Two Sisters (2018): Åsne Seierstad

★★★★

On 17 October 2013, Sadiq and Sara Juma experienced one of the worst things that can happen to a parent. Their two teenage daughters, 19-year-old Ayan and 16-year-old Leila, left the house as usual in the morning, but never came home. That evening, their frantic parents received an email from the girls, explaining: ‘we have decided to travel to Syria and help down there as best we can… Please do not be cross with us.’ In that one moment, the Juma family’s world shattered. In this impeccably balanced book, journalist Åsne Seierstad tells the story of what followed, as Sadiq desperately tries to get his daughters to come home. She also looks back, drawing on texts, emails and interviews to understand how two young Norwegian women could be so deeply radicalised without their parents even suspecting. It is a very difficult story to read, and it is harder still to emulate Sierstad’s admirable detachment, but I believe it’s an important book: a rare flash of compassion and humanity in a dialogue that seems to have increasingly broken down.

As far as Sadiq was concerned, his family’s story was one of the successful ones. He’d managed to bring his wife and children to Norway from their native Somaliland, and the family had been settled in Oslo for several years. His children were doing well in school; Sara had managed to build up a network of friends among other local Norwegian-Somali mothers; and Sadiq had ambitions for further study. And yet somehow, as Ayan and Leila grew older, the confident, opinionated, feminist young women they’d once been began to fade away. In their place, their parents saw two girls who were passionately devoted to their faith above all else, and who began to see no possibility of reconciling that faith with a Western lifestyle. They began to encounter peers and admirable authority figures who encouraged them to see themselves as victims of a system that would never accept them. And they were increasingly told about the struggles in the Middle East, which were framed to them as attacks by Western powers on the very foundations of their faith.

Seierstad does not point fingers and it feels against the spirit of the book to do so. But she does draw out the conflicts that govern close-knit, newly-arrived immigrant communities. Often there are members of a family – like Sadiq and like his son – who see opportunity and possibilities in the Western economy. But there may be others, like Sara, who struggle to learn a new language and who are ultimately content to live among others of the same background, culture and faith. Such a choice isn’t surprising or wrong: I can imagine that, if I arrived in a strange foreign country, at the will of my husband, leaving behind my wider family and my friends, unable to speak the language, I too would grasp at the chance to make friends who didn’t feel too bewilderingly foreign. This can be exacerbated when one’s faith encourages one, as a woman, to remain veiled and modest, mixing only with other women in a domestic setting. Sara and her fellow Somali mothers in this Oslo suburb choose a young teacher to come and instruct their children in Quran study. Naturally they want someone respectable, learned and deeply committed to his faith. And it just so happens that the teacher they choose begins, slowly, to encourage his pupils to think not only about the Quran but about interpreting those words in a way that – to Western eyes – promotes extremism.

What’s alarming is the way that the two girls fall through the gaps. They’re studying with their teacher, dressing increasingly modestly at school, and spending their spare time with youth Muslim groups. All these things are welcomed by their parents: Sadiq indulgently assumes that their new modesty is a temporary teenage phase, while Sara welcomes the idea that they’re moving in the right circles to find good husbands. How can even the most loving parents understand where the line is? How can you tell whether your daughter’s new style of dressing and socialising is a natural step in her maturity, and her growing understanding of her faith (showing she will make a good wife, which is how Sara and her friends judge their daughters) – or the sign of something alarming? Does Sara ever understand the extent to which the choice of Quran teacher has affected her daughters? It isn’t made clear. It is striking, though, that Sara retreats into apathy while Sadiq springs into action – desperate, hopeless, urgent action, in the belief that his daughters have been taken against their will and need to be brought home. How do you then, as a father, face up to hearing that your daughters like being where they are?

Through records of emails and calls, Seierstad gives us an impression of what it’s like to live as the bride of a fighter in war-torn Syria. Her picture is knowingly skewed – it comes from the girls’ own words, and they want to show their parents that they’ve made the right choice. But it is still illuminating, because – as so often in this book – what isn’t said is just as significant as what is. It adds up to a vital and very sobering picture, something which continues to be deeply relevant today. Consider the news stories in the UK about Shamima Begum – a girl who ran off to Syria as a teenager, who asked to return to the UK, and has recently had her citizenship stripped – or the recent news that one of the other ISIS wives in Seierstad’s book (‘Emira’) has been repatriated to Norway. We are now dealing with the consequences of what happened to these young women – and by ‘what happened’, I mean not only their own choice to join a terrorist organisation, but also the way in which they were radicalised under the noses of their own governments. Can we understand what has happened and how far can we act to change it? Which factors are alienating these young people and how can the security forces work together with state leaders to winnow out those who are radicalising them? Is it possible?

The debate tends to be emotionally-charged and strident, and understandably so. No one has any sympathy for terrorists. But it’s precisely in this climate – where whoever has the simplest message and shouts loudest seems to win – that we need subtler, more compassionate analyses like Seierstad’s. These girls chose to become extremists and to support terrorism. No doubt of that. But they are also girls – sisters – teenagers – schoolfriends – people – with a history that can be examined in search of answers. Seierstad’s aim is to take us with her as she sifts through that history – and it’s a journey which is disturbing, moving and sad.

An important contribution to a very high-profile issue.

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