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Tuesday, 31 March 2020

In the land of war: Two Sisters by Asne Seierstad

Asne Seierstad talks about Two Sisters, her international bestseller about two girls who emigrate from Somalia to Norway only to end up joining IS in Syria

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 20 Feb 2020
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In Cairo earlier this month Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist and the author of several books that depict life in war zones, attended the launch of the Arabic translation of her most recent book, Two Sisters, put out by the Lebanese house, the Arab Scientific Publishers. It was especially rewarding for Seierstad to see serious interest in this non-fiction thriller.

Like the children of other Somalis, the main refugee community in Norway, Ayan and Leila are two teenage sisters who at a very young age flee war-torn Somalia to Oslo with their parents Sadiq and Sara and three brothers. Typical teenagers who enjoy makeup and the company of boys as well as girls, they have a healthy relationship with both their parents, and their Somali identity doesn’t seem paramount even though Sara is endlessly regretful about leaving her home country.

Their Muslim identity on the other hand is more of an issue. Years into the family’s life in Norway, of which they have become citizens, Sara – careful to distinguish between Muslim and Christian holidays – still refuses to cook anything special for Christmas. When her son Ismael shows lack of respect for the required religious rituals, she takes him to an Oslo-based Sheikh to recite the Quran over his head.

Unlike Sadiq, who is eager to assimilate, Sara makes no serious effort to learn Norwegian. But neither of them is in any way prepared for the day Ayan and Leila come home from what is meant to be a shopping outing wearing the full niqab, declaring that this was their duty as Muslims. Seierstad recalls that when she talked to Sadiq his shock that day was still fresh in his mind.

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Seierstad at the Cairo Book fair earlier this month


Seierstad’s impeccably documented 450-page book differs from many accounts of European young men and women who became radical Islamists in that social media was not Ayan and Leila’s starting point. It was rather through Islam Net, an organisation Ayan joined through her elite secondary school, that introduced the two girls to jihad. “Islam Net had been active for years before the girls decided to join it in 2012; it was there first as a Facebook page and then it picked up speed,” Seierstad explained.

Through Islam Net, the girls started going to the Tawfik Mosque in Oslo, a Somali-dominated house of worship where radical Islamists, including some who had been in jihad wars, preached. The girls’ parents were aware that they were involved in “Islamic activities” at the mosque but did not know where it might lead. Constructed around the narrative of Sadiq, “who wanted to tell the story for the benefit of others”, the book shows how Ayan and Leila’s friends, classmates and teachers are never sure when it comes to the shifting point after which those otherwise well-integrated Norwegian girls became attracted to the radical path Islam Net was offering.

Seierstad believes it can’t be one particular thing alone: “It could have been many things including the pursuit of an uncontested identity or the sense of empowerment they got from being part of this group that pronounced itself  a defender of Muslims who are being suppressed in so many parts of the world or the simple fact that the girls liked being there in this mixed community of girls and boys who would be segregated while sitting but could still recognize each other’s presence and company.”

There were “push factors” they faced as immigrants who became citizens – the fact, for example, that they were never fully integrated, unlike Ismael who enrolls to study nanotechnology and who openly expresses scepticism about religion. It could also be about the hidden unease of looking different from the average Norwegian girl, although there are considerable communities of Pakistanis and Somalis in Norway.

But Seierstad is convinced that the girls’ conversion had rather more to do with the “pull factors” of activism and empowerment that Islam Net gave them. The details of the girls’ association with Islam Net as recalled in Two Sisters favour the question of identity – not because Ayan and Leila did not feel Norwegian enough but because Islam Net gave them an accentuated sense of what for them seemed to be an interesting and curious identity: Muslim women.



