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A Couple Divided by Faith

She's from a Jewish family; he was lured by radical Islam. She's now home in Paris, confused. He's in Abu Ghraib, a suspected insurgent.

August 08, 2006|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — He has spent the last year in Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib prison, a suspected foreign militant many miles from home.

She remains in the neighborhood on the northeastern edge of Paris where they grew up, worrying, wondering, trying to bring him back.

But the 23-year-olds are separated by more than distance and prison walls.

He's a Muslim who grew up in a housing project and worked as a deliveryman. She's a middle-class university student from a Jewish background who has relatives in Israel.

Yet they fell in love. And they stayed together after he fell into the harsh world of Islamic extremism. He became remote, obsessive, groggy from overnight prayer rituals. He told her it was a sin for them to touch each other. So he sat across the room when she visited, making his mother serve as chaperone.

She remained loyal even after he turned up in Iraq, after 10 of his friends were slain, maimed or jailed, the human debris of a doomed odyssey. She still talks about their romance as if it has a future.

On one level, the story of Peter Cherif and his girlfriend is a Romeo and Juliet tale. On another, it offers a look at the confused world of young European extremists, for whom holy war can be as much about identity and machismo as religion, as much about group psychology as ideology.

"He was never anti-American," says the tanned, pretty student with long hair, her eyes shining with tears. "He likes McDonald's, rap, American war movies. He never said anything anti-Jewish."

The girlfriend asked that her name be withheld for reasons of safety and because she has kept the relationship a secret from her family. During an interview at a cafe here, the strain on her was evident. She toyed with her drink and fidgeted. The sound of passing sirens made her grimace.

"We talked a lot about Israel and the Palestinians, how kids and innocent people always suffered," she recalled. "He was more concerned about the Palestinians, so I told him about the Israeli side. And he listened to me. I can't believe he went off to Iraq to kill anyone."

But French anti-terrorism police say Cherif belonged to a cell of young Islamic extremists that took root in the 19th arrondissement of Paris in 2003. The youngest, Salah, was only 13 when he went off to study at a Koranic school in Syria. He allegedly helped operatives acquire weapons and cross into Iraq. Salah, whose last name is being withheld because he is a minor, has since disappeared.

Cherif was the sole member of the group with military experience. The others "trained" by jogging in Buttes-Chaumont Park, a lush expanse of rocky hills and waterfalls near their homes. In some cases, their determination seemed to waver: During the months when he was girding for combat in Iraq, one suspect also applied for a job with the Paris subway system.

Recruits to Islamic extremism are younger and more volatile today because radicalization happens faster than ever, investigators say.

"That's what's interesting and worrisome," a senior French anti-terrorism official said. "No logic, totally aberrant behavior. We've seen some of them, just before leaving for jihad, whose lives were dissolute, not at all Islamic."

Cherif's father, who died when his son was 14, was a Catholic Afro-Caribbean immigrant. His mother, Myriam, was born in Tunisia. She talks proudly about her own father's medal-winning exploits with the French military in World War II and Indochina. Myriam Cherif is a petite woman with flowing dark hair who has struggled with illness as well as her son's ordeal. She did not raise Cherif as a practicing Muslim; he did not speak Arabic as a child. His interests were typical: sports, MP3s, the Internet. He grew up in a household that cherished French values of democracy, secularism and tolerance, his mother said.

"I am not anti-American, I am not anti-Semitic. And there you have it: Peter's fiancee is Jewish," said Myriam Cherif, who has developed a warm bond with her son's girlfriend.

Their neighborhood is multiethnic. In drab public housing towers, working-class Muslim families predominate. Around the park and the scenic La Villette canal, gentrified pockets are spreading. The area has a significant Jewish population.

Cherif's girlfriend is not devout. One of her parents is Jewish; she regards Judaism as a strong element of her identity. She has visited relatives in Israel. She considers herself open to all faiths and nationalities.

"I have always had many religions around me, and I like it like that," she said.

France's immigrant neighborhoods can be hostile turf for Jews. Arson and vandalism against synagogues escalate when conflict flares in the Middle East. Orthodox Jewish men and boys often wear baseball caps to conceal their yarmulkes because of periodic assaults.

Nonetheless, Cherif's girlfriend says she has never had problems in her neighborhood, even during visits to Cherif's apartment complex.

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