‘Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad’ by Asne Seierstad


Translated from Norwegian by Sean Kinsella 2018, 448 p.

In October 2013 two sisters, Ayan (aged 19) and Leila Juma (aged 16) left Oslo, where they had lived since 2000 after being accepted as refugees from Somalia. They were on their way to Syria, where they joined jihad by becoming the wives and mothers of IS fighters. In the afterword of this book ‘The Basis of the Book’, Norwegian investigative journalist Asne Seierstad writes that her most important question about the radicalization of these Somali-Norwegian sisters was “How could this happen?”(p. 437)   Further, “Is this merely to do with them, or does it also have something to do with us?”  She lays out the information, but as she admits, she doesn’t really answer her own question:

I offer no explanation, neither of what attracted them to Islamic radicalism nor what propelled them out of Norway. I relate my findings.  It is up to each reader to draw his or her own conclusions. Where did it start? What were the underlying reasons? When could they have taken different choices?…Why did they become more interested in life after death than this life? (p.441)

To my mind, their radicalism began when a group of Somali mothers paid for a Koranic teacher to provide extra-curricular Koranic classes for their children. The mothers, who were themselves marooned in Norwegian society, felt that their children were becoming swamped by their Norwegian schooling and friendship groups, to the detriment of their Muslim background.  The girls were further radicalized by what in Christian circles would be called an evangelical campus program.  They became more devout – something that their parents neither encouraged nor discouraged at first – and gradually grew more supercilious, judgmental and independent. In planning their trip to Syria, Ayan took advantage of credit cards and bought up mobile phones and plans on credit that she then onsold, with no intention of ever making payments for either. Social media amplified and solidified their radicalism.

Once in Syria, they gloated about their access to free housing, electricity and food, appropriated from the infidels who fled or succumbed to the IS influx. They refused to return with their father when he finally located them, and they embraced the communal, cloistered life of an IS wife and mother.  Their father Sadiq, charged by his wife Sara with bringing them back, felt that he had failed; his wife returned to Somalia to give her younger sons the Islamic education and culture that she felt her now-estranged daughters had lacked, and their brother Ismael, who maintained sporadic online contact with his sisters, rejected Islam completely, largely in response to their actions. The two girls broke their family, even though they claimed at first to have acted in order to save it from judgment.

As Seierstad explains at the start of the book, it is a “documentary account” drawn from a variety of sources. It is told as a narrative, switching its focus from one character to another in a largely chronological account. In her final chapter, she explains in more detail how she compiled this “documentary account” which is rather more than just written words. Instead, it is supplemented with interviews, most importantly with their father Sadiq, but also with other people who knew the girls and the family.

It is only at the end of the book that she reveals just how fundamental Sadiq was to the writing of the book.  We have read much of the narrative through Sadiq’s eyes, where as well as distraught father we also come to see him as a fantasist, liar and man who flirted with the idea of criminality as a way of getting the money to ‘rescue’ (i.e. kidnap) his daughters who did not want to return to Norway.  She reports all these things, but does not comment. In hindsight, I find her uncritical acceptance of Sadiq’s narrative in the main text problematic.  It was only when I checked back in my reading journal that I found that I had read Seierstad’s earlier book ‘The Bookseller of Kabul’ (before I started this blog) where I was likewise conflicted about Seierstad’s readiness to accede to her narrator’s viewpoint without challenging it or interrogating its effect on the story she is telling.

That said, I found the book compelling.  I feel that I have a better understanding of Syria, and its tumultuous last decade.  It had the page-turning drive of a thriller, and I found myself squirrelling away opportunities to read, just to find out what happened. I alternated between gratitude to Norway for its generosity in picking up the pieces of this shattered family, and resentment at the Juma family’s exploitation of that same generosity.  It has both made things clearer, but complicated them as well.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 8.5

Reading challenge: A Norwegian book in translation!


One response to “‘Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad’ by Asne Seierstad

  1. Interesting you say that about Seierstad, I felt that about The Bookseller too, and now I see that again it’s the unchallenged male PoV that is predominant.
    I find stories like this really confronting, that these girls should reject a place that has taken them in and given them sanctuary, but also that the mothers were so naïve about the influence they were importing into their community.
    It also shows us, I suppose, that ideas about monitoring the content preached in mosques are pointless, because this story shows what can go on beneath the radar. The best thing is for the Muslim community to be watching out for radicalism themselves and alerting the authorities when things go too far…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s