A family split by promises of paradise

Matthew James reviews Two Sisters: Into The Syrian Jihad, by Asne Seierstad. Published by Hachette.

This one isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Just when it seems the tale cannot get any worse, it does. Again and again.

This is a draining read, but that’s no criticism of Asne Seierstad.

The Norwegian freelance journalist, who also wrote The Bookseller of Kabul, has written a thorough and detailed recount of the unthinkable actions of two teenagers.

It is literary journalism at its finest, with the usual liberties of this genre, such as conversation and dialogue reconstructions.

Five years ago, the two teens, born in Somalia but raised in Norway, became Jihadi brides.They left their family to join ISIS, which they thought would take over the world.

We know now that will not happen, but the teens, who Seierstad calls Ayan and Leila, effectively give up on this life in preparation for the next.In the process, they break their family.The girls’ dad, Sadiq Juma, races to Syria in his daughters’ wake to bring them home, but he fails.

Along the way, and here Seierstad relies mostly on Sadiq’s accounts, he is kidnapped by ISIS, tortured, humiliated and seemingly guaranteed to meet his maker.

But he escapes, returning home to a more empty house, a wife seemingly unimpressed at his failure to rescue their girls and a spiralling sense of loss.This story’s most striking feature is the layer upon layer of woe experienced by the Juma family.

Sadiq has no job and no hope, even turning to selling false stories to Norwegian newspapers for money he uses to fund futile rescue missions. Meanwhile, his wife Sara and two of their sons return to Somalia.

Given Sadiq and Sara’s prominence in the Norwegian media, Seierstad has used their real names.

Most of the others in the book, such as Ayan and Leila, and their brave brother Ismael, intent on a life of science and discovery, were changed, as a form of protection and to allow them to speak freely.

This also allowed many of the girls’ friends and acquaintances a voice as we trace a secret path of radicalisation. The girls withdraw into a life where their faith is the only thing that matters, as they spend a year planning their escape to Syria.

Thanks to message logs and other such records, Seierstad  allows readers  to grasp  what life for Ayan and Leila is like in war-torn Syria.

They seem to have  maintained a brave face, but scraping by in a doomed caliphate with young children — the sisters become mothers — cannot be easy. But, chatting to their family at least, they remain steadfast defenders of ISIS and its brutality.

We do not know if Ayan or Leila are still alive, but we do know that, as their brother Ismael says, they are effectively dead to their family, a torn-apart family whose plight is laid out by Seierstad’s harrowing work. Whatever the sisters’ fates, the damage is done.

- Matthew James is a Palmerston North-based reviewer

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