’t locate yourself in a significant part of your known world, you have a spiritual obligation to make a new map. I jumped wide and fierce into the unseen with no compass.
I started an anonymous, now defunct blog. I had one published book and an anthology essay out in the world, but this secret writing felt unusually invigorating. My hands shook with unspoken truths so badly that I had find release. The words dribbled from my fingers as their own life forms. The writing was raunchy, irreverent, and always deeply personal.
I wrote about everything and everyone, although identities were kept secret. I admitted how I felt undesirable and then documented with questionable discretion the men who proved otherwise. But in those debilitating moments of post-divorce trauma, when nothing seemed to exist except fear and self-loathing, writing offered sanity and empowerment.
Sometimes, the best survival kit is one that includes only hope, prayer, and writing.