Robin Yassin-Kassab

Two Sisters

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This review was first published at the Guardian.

2 sistersAyan is nineteen and Leila only sixteen when their parents receive an unexpected email. “Please do not be cross with us, it was sooo hard for us to leave without saying goodbye.” They are travelling to Syria to join the Islamic State. They want to help Muslims, they say, “everything from fetching water for the sick to working in refugee camps.”

The names of these “Two Sisters” have been changed, but the story – related by Asne Seierstad, author of “The Bookseller of Kabul” – is entirely true. The girls are Norwegian-Somalis, from a devout but tolerant family. They’ve grown up and attended good schools in Baerum, “the Norwegian municipality with the highest percentage of millionaires and the greatest divide between rich and poor.” What disturbs in the account of their childhood is not its ‘foreignness’ but its comfortable ordinariness. Ayan in particular is a promising student. She develops crushes on boys and expresses indignation at women’s oppression. Then she transforms “from open and approachable to sarcastic, patronising and loud” – hardly an unusual adolescent trajectory.

Certainly the second-generation migrant experience of feeling culturally and racially ‘out of place’ creates an even more urgent need for self-definition. The sisters join Islam Net, a youth organisation seeking to cleanse Islam of the elders’ ‘ethno-cultural’ practices. The danger of such ‘purified’ religion is its potential transformation into an ethnicity-substitute, stridently political but stripped of its moral and spiritual core. Soon the sisters take to niqabs and – to their parents’ horror – adopt a snooty attitude to ‘kuffar’.

But all this – religious awakening, identity politics, conspiracy theories – is still standard teenage fare. What propels the girls from humdrum self-righteousness towards bit-parts in a war drama is their latching onto transglobal Salafi-Jihadism, a religious strain currently prominent on the internet and certain battle fronts.

Transfixed by romantic accounts of the Muslim past and near future, Ayan gravitates towards ‘the Prophet’s Umma’ organisation. Seierstad indicates but doesn’t overplay the sexual allure of these rugged “Alpha-Islamists” with gangster pasts – characters like Bastian Vasquez, a Chilean-Norwegian convert, embezzler of charity funds, and child abuser. Through well researched character sketches, Seierstad (who also authored a book on the trial of neo-fascist terrorist Anders Breivik) skilfully brings this dark milieu to life.

Once the girls are in Syria, the story’s focus shifts to their well-meaning father, Sadiq. Guilty only of fecklessness and inattention, now terrified for (and shamed by) his daughters, Sadiq pursues them to Turkey, then across the border. Here he’s taken under the wing of Osman, an arms and information smuggler.

The Syrian background is sketched quickly and accurately. It’s late 2013 and democratic rebels are losing ground to Islamist and Jihadist groups. President Assad, “fearing democracy more than Islamism”, is contributing to the process. By ruthless strategy – “Survey. Monitor. Abduct. Eliminate” – the “arrogant, boorish and cruel” foreigners of ISIS are expanding.

Attempting to negotiate, Sadiq is abducted, pressured to enlist, then tortured as a spy. Syrian farmers are murdered close by. “What sort of hell is this?” one asks.

Sadiq finally escapes back to Oslo. But his wife Sara, never happy in Norway, and subject now to Somali community gossip, leaves for Somaliland, taking the younger children. Lonely and broke, Sadiq retreats into fantasy and denial.

An occasional poet and musician, once a teenage militiaman, his dealings with fighters, smugglers, diplomats, policemen and journalists lead him increasingly out of his depth. Several times his inventions become front-page news.

In a series of returns to Syria – and ill-fated rescue attempts – everything that can go wrong does. Pertinently, the girls reject being rescued. Sadiq can’t “admit that what he wanted was not what his daughters wanted.”

What do they want? No longer ‘to help Muslims’. Ayan texts her brother: “We get money without working here btw. Tee hee.”

Seierstad’s literary journalism is very effectively patched together from texts and chats as much as school files and interviews. Judged by their own words, the ISIS women don’t come off well.

“Keep in mind that God has ordained our reward here,” Leila texts her parents. This is aptly translated as “the Islamic State’s version of: because I deserve it.”

When her Syrian neighbours are evicted, one jihadette gloats: “I’m pretty sure the men were beheaded, the women chucked out.” Another describes the beheading of aid worker Peter Kassig as “gut-wrenchingly awesome justice.” And here’s Ayan herself commenting on Yazidi women being raped: “They’re not women, they’re spoils of war.”

What – beyond the teenage stuff – explains the appeal of such savagery? Seierstad deliberately proposes no answer, only the implied lesson, or reminder, that people may easily become so convinced of their own fictions that they experience vice as virtue and an inferno as paradise.

French scholar Olivier Roy argues that, in the western Jihadi mindset, real countries are converted into “gaming space”. This applies more generally. Syria has become a screen on which outsiders project their own concerns and dreams, from the resurrected Caliphate to the War on Terror. As well as invading states, individual Sunnis, Shias, fascists and leftists have arrived from around the globe. Less and less space is left for Syrians themselves.

Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

March 21, 2018 at 12:03 pm

Posted in book review

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One Response

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  1. Fantastic review. I was curious about this one and it sounds like an excellent book, albeit such a difficult topic.


    April 4, 2018 at 12:37 pm

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