Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $28)
On Oct. 17, 2013, Sadiq and Sara Juma received an email that shattered their world, said Michael Schaub in NPR.org. As journalist Asne Seierstad recounts in her “fascinating, heartbreaking” new book, the couple’s two teenage daughters used just a few short paragraphs to announce they were running away from the happy life they had known in Oslo’s suburbs to join the jihadi war effort in Syria. How could Somali-Norwegian teenagers educated in elite secular schools become so radicalized as to turn away from family and join ISIS? Seierstad doesn’t try to explain, only to report—“and she does it perfectly.” Once Ayan and Leila vanish, and their father goes looking for them, the family’s story is “almost impossible to stop reading.”
What’s disturbing about the girls’ background is “not its foreignness but its comfortable ordinariness,” said Robin Yassin-Kassab in TheGuardian.com. Ayan in particular was a promising student whose newfound piety at first looked like a typical passing teenage phase. But after the sisters start studying under a fiery, charismatic Quran teacher, they are quickly radicalized. Once they flee, the story’s focus shifts to Sadiq, who pays an arms smuggler to help him get into Syria. The plan doesn’t work; Sadiq is abducted by ISIS fighters and tortured when they decide he’s a spy.
Seierstad wrote Two Sisters at Sadiq’s request, to serve as a cautionary tale, said Parul Sehgal in The New York Times. That’s a laudable goal, but Sadiq clearly is not a very reliable source, as he’s shown telling the press a number of face-saving lies—claiming, for example, that his daughters, instead of rejecting his help, had begged him to rescue them. And because Ayan’s and Leila’s voices are heard only in texts, emails, and the like, the sisters never come into full focus. Though we get hints that they ultimately cared less about ISIS’s teachings than about the large home they were provided in Syria, “this story of theirs is yet to be told.”