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Two Sisters by Âsne Seierstad review: one father’s hunt for his daughters lured into IS



Two Sisters is a grimly informative study of how not only societies but families too can be riven and sundered by unquestionable, fanatical belief, says David Sexton

Asne Seierstad made her name with a series of closely reported books set in conflict zones, including her 2002 bestseller, The Bookseller of Kabul, followed by One Hundred and One Days: A Baghdad Journal, and Angel of Grozny: Inside Chechnya. Then, in 2015, she turned to events in her own country with One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway.

Her latest bestseller, Two Sisters, is the story of two Somali teenagers, Ayan, 19, and Leila, 16, who, in October 2013, having become radicalised in Oslo, secretly left the family home and made their way to Syria. Their father, Sadiq Juma, followed them three days later, first to Turkey and then into Syria, to try to bring them home. With the help of local fixers he made contact with them but they told him they had not been kidnapped, they had planned it for a year and had done it “100 per cent for Allah’s sake”. They were with Daesh — and Ayan was already married to a Norwegian Eritrean jihadist.

After appealing to a local Islamic court, Sadiq was allowed to meet Ayan again for just four minutes, and then, lured by the promise of another meeting with his daughters, kidnapped by IS, accused of being a spy and beaten and tortured for 13 days in a prison adapted from a sewage plant. Only after he had convinced a sharia prosecutor that he was simply a father looking for his daughters did he somehow manage to escape.

Sadiq returned to his broken family in Oslo, still trying from there to rescue the girls, who did not want to be rescued. Meanwhile, IS set about the creation of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, making Raqqa the capital, taking Tikrit and Mosul, and proclaiming the caliphate in June 2014, soon following up with the release of the horrific beheading videos of Western hostages, starting with James Foley.

Both Ayan and Leila, now herself married to a British Somali jihadist, remained in Raqqa, both having baby daughters. Seierstad’s book, published in Norwegian in 2016, leaves them there. Although the city fell last autumn, they are believed still to be in Syria somewhere.

Seierstad announces her story as a “documentary account”, based always on testimony, whether in the form of extensive interviews with the girls’ family and friends, written records or retrieved texts and emails. She has shaped this enormous amount of material into a quasi-novelistic form, taking the liberty of reconstructing not just conversations but thoughts.

Beginning with the night the sisters ran off and Sadiq’s initial pursuit of them, it then loops back to look at the girls’ upbringing in Norway before returning to take on the story of Sadiq’s misadventures in Syria, all this part evidently based mainly on Sadiq’s own account. Thereafter the book lacks propulsion, since the basic situation alters little, and Seierstad has to rely heavily on the intermittent text and email exchanges the sisters had with their family, including their sceptical brother Ismael, back in Oslo.

Seierstad claims impartiality. “I offer no explanation, neither of what attracted them to Islamic radicalism nor what propelled them out of Norway. I relate my findings. It is up to each reader to draw his or her own conclusions.”

Nevertheless, a short final section, boldly taking “hell is other people” as its epigraph, offers a summary of what the girls sought, and closes with an appalled guess at what the lives of their baby girls will be in the aftermath of the caliphate. “They will discover that hell is here. Hell is us. If they survive.”

Despite attempts to contact them, the sisters did not participate in the book. “Is it ethically defensible to focus on the lives of two girls when they have not granted their consent?” Seierstad asks. “My answer is yes. The entire world is trying to understand the reasons for radicalisation among Muslim youth.”

Her book gives as detailed an explanation as we’ve yet had. It makes it all too clear how helpless to argue against extreme Islamism other believers can be — since the extremists’ appeal is always to the Koran and to Allah, appeals which other believers cannot simply refuse or deny. The sisters’ parents were initially delighted by their strict observance. “It was gratifying that they did not melt too much into Norwegian ways.” Even after they have disappeared into Syria, their mother believes “they just needed to be led back into the path of true Islam”.

Their brother Ismael, meanwhile, lost his faith entirely. He told his fanatical sisters: “I believe in Allah about as much as I believe in the spaghetti monster.” His older sister, Ayan, who believed the caliphate would soon take over the entire world, broke off contact with him first; his younger sister, Leila, followed, after he had told her IS would be defeated.

Two Sisters is a grimly informative study of how not only societies but families too can be riven and sundered by unquestionable, fanatical belief.


Local children’s book honored for its focus on Somali culture



REAL CHANGE — Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan declared Feb. 9 “Baro Af-Soomaali Day” during a celebration at the New Holly Gathering Hall honoring the families who created a children’s book for the Somali community. The celebration was the culmination of two years’ work by local Somali families, Seattle Public Schools (SPS) and the Seattle Public Library (SPL).

