Book Review: Åsne Seierstad’s Two Sisters is a compelling blend of investigative journalism and the heart breaking tale of a family torn apart

On October 17th 2013, teenage sisters Ayan and Leila Juma left their Oslo home and headed for Syria. Deeply radicalised and intending to take part in jihad, they had planned the trip in secret for months. But their decision tears the Juma family apart, as parents Sadiq and Sara struggle to come to terms with their loss, while oldest son Ismael begins to question his religion, and how it could drive his sisters into a war zone.

Presented with the support of the Juma family, Two Sisters: Into The Syrian Jihad straddles a powerful line between excellent investigative journalism and an emotional and heart breaking story. Combining the struggles of Sadiq as he tries to bring his girls home, the deepening rift between Sadiq and Sara, who returns to Somalia to grieve in her own way, and an in-depth exploration of the radicalisation process in Norway, author Åsne Seierstad’s work is informative and gripping.

The strength in Seierstad’s narrative lies in the plotting of the girls’ move to Syria. Rather than sensationalise or demonise – exactly what groups like ISIS expect and need us to do – the steps that lead the girls to their decision are set out logically and factually. It’s easy to see how sisters Ayan and Leila move from group to group, how they find the views that matter to them, and use them to shift gradually from conservative speakers to radical activists. It’s indoctrination to a point, but it’s also coherent and understandable.

Boldly acknowledging that even the most seemingly settled individuals can find a place within these troubled groups, it’s the story of Dilal, one of Ayan’s original core group of friends that stuck with me the most. The least conservative of the four friends who attended those early Islam Net meetings together, even she finds herself drawn in, eventually ending up in an abusive and controlling marriage with Ubaydullah Hussain, one of Norway’s most vocal radicals. Ultimately, Dilal is the only one to find her way home, returning to her studies as her former friends descend deeper and deeper down the radical rabbit hole. The methods Seierstad explores show that these groups do not just target the isolated, but actively seek to isolate, whether from family or local culture. Divide and conquer, as the old saying goes.

What’s also important, and should be required reading for any bigot who subscribes to the idea that Muslim = terrorist, is that Two Sisters is full of evidence that Islam, like any religion, covers many different beliefs, interpretations, and sects. Seierstad showcases varying degrees of conservatism and radicalism, as well as exploring some of the worries expressed by, in particular, the girls’ schools. Though coming from a good place, these are worries rooted in preconceived ideas and misunderstandings about Islam and it’s important that they’re balanced out by the realities of the religion. Examples of this are seen not just in the reactions of Sadiq, Sara, and Ismael to the girls’ disappearance, but in the work done by Osman and his men in Syria. A smuggler by trade, Osman searches for and tries to rescue Ayan and Leila even when Sadiq cannot be there himself, and the messages between the two men highlight both their brotherly bond – despite their different backgrounds and opinions – and the violent climate of the region.

All this makes Sadiq’s desperate searching even more painful. Even as a reader I (perhaps a little naively) maintained hope the girls would see the error of their ways and come home. But the groundwork laid was simply too strong and there is, even now, no sign of Ayan and Leila returning to Norway.

Blending strong investigative journalism with a family’s deeply painful story, Åsne Seierstad’s Two Sisters is a compelling read. Heavy on the detail, it can be hard going at times (my head is still spinning from the Syrian history lessons), but is wonderfully crafted, and – to my Western eyes at least – incredibly sensitive to the varied issues at hand. A word of advice though, don’t go in expecting a happy family reunion to round off this troubling tale. It’s real life, after all.

Two Sisters: Into the Syrian Jihad is available now though Hachette Australia