Even more blurry is the point at which the two niqabis – militant good Muslim women who feel this dress code is an act of feminism and political empowerment – decide to abandon their life in Oslo to join ISIS, travelling via Turkey to Syria and eventually settling in Idlib. Obviously, as Seierstad points out, not all the girls who attend the events of Islam Net or frequent Tawfik Mosque end up as IS women. What prompted Ayan and Leila ≠≠rather was the desire to defend good Muslims in need and reach the highest step on the ladder of righteousness by embracing the possibility of martyrdom.

Martyrdom, as Ayan and Leila keep telling Ismael in their texts from Syria, is not something they are just doing for themselves but also for their parents because a martyr could take their parents’ hands and lead them to paradise. In one text Seierstad shares in the book, Leila, the younger sister, argues that while Sara might feel hurt by her daughters fleeing this is a worldly sentiment that will count for little on the Day of Judgement. That day, Leila tells Ismael, a girl who has performed jihad and become a martyr can take her mother straight to paradise.  

Because Seirestad never managed to talk to the girls, who kept declining her requests for interviews, her account of the escape of Ayan and Leila is based largely on Sadiq’s narrative. Sadiq how Sara called him worried about the girls and he dismissed her worries, assuming they were busy at the mosque before he received a call from one of them telling him to find a letter they’d written in which they explained how they put Allah’s path above love of family.

The books details the family’s nerve-racking efforts to locate the girls as Ismael checks the location information in a photo of grilled chicken they posted accompanied by the caption “Last meal in Europe”, discovering they are in Turkey and not in Sweden as they had claimed. Sara demands that Sadiq should bring the girls back, and he ends up on a wild goose chase in Turkey. Seierstad expertly turns this information into a page-turner as Sadiq manages to make contact first with Mahmut, a taxi driver, and then Osman, a Syrian who helps refugees across the border.

The conversations in this part of the book reveal a great deal about the ongoing tragedy of Syria. At one point Sadiq ends up noticing a recent wedding photo on the wall of a damaged house and is devastated to the think of the fate of the bride and groom who were poised for a prosperous life before protests calling for democracy, which started in February 2011, turned into a complex civil war.

The search for the girls is also a way for Seierstad to outline the complexity of Islamist militias fighting not only the Bashar Al Assad regime but also, at times, each other. The account of Sadiq’s capture and torture almost to death by ISIS, and how he witnesses men being eliminated for spying, is among the most powerful. Sadiq ultimately fails to bring back Ayan and Leila, who are now married with children. By the time the book was published in 2016, four years after the two girls left Oslo, Sara had returned with her two younger boys to Somaliland, leaving Sadiq penniless and in debt after all that he spent on his journey and Ismael alone. The girls disappeared during the war against ISIS, resurfacing in a POW camp for foreign fighters held by the Kurds in northern Syria in March 2019. The fates of many such fighters who hail from Europe remain unknown, and Seierstad feels they should return. The fact that most of these women are stranded with children is both a profound humanitarian and a socio-political concern, she argues: “The kids get sick and they cannot find treatment; and what would become of these girls if they are left there.”

Seierstad is aware that, following “Syria”, many Europeans are concerned about the failure of immigrants and refugees to integrate, but her point is that this simply makes their return a two-way challenge of acceptance, coexistence and reintegration. Having spent the best part of her 25 years as a freelance journalist in war zones, Seierstad understands first hand in how difficult Muslims’ lives can be in such places as Afghanistan and Iraq, and the yearning for justice that might express itself in jihad.

She also understands that people like Sara and Sadiq will keep turning up in Europe as long as the wars that ravage their homes aren’t stopped. Until the big issues can be resolved, however, she feels efforts should be made to make it easier for the children of immigrants and refugees who grow up in Western societies to integrate: “There will still be this argument about what makes young men and women who grow up in societies that grant them at least the very basic standards of decent living decide to defect to militant groups – is it Islam in itself or is it racism against and unfairness to Muslims?” Seierstad feels that, whatever it is, the important thing is to ensure that no more girls should go through what Ayan and Leila went through and, should they wish to start anew, that people like Ayan and Leila should be allowed to.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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