In late 2013, nineteen-year-old Ayan and sixteen-year-old Leila abruptly departed their adopted home of Norway to join the Syrian jihad. They are the daughters of Somali immigrants Sadiq and Sara, and in Two Sisters, Åsne Seierstad tracks the devastation the family suffers in the wake of their departure and looks back in time to examine how two young women could become radicalized.
The story is peppered with digressions that investigate and explain the recent history of Syria, quickly contextualizing the conflict and the situation into which the sisters have inserted themselves before returning their father Sadiq’s efforts to rescue them. Seierstad is nonjudgmental of the choice made by the sisters – she is able to present them almost entirely on their own terms through their online communications. The contrast between the text-speak of the sisters and the more journalistic tone of the prose sometimes makes this translation feel a little stiff, particularly in the beginning chapters. It took some time to get used to the style of it, but the story itself is so compelling that I was swept through the book regardless.
The question the book delicately poses is whether Sadiq should be pursuing his daughters at all – they repeatedly rebuff his attempts to bring them home, assuring him that they are safe and happy. Sadiq, meanwhile, becomes completely consumed by his quest to “rescue” them, trying again and again, to the point of losing almost everything. Sadiq’s story is both impressive and horrifying – he is at one point captured and tortured after crossing the border to Syria, and his account of this is recreated by Seierstad in harrowing detail.
The book reads as both a thriller and a piece of investigative journalism, as Seierstad meticulously researched the story by reading logs of Viber, Whatsapp and Facebook messages; interviewing the girls’ parents, teachers, and friends; reading police logs and statements; as well as reaching out to the girls themselves. They declined to speak to her, and so we never receive a clear answer as to why this happened. Seierstad writes in the epilogue, “Is it ethically defensible to focus on the lives of two girls when they have not granted their consent? My answer is yes,” reasoning that there is no “single explanation” for the radicalization of Muslim youth. She leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions about why Ayan and Leila followed this path.
Photo courtesy of the publisher.