Åsne Seierstad
Two Sisters

The Jumas were in many ways a typical immigrant family. The father, Sadiq, was the one who decided they would leave Somalia for Norway in pursuit of a better life. He was open-minded, a poet and multilingual; he loved his new country and the opportunities it offered. His wife, Sara, struggled more with the new language, the cold and European culture; she was more pious, too. Like her, their two daughters, Ayan and Leila, covered their hair with a hijab. But as a young teen, Ayan was a feminist who wanted to become a diplomat, and in religion class openly criticised Islam for its subjugation of women. Her best friends were a Christian Chinese girl who loved rock music, and a Croatian emo, and like teenagers everywhere, they confided in each other about their mad crushes on boys. As a family, the Jumas took part in national celebrations such as Constitution Day, cheering on Ayan and Leila’s little brothers in egg-and-cup races.

Then, slowly, things began to change. Led by Ayan, the sisters became not just more religious, but dogmatically so. They began to wear niqab, and argued with teachers about school rules regarding the covering of one’s face. They stopped wishing friends a happy Constitution Day – it was a kafir holiday. Ayan was 19 and Leila 16 when they abruptly disappeared to join Daesh in Syria. The family was devastated. Sara ordered Sadiq: bring them back. He set out to do just that, embarking on a courageous quest to recover his daughters in which he risked everything, including his sanity and his life.

Though nonfiction, Two Sisters reads like a political and psychological thriller. Åsne Seierstad is the author of One of Us. That book delved deep into the life, mentality and crimes of the far-right, anti-Islamic terrorist Anders Breivik, who murdered 77  people one terrible day in Oslo in 2011. This time, she looks at extremism on the other side. Seierstad is a former war correspondent, and a master of illuminating social and political issues through individual stories. In Two Sisters, she tries to fathom how two ostensibly well-adjusted, intelligent and ambitious young women from a loving family in a reasonably comfortable society can choose to give it all up for an organisation that is psychopathic in its obsession with violence and subjugation of women. There are many clues, but no definitive answers.

Take the Koran teacher, for example. Sara had pitched in with other Somali mothers to hire a Koran tutor for their kids. Mustafa’s detailed instructions for proper Muslim life and faith included the correct way to sit on a toilet: don’t face Mecca, but don’t put your back to the sun or moon either. The girls’ brother Ismael, who falls between them in age, took a strong, immediate dislike to Mustafa, finding him a risible know-it-all. His sisters, however, lapped up their tutor’s every word. One day, an outraged Ismael told their mother that, when asked directly, Mustafa refused to condemn terrorism. Sara thought her son was just looking for an excuse to wag lessons, insisting, “You must have heard wrong.”

But Mustafa is only part of the puzzle. The girls found their own way to a group called Islam Net. Islam Net started as a Facebook group. It appealed to young Norwegian Muslims who wanted to explain and propagate their religion in the face of post-September 11 Islamophobia. While the older generation tended to worship at mosques whose congregations are based on ethnicity, Islam Net embraced all ethnicities and races and welcomed converts. For a younger generation, it thus paradoxically presented a more modern face of the religion while interpreting it very strictly. Its rallies and meetings gave members a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves and their ethnic communities. Yet Islam Net also introduced its members to a world of conspiracy theories and the kind of preachers who say it is okay for a man to strike his wife. One thing it didn’t advocate is violent jihad – but the rugged and charismatic boys from another group seen up the back at the rallies the girls attended did.

Many of these men were misfits and criminals. Most had at best a rudimentary understanding of the Koran. They gravitated towards groups such as Daesh that promised them power, women and the opportunity to enact their most violent fantasies. Among them were several who would play a big role in the lives of the sisters and their new girlfriends in Islam Net. Some of the women would make dramatic escapes from these abusive relationships, others, damaged by violent relationships from childhood, would embrace them.

Seierstad traces the sisters’ journey into this dangerous milieu step by inexorable step, just as she traces Sadiq’s hair-raising attempts to bring them back home – an extraordinary story in itself, and one that revolves around the unlikely character of Osman, a Syrian war profiteer with a big heart.

Seierstad recognises the ethical questions involved in making two young women the focus of a book to which they haven’t consented. But the issues their story raises are important and, besides, Sadiq, Sara and Ismael wanted this story told; it’s their story, too. In addition to extensive interviews with the family, the author spoke to friends and former friends, members of Islam Net, teachers, classmates and Syrian rights activists. She examines chat logs, text messages and Facebook posts and has a large bibliography of other sources. And yet, the answer eludes her – as it eludes the family itself – as to how these two independent young women, concerned with women’s rights and doing good in the world, could willingly turn themselves into baby-making machines for next-gen jihadi. It’s not hard to see why Sadiq almost loses his mind.

On his Syrian journey, Sadiq spends a night in what appears to be a hastily abandoned flat in bombed-out Aleppo. There he spies a wedding photograph. The young couple, he reflects, is “beautiful in the way happy people are”. He notices that they wear up-to-the-minute fashions and breaks down sobbing: “This is happening in our time.”  CG

Virago, 352pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 17, 2018 as "Åsne Seierstad, Two Sisters".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: CG