By Suzy Hansen
Asne Seierstad’s 2003 book, “The Bookseller of Kabul,” sold more than a million copies and landed the author in court. In the book, Seierstad portrays the inner workings of an Afghan family with whom she lived for several months: the patriarch’s acquisition of a second wife, the perils of flirting in a conservative society, the tyrannical behavior of men and the suffering of women. The patriarch — the bookseller of the title — claimed that Seierstad misrepresented him as a brute, violated the sanctity of his household and jeopardized his family’s lives. “Surely it is the Afghan culture that puts these young women at risk,” Seierstad said at the time. One of the bookseller’s wives sued Seierstad for invasion of privacy, though she was eventually cleared of the charges. These were the days after Sept. 11, during the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The Islamic world was suddenly something that needed to be penetrated and understood. Two civilizations had clashed, and everyone was confused. But for a long time, only one bore the burden of having to explain itself, and of watching itself be explained.
Fifteen years later, the wars begun after 9/11 continue in spectacular and gruesome new forms. The books about them have also changed, at least a little. In her new book, “Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey Into the Syrian Jihad,” Seierstad, the author of several other works, including “One of Us,” about the 2011 massacre of dozens of Norwegians by a far-right terrorist, again takes on conservative Islamic culture, war zones and fathers. But this time the mystery she’s exploring is the appeal for Muslims of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS. Seierstad wants to know: Why did thousands of Europeans leave their homes in the West to join ISIS in Syria?
As in “Bookseller,” the main character in “Two Sisters” is the patriarch of a large family: Sadiq Juma, who moved his wife and children (eventually he had five) to Norway from Hargeisa, Somaliland, after fighting in the Somali civil war. In Norway he found work in a Coca-Cola warehouse, but when the book opens he is injured and on sick leave, and the family is being supported by NAV, the Norwegian welfare authority. Sadiq has embraced his Norwegian life, whereas his wife, Sara, didn’t want to learn the language. She speaks Somali with her children, and as the years pass she has fretted about them becoming “too Norwegian,” particularly their son Ismael. He was more rebellious than her daughters, Ayan and Leila, who “asked for permission for everything.”
Then, in October 2013, the two girls disappear. A farewell email arrives from an unknown location in Sweden: “Muslims are under attack from all quarters, and we need to do something,” the sisters write. They apologize for hurting their parents but promise to make it up to them in the afterlife. Hours later, another email follows, this time from Adana, Turkey, where the girls are having their last meal in Europe, waiting for someone to bring them to the war zone: They suggest that their family read “Defense of Muslim Lands: The First Obligation After Iman,” by Dr. Abdullah Azzam, who inspired Osama bin Laden to finance the mujahideen in Afghanistan and is known as the “father of modern jihadism.”
Sadiq immediately flies to Turkey to intercept his daughters. He’s too late. At the Syrian border, parents from Kuwait, Qatar, and Britain have come looking: “Hunched figures. Desperation in their eyes.” A Turkish taxi driver connects Sadiq to a Syrian smuggler, who arranges his trip across the border to the town of Atmeh. Sadiq’s travails in Syria — including 12 days in a bloody, excrement-filled ISIS prison — are among the most well-executed scenes in the book. “What sort of hell is this?” a Syrian cellmate asks before he is beheaded. Meanwhile, Sadiq’s daughters, who have been taken in by ISIS in a nearby town, send messages to Ismael back in Norway complaining about their father’s pestering of ISIS leaders to release them and bragging about “not having to lift a finger” for “a house, water, electricity, the lot!!!”
Ayan and Leila did not respond to Seierstad’s requests to speak to her for this book. As a substitute for firsthand interviews, she quotes the girls’ surreal internet chat-speak. “So we’re probably never going to see each other again?” Ismael says, deploying a crying emoji. “Don’t ever think that we always have Skype, haha,” Leila replies. Ismael descends into depression, and the girls become meaner. “Sad to see my sisters offering their bodies to retards fighting to get killed, otherwise it’s all good,” Ismael writes. “HAHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHA better to die than to live life like a loser,” Ayan writes back. The sisters figure in the family’s life as disembodied aggro-texters. They speak in the language of the Facebook update, and unsurprisingly it makes everyone else feel awful. “They had chosen a life without him,” Sadiq thinks. “They were making pancakes in Raqqa.” Without Ayan and Leila’s testimony, “Two Sisters” is less a portrait of why two European women joined ISIS than one of those they left behind.
Even without the sisters’ voices, the passages in which Seierstad attempts to piece together how the girls were radicalized are absorbing. As the oldest and her father’s favorite, Ayan dominates the account. When she was 13, she and her friends wore Kiss T-shirts and skinny jeans. Her favorite author was Knut Hamsun. Ayan is herself a good writer, with an impressive imagination; in a short story she wrote for school, she conjures the interior life of an American soldier in Vietnam: “We are on night patrol doing a recon. Those sly gooks could be hiding just about anywhere.” The soldier recalls taking part in massacres in which women and children were coated with oil and set on fire. “How can the sky be so beautiful when the world is so sickening?” Ayan writes. From an early age, she was a feminist, “tough and self-confident,” and “indignant at the oppression of women, the focus on body image.” She thought Islam sometimes oppressed women, too.
Then came three crucial developments: Ayan’s mother hired a Quran teacher for her brood, who held radical views; Ayan discovered an organization called Islam Net, which she joined for the religiosity as much as for the cute boys; and she and her friends met a group of charismatic thugs who longed for jihad abroad. Seierstad portrays Islam Net, inspired by Saudi Salafism, as the crucial catalyst for the girls’ initial radicalization; its leaders demand that Ayan devote more time to its activities, prying her from the grasp of her advanced Norwegian high school. The group preaches peace to non-Muslims they hope to convert, but the first Islam Net gathering in Norway is devoted to a discussion of how the American government and the Jews planned the Sept. 11 attacks.
Sept. 11, and the subsequent embrace of “us vs. them” rhetoric by the United States come up often in “Two Sisters.” Muslims in Norway feel threatened by the anti-Islamic rhetoric of the war on terror, lumped together into one inherently suspect group. Teenagers “stuffed all their setbacks and growing pains in the same bag: It’s because I’m a Muslim,” Seierstad writes. Then came the war in Syria, an opportunity for self-definition: “Why be a second-class Norwegian when you can be a first-class Muslim?” Muslims, Ayan and Leila agreed, “needed some form of defense.”
Seierstad, perhaps still sensitive after the trials of “Bookseller,” admits in an extensive reporter’s note that she allowed Sadiq and Sara to read “Two Sisters” before publication. Her deference to Sadiq might be one reason we get few details regarding what he and Sara were like as parents. And although much of the book takes place in Norway, I didn’t emerge with a vivid sense of why the girls rejected it. Seierstad shows the Norwegian teachers struggling with the girls’ lifestyle choices — wearing the niqab in school, leaving in the middle of class for prayers — but she never pulls back and describes Norway in her own words, as if it, too, might be as foreign a place for the reader as the Islamic world. “If there is one thing I have learned, it is that respect, tolerance, equality, solidarity, and unity are important values in Norwegian society,” one of Ayan’s Muslim friends says. “But is it respectful when people ascribe opinions to me and associate me with something criminal?” These girls had philosophical questions about the state of the world, and about their own souls. Seierstad quotes Chekhov: “Either you must know why you live, or everything is trivial, not worth a straw.” As monstrous as it was, the Islamic State gave these girls a reason for living. I’m not sure we understand yet why secular societies often do not.
Suzy Hansen’s “Notes on a Foreign Country: An American Abroad in a Post-American World” was a finalist for a 2018 Pulitzer Prize.