Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey Into the Syrian JihadAuthor: Asne SeierstadPublisher: Macmillan USA, nonfiction, Feb 2018Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey Into the Syrian Jihad
Author: Asne Seierstad
Publisher: Macmillan USA, nonfiction

Norwegian journalist and author Asne Seierstad specialises in chronicling everyday life in the world’s conflict zones. She has written about living through the Serbian revolution that overthrew former president Slobodan Milosevic (With Their Backs To The World, 2000), daily life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule (The Bookseller Of Kabul, 2002), and surviving in the war-torn Russian republic of Chechnya (Angel Of Grozny, 2007).

Seierstad’s latest offering, Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, And Their Journey Into The Syrian Jihad, is a disturbing, chilling and all too real tale about two sisters who left a happy home and a safe life in Oslo to join the Islamic State (IS) militant group in Syria.

The titular sisters – Ayan, 19, and Leila, 16 – are two Somali Muslim girls who lived a seemingly happy, ordinary and Westernised life in Oslo. While the girls did all the things teenagers in Western Europe did, like go to school dances, movies, and spend a ridiculous amount of time on social media, they also observed and practised their Muslim faith.

One October morning in 2013, the two sisters left home, seemingly going to school as usual, arousing no parental suspicions. How-ever, at the end of the day, the girls did not return home.

It was some time later that they contacted their parents via e-mail (“Peace, God’s mercy and blessings upon you, Mum and Dad … Please do not be cross with us….”) to say that they were on their way to Syria to help IS fight the infidels.

Ayan and Leila’s parents – Sadiq and Sara – and friends initially thought the girls were playing an elaborate joke on them, but as time went on, when it dawned on Sadiq and Sara that their daughters were not coming home, it was revealed that the girls had been following a charming group of people on Facebook and social media who slowly turned their minds towards a radicalised form of Islam, to the point that they scraped together enough money to make their way from Oslo to Syria.

Author Asne Seierstad.

Author Asne Seierstad.

Desperate to get their daughters back, Sadiq travels to Syria, where he puts himself in great danger by questioning religious fanatics and dubious men claiming to have direct access to God. Meanwhile, Sara remains in Oslo, trying to figure out how she had missed her daughters drifting towards their current fate, and how to make sure her two young sons don’t follow in their sisters’ footsteps.

Much like her previous book, One Of Us (2013), which explores how a seemingly ordinary Norwegian citizen turned to Nazism and shot scores of innocent people in a park, Seierstad keeps her accounts unbiased and sticks to the facts she unearths.

She presents Two Sisters as a story of a family ripped apart by a faith radicalised to the extreme, and how a father’s love for his daughters dared him to venture into the heart of a country besieged by a combination of extreme religious and political beliefs as well as outside interference, to ensure the girls returned to a normal life.

I have to say that Two Sisters is not an easy read and it’s not for everyone. The subject matter can be hard to digest, and the topic of religious brainwashing tends to be divisive. Kudos to Seierstad for not attempting to answer how Ayan and Leila became caught up in the IS web when the girls themselves don’t know how to explain it.

Though she does not impose her own judgement or moral views, the message Seierstad subtly encodes is that anything taken to extremes can be dangerous, and not even a parent’s love can provide protection.

Yes, Two Sisters is not for everyone, but it is definitely worth exploring if you dare to.