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Life is More Beautiful than Paradise
RRP: Price: £9.99
UK & Commonwealth
A Jihadist's Own Story
By Khaled al-Berry
Fluently written, intellectually gripping, exciting, and often funny, Life Is More Beautiful than Paradise provides a vital key to the understanding of a world that is both a source of fear and a magnet of curiosity for the West. Translated by Humphrey Davies
Khaled al-Berry was born in Sohang in Egypt in 1972. He has a degree in medicine from Cairo University and currently works as a journalist and writer in London, where he was lived since 1999
Humphrey Davies is one of the world's leading translators from Arabic into English. His translations include Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building and Gate of the Sun, for which he won the Banipal Prize for Translation.
A fantastic review from The Independent by Alex Duval Smith, 1 January 2010:
'The memoir reaches the core of how fanatics – sects of any kind - draw in conceited youngsters by essentially appealing to a na?ve hunger for self-sacrifice.'
Review from The Middle East
'This is the autobiographical account of the author's journey into extremism. In 1986, Khaled Al Berry was a typical fourteen-year-old boy in Asyut in Upper Egypt. Attracted at first by the image of a radical Islamist group as 'strong Muslims', his involvement develops until he finds himself deeply committed to its beliefs and implicated in its activities. This ends when, as he leaves the university following a demonstration, he is arrested. Prison, a return to life on the outisde, and attending Cairo University all lead to Khaled Al Berry's alientation from radical Islam. This book opens a window onto the mind of an extremist who turns out to be disarmingly like many other clever adolscents bears witness to a history with whose reverberations we continue to live. It serves as a guide for the reader to the movement's debates and preoccupations, motives and intention.'
Review from The Church Times, 5th February 2010
'VARIOUS reasons - such as US foreign policy, social, economic, and political factors, and the decline of Islam itself - have been given to explain why so many 'angry young Muslims' turn to Islamic militancy. This book is the story of one such young man and his adoption, and later rejection, of radical Islam. Khaled AI-Berry describes his life as a teenager in the city of Asyut in Egypt during the 1980s. Angered by President Sadat's Camp David Accord and the recognition of Israel as a state, concerned at the westernisation of his country and influenced by militant youths he met at school, he joined the radical Islamist group Jama'a Islamiya. Attending classes it held, he learnt to despise Jews, Christians, and people of any other faith, and pronounced music, association with women, and other activities as haram, or forbidden.
In a gripping narrative, Al-Berry writes of his involvement in a terrorist group, his arrest by the authorities, and his experiences in a government prison. On his release, the love of his family and his own study of the Qur'an led him to reject extremist views. As he states, the 'scales were lifted' from 'the eyes of a young man raised on illusions'.
AI-Berry now works as a journalist in London, where he has been living since 1999. Although it is compelling, some readers may find this book uncomfortable, even distasteful. Throughout, AI-Berry describes in detail how he was a 'victim of obsessive lusts and fears'; his addiction to masturbation; and his liking for Western and Indian films where he 'watched the bodies of the women as they shook'.
Captivating and exciting, Life is More Beautiful than Paradise provides invaluable insights into the jihadist world-view, a view that argues that it is right and everyone else (including the majority of Muslims worldwide) is wrong; the view that believes that jihadists are the only group who will escape the fires of hell, because they are faithful in clinging to an intolerant and distorted view of Islam.' - Dr Simon Valentine.
Review from The Diplomat - 1st February 2010
'It is a question asked with urgency by Muslims and non-Muslims alike: why are the young so attracted to Islamic extremism? In this book KhaIed al-Berry offers a rare perspective on the qnestion - that of a former member of Jama'a Islamia, a notorious Egyptian Islamist group implicated in the assassination of Egyptian president AnwaraI-Sadat in 1981 and whose leader, Omar Abdel··Rahman, remains imprisoned in the US for his role in the World Trade Centre bombing in 1993.
Right from the start, al··Berry explains a comext few others think of when approaching fundementalism: 'I was nor attracted to the radicals' brand of religion; I was attracted to them as people. I was 14 and the first time I knew one of them, we were playing football and he was a very decent person who took care of people around him. We built up a relationship as human beings. Then we started talking about religion and going to the mosque.' Having been gently introduced into a circle of young zealots, he was then 'taught' that 'Islam means you can't argue about text because the text is what God said.' By this logic al-Berry and his comrades became convinced that violence was, well, logical. It was that simple. And that dangerous.
The first acts of violence, however, weren't committed against Western society but against those closer to home - first other fundamentalists, with sheiks administering bloody beatings to other sheiks, and then Christian Ehyptians.
But al-Berry was still young, so his religious enthusiasm was tempered by that universal leveller, his hormones. Having given up watching television (all those half-dressed women) and football (in which professional players display their 'lesser pudenda'. ie their upper legs), he spent his time peeping at and fantasising about his lemale neighbours.
Eventually, as a young medical student. he was arrested for haranguing female and males students during lectures at a local university for the sins of sitting, working and talking with each other. Ironically, he moved from Asyut to Cairo University to evade state security seeking to persecute him for his Islamist beliefs, only to confront a moral cross-roads at this new seat of learning. 'I found people who set up literature meetings and I staned thinking in an individual way without close monitoring', he writes. 'When you are free in this sense, you come to know exactly what sort of person you are.' AI-Berry currently works as a writer in London - who knows how many and whose lives he saved by not carrying on down the well-worn route to Paradise via 'glorious suicide'?' - Alasdair Buchan
Review from Good Book Guide, February 2010
'The book attempts to answer the big question: are Islamists true representatives of Islamic culture? In the author's view they are not.'
An interview with translator Humphrey Davies who rates Life is More Beautiful than Paradise amongst his Top Five Must Read books on Egyptian Writing.
Click here to read the full interview.
'This is a very interesting counterdose to Being Abbas El Abd. It’s not fiction, but the autobiography of a young man who grew up in a city in Upper Egypt. His parents are middle class and he drifts into joining one of the most important Islamist groups, the Jama'a Islamiya. A few years later, after spending six months in prison, he drifts out again, as he becomes acquainted with, and attracted to, a humanistic, secular world view. But he explores, from the inside, many of the issues that we in the West never gets to grips with about the Islamist movement: the sorts of things that really matter to them, the sorts of debates that they have. Some of it is almost abstruse. But these issues are vitally important to those people, and make it clear why, for example, the Jama'a Islamiya is at daggers-drawn with X other Islamist group. It shows the internal debates and jealousies and tensions that exist there. But despite being a very straightforward, insightful exposition of that sort of material, the book never loses sight of the fact — and this is really interesting and nice — that this was a rebellious, grumpy teenager who really cared about what he looked like and the way he wore his hair.' - Humphrey Davies