Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise By Khaled al-Berry trans Humphrey Davies

How martyrdom seduced an ordinary boy

Child soldiers or repentant suicide bombers who tell their stories generally describe their harsh childhoods or recruitment by force. At best, they blame circumstance. What is compelling about Khaled al-Berry's memoir of his teenage years as a jihadist is that he blames no one but himself.

In 1986, al-Berry was a gangly 14-year-old, growing up in middle-class secular Egypt. He dreamt of reliable erections, facial hair and the touch of a girl's thigh. His father was a liberal-thinking property developer, his mother had a degree and loved cinema, and his uncle was a judge. The family could afford private lessons for al-Berry, who was bright and going to be a doctor.

The teenager came into contact with the Jama'a Islamiya not at mosque but on the football field. He was attracted to them more as people than to their brand of religion. They had discipline and a sense of purpose that appealed to al-Berry's adolescent self-conceit and his need to identify with a group.

He enjoyed the ritual of prayer and other trappings of Islam: "Food was tastier when we sat down to eat in the same manner, each of us tucking his left foot under his buttocks, while the right performed an inverted 'V' like the shape of the Arabic numeral eight''. Al-Berry prided himself on eating with three fingers, "not two like the overly-dainty or five like those with revolting manners''. He stopped wearing jeans, watching television, listening to pop or reading novels. He even gave up football and began learning the Koran by heart, seeking the approval of his Islamist brothers through small acts such as smashing bottles of alcohol bought by a tourist. By 16 he was known to State Security and had grown a beard, earning the right to be addressed as "'sheikh''. His heroes were brothers who had played a role in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

The year after al-Berry started medical school, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and the Egyptian government signed up to the first President George Bush's "new world order'', proclaimed in a speech to Congress on 11 September 1990. The Jama'a were seen as a firm enemy of the state and al-Berry's existence became a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities.

If anything, this deepened his devotion, and he launched an intense programme of prayer and reading to prepare for martyrdom. He believed that if he achieved such a depth of devotion as to make him weep upon hearing the words of the Koran, he would be "released from the prison of the body". The day he achieved that state, "I felt a lightness that I had never before experienced. I felt I was pure... as though there was no shit in my intestines''.

But al-Berry never did become a suicide bomber. He was picked up by the police and sent to jail for six weeks. Had he been as badly treated as some of his fellow inmates, al-Berry might have emerged emboldened in his desire for martyrdom. Instead, the authorities' treatment of him as a lesser terrorist seemed fatally to wound his martyr's pride. On release, he decided that he was too weak to become a suicide bomber, and drifted back into the mainstream of middle-class life.

The 37-year-old Egyptian now lives in London and works as a journalist. Life is More Beautiful than Paradise is his second attempt at telling his story. The first, which appeared in Arabic and French in 2002, was was less analytical but provided valuable insight. This updated version, while presented as an insight into Islamic fundamentalism, speaks to a broader audience. The memoir reaches the core of how fanatics – sects of any kind - draw in conceited youngsters by essentially appealing to a naïve hunger for self-sacrifice.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Thomas carried Lady Edith over the flames in her bedroom in Downton Abbey series five

TV
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck as Nick Dunne, seated next to a picture of his missing wife Amy, played by Rosamund Pike

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rachel, Chandler and Ross try to get Ross's sofa up the stairs in the famous 'Pivot!' scene

Friends 20th anniversary
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham

books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey

There’s revolution in the air, but one lady’s not for turning

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

    Not That Kind of Girl:

    A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

    London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

    In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

    Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

    Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
    Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

    Model mother

    Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
    Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

    Apple still the coolest brand

    Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments