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BOOK REVIEW: Two Sisters written by Åsne Seierstad and translated by Seán Kinsella

| 3 September 2018 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Two Sisters written by Åsne Seierstad and translated by Seán Kinsella

Little, Brown Book Group
March 2018
Paperback, $49.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Biographies & True Stories / Discovery, History & Science


Åsne Seierstad is no stranger to writing about war and conflict. The Norwegian journalist is the best-selling author of The Bookseller of Kabul and has also penned Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya and One of Us. The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. In Two Sisters, Seierstad writes a thrilling piece of literary non-fiction about a pair of Somali-Norwegian girls who leave their adopted, democratic homes to join ISIS in war-torn Syria. The book is rather detailed and can be a little slow-burning in parts but is an utterly compelling study of the complex process of radicalisation.

We ask your forgiveness for all the pain we have caused you. We love you both sooo much, would do anything for you, and would never do anything to purposely hurt you, and is it not then fair and proper that we do everything for ALLAH swt’s sake and are grateful for what he has given us by following his rules, laws and commands.
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 there as best we can.

The amount of research and care that went into this volume is obvious. Seierstad does an excellent job of painting the context with rich details and giving us relevant snippets from history. Leila and Ayan (their names have been changed to protect their identities) are the eldest daughters of Sadiq and Sara Juma. The family were originally from Somaliland where Sadiq fought as a solider before marrying his wife when they were both teenagers. The couple would eventually have five children, two of their three sons born in Norway. Sara never really integrated into the new culture of her adopted homeland and was actually concerned that her children were turning too Norwegian.

The girls spent a lot of time in their room. ‘Don’t come in!’ they called out, irritated, if anyone tried the door handle.
While other mothers fretted about their daughters having boyfriends or dressing indecently, Sara had nothing to worry about. Her daughters always did as she told them. They asked permission for everything, even to knock on the neighbors’ doors, she boasted to her friends. It was gratifying that they did not melt too much into Norwegian ways. Ismael, on the other hand, was a source of concern. He was slipping away from his Somali background, she felt, and was in danger of becoming too Norwegian.

Over time the girls became increasingly isolated from their Norwegian friends. They established a youth organisation called Islam Net where they exchanged extreme ideas with other Muslim youths. They purchased niqabs, which their parents disapproved of because these are a hallmark of Arabic, not Somali culture. Sadiq and Sara actually lead a moderate-Muslim household. With the benefit of hindsight they could see that the girls progressively became stricter in their religious practices and beliefs as they became increasingly more indoctrinated and radicalised.

At home, Sara, too, was at a loss. She was trying to piece together whatever she could from memory.
The girls had begun to live by strict rules sometime back. Prayer, attire, food, behaviour – everything was to be right and pure. They stopped wearing makeup and jewelry. Perfume containing alcohol was thrown out, and then all perfume was disposed of. It was haram (forbidden) – it could attract men…
One day Sara had opened the family photo album and found that several pictures had been ripped out. Some had been removed completely, while heads and bodies had been cut out of others. Ayan and Leila had been expunged from the album.
Sara had been furious.
‘But we’re not covered, Mom! Imagine if someone outside the family saw us. It’s haram!’
The memories were gone. She had mourned the loss of those photos.

All of these events had dire results and culminated in the girls leaving Oslo on the 17th of October 2013. They were just 19 and 16 years old at the time. They travelled first to Turkey and then on to Syria. While Streisand explores some reasons for what motivated the girls, she ultimately allows readers to draw their own conclusions about how this all happened.

The entire world is trying to understand the reasons for radicalization among Muslim youth. Researchers, politicians, and youth workers are attempting to understand why some teenagers reject education and a life in peaceful surroundings to join a terror organization. There is no single explanation, but one can point to several factors, including the search for identity, meaning, and status; the desire to belong; the influence of others; excitement; the need to rebel; and romantic notions. In the girls’ case, elements of a profound religious awakening can be added. Push-and-pull factors feature prominently when researchers talk about radicalization. Something pushed them out, something pulled them in.

The girls did not agree to be interviewed by Seierstad for Two Sisters. Their ideas and dialogue have been created by Seierstad from the writings the girls left in Norway (like emails, social media posts and school assignments.) In the former two mediums they sound like typical teenagers and use slang and emojis to communicate what they’re thinking. Other aspects of their personalities have been reconstructed from the memories of other people.

To question the word of God was blasphemy, she pointed out. And the rightful punishment for it was death.
He [Ismael] realized how extreme they had become. How could he not have seen where they were headed?
Ismael reread the long message Leila had sent the night before. She had written that being able to answer to God on judgment day was more important than worrying about hurting people in the here and now. ‘I’m not a particularly good daughter and I don’t give my parents what they really deserve, but this is my chance to make up for that by being of help to them in the afterlife.’ By enlisting in holy war, she would save them all from hell. If you died as a martyr, you could choose seventy family members to join you in paradise. She had sacrificed herself for them.

Sadiq forms a big part of this story, especially his repeatedly thwarted attempts to travel to Syria to rescue his daughters. The girls’ leaving had a huge impact on the family. Sadiq is a broken man from the experience so it’s unsurprising that he proves to be an unreliable witness at times. He actually lied to the Norwegian media and a documentary film crew because he was so single-minded in his desire to get the girls to return home.

The day before he [Sadiq] and [documentary filmmaker] Styrk [Jansen] were to travel to Reyhanli via Istanbul, he had to find a way to end the deception. It was too late to tell Styrk the plain truth – that the girls didn’t want to leave the caliphate and that the Double [Syrian people smuggler] had quite simply refused to take on the job.
It had been easier to make up a story about his beheading and crucifixion.

The relationship between the girls and their brother Ismael is also fascinating. You get the sense that prior to leaving Norway they were motivated by a desire to help Syrian children and fellow Muslims as well as to help establish a caliphate. Ismael on the other hand took the opposing view and rejected the Islamic faith. He often challenged his sisters on their beliefs in the sporadic communication they had with each other:

‘Ayan, I love you both very much. But you’re a big depressing anchor weighing down my life…Do you want to say anything else before I block you and erase you from my life?’
‘Ismael! That’s enough! We’re family, are you just going to throw us away? We’d love to go to Turkey and meet you but we can’t risk being sent home! Consider visiting us, people have travelled here from Sweden and got home safe. You’re acting weak! This is not how you are Ismael!
‘You’re like random people in a crowd to me. You’re nobody.’
‘We really need your support.’
‘I had two really nice sisters… I’ll make sure that Jibril and Isaq don’t follow in your footsteps. I used to respect religion but now I can’t stand it… I believe in Allah about as much as I believe in the spaghetti monster, bye now.’

Two Sisters is a very multi-layered book that tackles some complicated and sensitive issues with a deft hand. The story is ultimately a disturbing and tragically human one. It should also serve as a cautionary tale for people who are concerned that their loved ones are becoming too indoctrinated. Seierstad expertly uses novelistic techniques to fashion a mosaic-like reality that really covers the emotional spectrum and helps educate us about something that could have remained unknowable. That is, it tackles the question, “Why would two bright girls reject what so many of us hold so dear?” It has no simple answers but this book is incredible nonetheless.

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at:

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