Over the past few years, organizations working with the Somali community became aware that many families in the community were worried about the loss of the language and culture, and that parents were concerned about their children not being given educational materials that reflected the Somali culture.

The book was a joint effort, involving the Somali Family Safety Taskforce, SPL, SPS and the Seattle Housing Authority. The project also received support from the Seattle Public Library Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a Race to the Top Deep Dive 3 grant from the Puget Sound Educational Service District and the Community Center for Education Results.

Over a four-week period, local Somali artist and poet Mohammed Shidane worked with four families to create “Baro Af-Soomaali.” The families were given a group of Somali letters and asked to select some items from their homes that illustrated the letter. The families decided as a group the layout, the illustrative photographs and the title.

The project allowed the families to explore their culture and language together. The parents and grandparents told stories about their home country of Somalia to their children and grandchildren, and, through the process, the children reported that they were proud to speak Somali.

The families and all the people involved in the creation of the book hope people enjoy reading it as much as they enjoyed making it.

In presenting the proclamation, the mayor cited the many contributions of the Somali community to the city of Seattle. “Somali-American families contribute to all sectors of our society, and we believe in ensuring that our public institution, our schools, our libraries and our community centers are responsive to and reflect the many diverse cultures that make up our city,” she said.

Applewood Books is publishing the book, and Ingram Distribution is helping get the book to libraries and schools across the United States and around the world. The book is currently available on Royalties go to the Seattle Public Library Foundation and Somali Family Safety Taskforce to fund similar projects in the future.

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Novels my way to respond in measured way: Nadifa Mohamed



Somali author Nadifa Mohamed says she is constantly enraged by conflicts and unrest across the globe and the only way she can calm herself and contribute anything meaningful is responding in a measured way through her novels.

“There has to be respect for human life that you don’t let people die. That’s the line you don’t cross. And I feel that this line has been crossed,” she rues.

“I am very aware of how much the present situation, present fears have impacted my ability to respond in any kind of measured way. And the only way I can respond in a measured way is through fiction and my novel,” London-based Mohamed, who was in India recently for the Jaipur Literature Festival, told PTI.

“I am constantly enraged by the news of conflicts, atrocities and unrest and the only way I can calm myself and contribute anything meaningful is through my novels written after adequate research,” she says.

According to Mohammed, economic depressions like the Great Recession always bring out the most violent, most irrational responses politically.

“That’s what we are seeing, we are seeing it in the West, we are seeing it in the Muslim world, we are seeing it in too many places. The underlying reasons have been there for long and probably they are recurring. The recent energy behind the conflicts we are seeing, the instability we are seeing may be due to the gratuity loss,” she says.

Mohamed, a Granta best young British novelist, is working on her third novel which is about miscarriage of justice and deals with a murder case from the 1950s. “The book has been in my mind for about 10 years. I intended it to be a very short and tight novel but it is now almost 600 pages long.

It is very, very historical. It has got real life characters,” she says.

For her, what becomes a novel is something that gets under her skin. “It might be personal too. I have written a lot about my family or something that relates to a feeling I have had for a long period of time.”

She thinks she has been getting deeper and deeper in trying to understand what people have been talking about constantly discrimination, justice, migration, self-identity.

“So I think the novel is still precious for that. There is no other way I know that you sit with someone, you sit with the story for days and days and really absorb it. I am not convinced that I have as much as of a transformative effect on the reader but it just grabs a more meaningful attention from them than anything else that I can think of,” says Mohammed, who was born in the Somali city of Hargeisa in 1981 while Somalia was falling deeper into dictatorship.

In 1986, she moved to London with her family in what she thought was a temporary move but a couple of years later it became permanent as war broke out in Somalia.

Her father’s stories were the basis of her debut novel “Black Mamba Boy”.

Mohammeds next work “The Orchard of Lost Souls”, set in Hargeisa, is the story of three women – nine-year-old Deqo, an orphan born and raised in the Saba’ad refugee camp; Kawsar, a well-off widow in her 50s whose late husband was the city’s chief of police before the public offices were purged; and Filsan, an ambitious young soldier in her late 20s.

On migration of authors to other countries, she says, I have noticed that many writers, not surely they are refugees, but they have moved either a lot or one big time in their childhood. So there must be something to do with leaving one world behind and entering a new world at a very formative age that enables or switches on the writer’s mind.

On the writing and publishing scene in Somaliland, she says, “I could still write and I could have published but the platform would be very different. The industry is Somaliland is in its very early stages. Selling is a problem there but it is also not so easy in the US and the UK either.

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4th Grade Somali American Teacher Pens Children’s Book For Somali Youth



WCCO – CBS Minnesota — Mariam Mohamed said she wrote “Ayeeyo’s Golden Rule” because there weren’t many books for Somali children to read and see characters who look like them

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