Best known for her international best seller, The Bookseller of Kabul, Norwegian author, Asne Seierstad has come up with another powerhouse work of non-fiction.
Two Sisters tells the true story of 19 year old, Ayan and her 16 year old sister, Leila. On 17 October, they left their family home near Oslo, seemingly as usual. Later that day, they sent this email to their parents:
“Muslims are under attack from all quarters, and we need to do something. We want so much to help Muslims, and the only way we can really do that is by being with them in both suffering and joy. Sitting home and sending money is no longer enough. With this in mind, we have decided to travel to Syria and help out down there as best as we can. We know this sounds absurd but it is haqq and we must go. We fear that ALLAH swt will say to us on the day of judgement. Please try to understand, do not be cross with us.”
The two girls come from a devout but tolerant family who had emigrated to Norway from Somalia, they were educated at a good school and enjoyed a comfortable family life. Their parents Sadiq and Sara, and their sibling Ismael are torn apart by Ayan and Leila’s decision. Sadiq embarks on a dangerous journey to try and bring his girls home.
What follows is a totally engrossing and informative account of that journey, one that takes the reader deep into the heart of the Islamic State, beyond the headlines. Seierstad provides much enlightening contextual information and a useful Islamic glossary
It was the sisters’ father, Sadiq Juma who wanted his daughters’ story told: “I want people to recognize the danger signs. We were blind. We thought it would pass. Now we know better.”
Seierstad started by listening to the Juma family and writing down their stories, interviewing friends and classmates, teachers, principals and other adults whom the girls had been in contact with in early adolescence. She subsequently tried to trace the path that led Ayan and Leila to radical Islam, to try and understand what inspired the two sisters to travel to Syria.
“I offer no explanation, neither of what attracted them to Islamic radicalism nor what propelled them out of Norway. I relate my findings.” She leaves it up to her readers to draw their own conclusions. Of approximately ninety sets of Norwegian parents whose children have travelled to Syria, only a handful came forward. The rest have remained silent.
Sara and Sadiq experienced one of the worst things imaginable to a parent: their children leaving them with no intention of ever returning.
Two Sisters is a powerful work of investigative writing. The Juma family’s heart wrenching story provides a strong core to this extraordinary book, but its real strength is its revelatory insights into aspects of modern Islamic radicalism.
Seierstad cleverly makes no judgement, but such is the strength and topicality of the narrative, the reader will be challenged not to have strong views on the book’s controversial subject matter.
Not an easy read, but a compelling and dare I say, an important look at how society can surrender to unquestioning, fanatical belief.