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

How martyrdom seduced an ordinary boy

Alex Duval Smith
Friday 01 January 2010 01:00 GMT

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.

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