Part autobiography, part ideology, part diary, A Jihad For Love is emotionally charged. The collection is an eloquent plea to those who judge Islam or twist its nature to the purpose of committing devastating criminal acts, and also to those who practice it in its many forms—to not take its teachings literally, but to apply its tenets in the context of the modern world. It implores followers to follow a path where the teachings of Islam do not conflict with the world we all have to inhabit.
It was on a Tuesday morning, the 22nd of March 2016, when commuters at Maalbeek metro station in Brussels awaited the Arts-Loi/Kunst-Wet connection. The platform bustled with commuters undertaking their daily pilgrimages to work; parents carried children, men and women read the papers, and buskers played music as the crowds mingled. At 9:10 am, they began to board the three carriages whose doors had just opened. At 9:11 am, some of them would be dead. As the train readied to depart, an explosive device planted in the middle carriage of the three detonated, rending apart its fragile metal surroundings, and within a second, sixteen lives were extinguished.
At this moment the world of Mohamed El Bachiri, a metro driver in Brussels enjoying a day off work, changed forever. His wife and the love of his life, who had just boarded the middle carriage, died in the blast. Half of his heart was forever stolen away, and A Jihad for Love was born.
El Bachiri was born to North African parents in Belgium, and was raised in the nearby suburb of Molenbeek, known as the breeding ground of many Belgian jihadists. He considers himself a son of two worlds: Europe and North Africa. A devout Muslim all of his life, El Bachiri and his family have followed the teachings of Islam across generations, and have practised their beliefs whilst adapting to, and integrating with, different cultures around Europe. He married Loubna Lafquiri as a young adult, and found in her a lover, a companion, a teacher, and a new life. They had three children, and Loubna pursued her dream of working as a physical education teacher, bringing empowerment and independence to Muslim girls in Belgium.
A Jihad for Love is his first collection, and it is both poetic and not. There is more here than poems—it is a melding of worlds, an osmosis of highly charged works that tear into the reader as if they themselves were present to the pain and loss that he feels. The opening two works of the volume set the tone and hint at the emotion present in the words of the author:
Face to face with what no one can comprehend,
what am I supposed to tell the children?
The collection journeys through a range of literary styles—from poems to anecdotes. El Bachiri touches on memories and stories from his childhood and younger life. At first these seem oddly out of place, but they come sharply into focus as the volume progresses, revealing themselves as essential in framing the moments that have led to this point in the poet’s life. His questioning of his faith, the contradictions he finds in his father’s teachings, and his grappling with Islamic doctrine, highlight his lifelong struggle, which reaches its peak with his wife’s death. These historical and almost present day remembrances also serve to tell a story around the missing presence of Loubna. It is at the end of the collection that the reader becomes keenly aware that in fact, it was as if the stories were the words of Loubna, framed around the vacuum she has left, and that El Bachiri was merely a narrator on the rails of a story not of his choosing.
It is the working together of the poems and their supporting snippets of prose that lends the volume its strength, a strength that works to balance the psalm-like ideology and occasional naive utopian ideals; but what else in the wake of such tragedy can we hope for? It is a work that reiterates the most important message: we must learn to live with compassion, tolerance, and forgiveness towards others. Here is a man who has had excavated from him his foundation—the mother of his children—and yet, he writes of forgiveness not vengeance, of acceptance not judgment. Poetry becomes a modus to help the poet cope, not only with tragedy as it is here, but with the presence of imagined futures, born from the “what ifs?” that come after devastation.
One would expect to be overcome with sorrow, but the application of his voice in such a raw and documentary-like style made me relate the poems to my own life. Could I have risen to meet the obstacle of my existence with the same stoicism and compassion? And could I forgive, as he did? The words here imbued in me a longing and a realisation that poetry is not dead, but is sometimes in need of death to prosper.
When El Bachiri writes:
… your man will come to you across the firmament, for an embrace and a dance beneath the shower of stars that will once again light up your angel’s face
I think of my wife. I think of waking one night to know I will never see her, and so I become party to his incredible longing; finding that the trial of his continued existence, and his unhidden longing for a death that will reunite them, makes me both ashamed of having what he no longer does, and joyous that I still do.
In his poem “The Night”, he writes of the disorientation of tending to children in the night:
‘My children’, I should say now.”
“Her name is still beside the doorbell.
Of course. This is her house.
Even if she doesn’t live here anymore.
Even if she doesn’t live at all any more.
These lines draw us into a world where, through her absence, Loubna becomes so much more real to us. And here lies the major battle that plays within the collection, that his sorrow and need to spread a message threatens at points to overwhelm what is most important in his works: his wife. She is the link between the poet’s world and ours. And though the volume feels at times in need of more of her beauty, character, and personality, there is enough of her spirit to carry it forward. By the last page, I wanted to know more of her, and the marks she left on the world, the idiosyncrasies that she carved into the trunk of existing in a day-to-day life in Belgium. It is this wanting with the knowledge that I shall never have what I seek, that made me truly feel the power of the poetic journey El Bachiri put forth.
At its conclusion, one cannot help but be moved by what they have read. When I expected him to rage, he soothed; when I expected him to be the voice of retribution and judgment, he spoke of deliberation, discourse, and the separation of church and state. Yet, when he speaks of how religion is deeply feminist one cannot help but wince. What elevates the work, however, is the unbridled energy of a man, who at the receiving end of such a terrible loss, rallies to show that there is a takeaway. Through poetry, prose, diary entries, and an uncensored and intimate entrance to his personal thoughts, he shows us we can all be better in the world, which we must share with others who are different, yet deserving of the same love and kindness we ourselves think we deserve.
A Jihad for Love ends on what could be construed as the most important lines in the entire work:
Like so many of the others
you never hear
you never see
but of whom there oh-so many.
—imbuing that the unobservable everyday, when laid bare, shows that we are surrounded more by the good we do not see, than a terror we perceive to hound our every step.
D. Mars Yuvarajan is a Tamil New Zealand poet. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and lives in New Hampshire, when not traveling the world. He has published six poetry collections to date: Night Owl and Other Poems, Kintsugi, .M.oments (Volume One), Quiet Songs From Yesterday, We Live With the Departed, and In My Dreams I Walk Through Killing Fields. He owns and runs the independent publishing house Works of Mars Press.