One family’s experience of living in eye of the storm of history

Review: Vivien Horler

Two Sisters – Into the Syrian Jihad, by Asne Seierstad (Virago)

two sistersThe awful news of a deathly attack on worshippers at the Malmesbury mosque on the penultimate night of Ramadaan – apparently by a Somali man – brings closer the world laid bare by Norwegian writer Asne Seierstad in this stark work.

We read the headlines about IS and the devastation of Syria every day, we hear of attacks and beheadings, we see Somali refugees on our streets, but rarely get a glimpse of the human stories behind the news.

Seierstad, a former Norwegian war correspondent whose book The Bookseller of Kabul sold more than two million copies, has detailed one family’s devastation in Two Sisters. It is her non-fiction account of how a pair of teenage sisters, of Somali descent but born and brought up in Oslo, left their family and travelled to Raqqa in Syria to join IS.

Their intention was never to fight; the plan was to marry fighters and bear children, little soldiers who could carry on the jihad.

On October 17, 2013, Ayan and Leila Juma left home for school as usual, but did not return at the normal time, nor did they at first answer their phones. Then shortly after 6pm Ayan answered, telling her anxious father to read the email they had sent him.

After declaring their love for their parents and thanking them for all they had done, the girls wrote: “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…With this in mind we have decided to travel to Syria…

“Please do not be cross with us, it was sooo hard for us to leave without saying goodbye in the way you both deserve.”

Sadiq and Sara Juma had come to Norway as refugees from war in Somalia. All their five children – Ayan, 19, Ishmael, 18, Leila, 16, Jibral, 11 and Isaq, 6, had been born there and were Norwegian citizens. Sadiq was a Somali poet who performed for his people; his family were subsidised by the state. Sara mostly stayed home with the children and despite years in Norway was unable to speak the language.

The children went to Norwegian schools where they did well, Ayan particularly. They were also sent to Koran school on Sundays, after a group of Somali mothers became concerned that their children were becoming “too Norwegian”.

Ishmael soon tired of the school, and was outraged by the views expressed by Mustafa, the teacher the mothers hired. In Ishmael’s view the mothers were “sponsoring” a man promoting terror groups. But when he took it up with Sara,  she said merely: “You must have heard wrong.”

He had not, nor had his sisters. But instead of being repelled, as Ishmael was, Ayan and Leila were drawn in.

They threw out their make-up and immodest clothes, and tried to wear the niqab – the garment that hides the whole face except the eyes – to school. This was discouraged. They joined radical Muslim groups in Oslo. Ayan’s attendance at school became irregular while she tried to raise money to support their plan to leave. And then they left.

The family was devastated. Within 24 hours Sadiq flew to Turkey to follow them and bring them home, but they slipped into Syria. He made it into Syria too, creeping illegally across the border, but they were gone.

He made contact with Syrians who were prepared to help him in return for money, but it is hard to rescue people who don’t want to be rescued. And stays in Syria were hazardous as different fighting groups including IS and the Free Syrian Army fought over territory.

Meanwhile the sisters made occasional contact with their family via email, saying they were happy and well.

There is drama in this book – Sadiq is taken prisoner by IS and accused of being a spy, and Leila is shot in the leg – but much of it describes the slow crumbling of a family torn apart by religion. Desperate and lonely without her girls, Sara takes the younger boys and goes home to her family in Somalia, leaving Sadiq and Ishmael in Oslo.

The account is based on hours of interviews with both Sara and Sadiq, as well as teachers and friends of the sisters. A chilling final chapter, titled Legacy, describes the way IS governs its supporters’ lives. The women, who rarely go out, spend their days cooking food that is trucked out each night to the fighters.

It is their goal to raise the next generation of IS lions. Seierstad quotes the counterterrorism research foundation Quilliam: “There are now just over 30 000 pregnant women in the caliphate.”

Education is fit for purpose: history, philosophy, civics, art and music are not taught; children learn only about the Islamic world in geography, and physical education is replaced with “jihad training”, focusing on the martial arts. In maths, units of calculation are in tanks, artillery and bullets.

She says the top boys in each age group are given special training, and taken to watch executions, an outing that is presented as a privilege. They are trained to be spies, foot soldiers, suicide bombers or snipers. They are repeatedly reminded that the whole point is not this life, but the next, in paradise.

The book was published in Norway two years ago, and has now been translated into English. One wonders if and how life has changed for those families in Syria since IS’s recent military setbacks.

Seierstad has written a sobering account of a terrible thing to befall one family – and given us a glimpse of the horror of creeping radicalisation on individuals, groups and whole states.

Can the terrible attack in Malmesbury be part of this?

  • This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on June 17, 2018.

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