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Second Thoughts on Those Virgins

Khaled al-Berry’s often riveting account of his early life as a jihadist is not as unsettling as one might expect, in spite of the narrative’s frequent tension.  The author never refers to himself as a terrorist but, instead, as a jihadist, though only a fine line separates the two and the distinction ultimately may be moot. The fascination of al-Berry’s story is that he appears to have had a perfectly normal childhood in Egypt, in Asyut, in the north of the country.  His family was no longer as affluent as it had been during his grandparents’ days but it certainly wasn’t poor either.

As a fourteen-year-old in 1986 when his story begins, al-Berry attends a private Catholic school, surrounded by students of many faiths.  Friends introduce him to the fundamentalist group, known as Jama?a Islamiya, whose followers had killed Anwar Sadat in 1979, because they believe that he had sold out his country during the Camp David accords.  The secularism that Sadat had sought for Egypt was being upheld by the security forces, which frequently attacked mosques where jihadists were meeting.

Al-Berry is particularly attracted to the tantalizing rhetoric of the older “brothers” of the movement, especially to the humility of Sheikh Mahmud Shu?eib.  Of their initial meetings, al-Berry notes, “He’d be brought a glass of tea as I was sitting with him and ask me to put my finger in it to make it sweeter.  He was an eloquent preacher, whose words seemed to summon up spontaneously rain, lightning, thunder, swords, spring and its colors.  In minutes they could make your body grow as hot as a chair that had been sitting in the sun for hours, or in an instant be stirred as though it had been set ablaze by the sight of crimson blood.  Then from this heat and turmoil they would transport you to the cold of a winter cloud or the gentle caress of summer’s shade.”

The parents of the sixteen-year-old teenager are furious when he begins wearing the clothing of the sect: “Islamist dress—the Islamist jallabiya—is a Pakistani garment that, while not resembling in every detail the dress that the Prophet wore, reproduces it in general terms in that it is a modest, wide garment that hides the contours of the body.  More importantly, it doesn’t look like anything worn by non-Muslims.  This distinction is—in the eyes of the Jama?a—an indication of their complete disassociation from the acts of those who disobey God and a distinguishing mark that separates them from other Muslims, and non-Muslims.”

Soon al-Berry renounces his earlier love of music and begins spreading the word to other young people.  After his entry into medical school, when his audiences become larger, he knows that he is being watched by security forces.  He’s detained a couple of times, as are many of his friends.  Eventually he’s tortured, but not as severely as are his friends. Just as he discovers that he likes medical school, he is temporarily expelled from his studies, which are financed by the state.  And then—before he is assigned a jihadist mission–he has the epiphany that begins to break the jihadists’ hold on him.

His realization is completely rational, no longer a matter of emotion and rhetoric.  “If you believe in God totally, and you believe that Paradise is for the believers, then why, in God’s name, would not any idiot in the world cut short this life, with all its hardship and adversity, and go to Paradise, with all its ease?  We cannot, however, do without this world.  I, at least, could not do without this world.  Did this not mean, quite simply, that a part of me did not believe in the next?  It must be so, I would say to myself in frank heresy, after which I would spit three times to my left, this being the prophetically approved behavior should Satan send ideas into the mind of a believer designed to seduce him.”

This moment of al-Berry’s life is not an abrupt turning point.  For a while, he tries to be even more devout than he has been.  But then, incrementally, during the next few years, the break from Jama?a Islamiya becomes complete.  He shaves off his beard.  He transfers from Asyut to another medical school in Cairo, presumably so that he can avoid the brothers who have influenced him.  Eventually, he admits that he wants to sleep with a woman.  I suspect that the true believers will discount al-Berry’s story as further truth of the radical Islamist mantra that women are evil.

Life Is More Beautiful than Paradise isn’t all that easy reading.  The narrative (supposedly drawn from journalistic pieces written by the author) is frequently shapeless, often lacking continuity. The translation by Humphrey Davies, a respected translator of Arabic, is at times awkward and unidiomatic.  Still, there’s a seductive aspect of the story that cannot be ignored given its timely nature. It’s not every young Islamic male who can snub the possibility of seventy-seven virgins.

Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise: A Jihadist’s Own Story
By Khaled al-Berry
Translated by Humphrey Davies
The American University in Cairo Press, 189 pp., $22.95

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. He confesses that he taught with Kermit Moyer for many years at American University.