Having a conspicuous authorial presence in reportage serves as both an overture and a safeguard. It establishes a complicity between author and reader, allowing the two to learn at the same pace. And it makes the author’s motives and methods more transparent than they might otherwise be. If the author errs in judgment or fact, he or she will do so in plain sight.
One of the distinguishing features of the Norwegian writer Åsne Seierstad—indeed, one might say, a leitmotif of her work—is her disdain for this convention. This was apparent in her first book to achieve international repute, The Bookseller of Kabul, which she wrote after the fall of the Taliban in 2001. It described the intimate thoughts and actions of a well-off, fractious Afghan family under a severe paterfamilias, Sultan Khan. Apart from a short foreword, in which she explained how she had met Sultan Khan and secured his approval for her project, and an even shorter afterword, Seierstad absented herself from the narrative. She presented her characters with Olympian authority. Though no one asked her to do so, she changed their names, which suggests that she expected the book to cause them embarrassment.
These pseudonyms turned out to be inadequate camouflage. The identity of Sultan Khan—Shah Muhammad Rais, a well-known bookseller at the Intercontinental Hotel—was obvious to any bibliophile in Kabul and to a great many passing travelers. In the book, Seierstad introduced Rais as a tyrant lording over his sullen brood. She also wrote about his son’s sexual frustrations and described his aged mother’s “enormous body parts” wobbling absurdly in a bathhouse. Furious, Rais went to Oslo and hired a lawyer; his wife filed legal charges against Seierstad. The case concluded in 2011, when Norway’s Supreme Court overturned an earlier ruling that the author had invaded the privacy of Rais and his family, on the grounds that the family was “aware of the nature of the book project” and that the book’s contents were “essentially deemed true.”
By that time The Bookseller of Kabul had become the most successful nonfiction book in Norwegian publishing history and an international best seller. Part of what made it so gripping was Seierstad’s decision to write herself out of the story. But the sense she creates of direct contact between reader and character is false. The author is ever-present, interpreting and manipulating events to thrill and engage us, which in turn raises the question of trust. Why won’t she meet our eye? It was as if she had decided that by calling attention to her own choices and interpretations, she would be getting in the way of our emotional engagement with Rais’s family. And so in The Bookseller of Kabul she allowed the reader to get to know these people without anyone else seeming to stand in the way.
Seierstad has gone on to apply her high-risk journalistic method to instances of violence that shook societies at their foundations. She followed The Bookseller of Kabul with two books of reportage, the first about Baghdad in the run-up to the 2003 invasion, the second about Chechnya following the brutal war there.
The event that turned her attention back to her native land took place on July 22, 2011, when a thirty-two-year-old Norwegian man named Anders Behring Breivik murdered seventy-seven people—eight of them in a bomb blast outside the prime minister’s office in Oslo and the rest in a shooting spree at a youth camp associated with the Labour Party on the island of Utøya. The attacks were Breivik’s answer to his country’s supposed sell-out to Muslims, Communists, multiculturalists, and atheists.
The following year he was in court, a petit bonhomme stamping his foot and insisting on his own significance, while the families of the dead and the survivors whose lives he had shattered looked on. Seierstad sat through the entire trial. One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway, her book about the attack, was published in 2013 in Norwegian and two years later in an English translation.
In One of Us Seierstad again retreated from view. But she was clearly aware that she was vulnerable after the Rais controversy and added a long explanation of her working methods. She was able to recount Breivik’s thoughts because she had read police interviews, trial minutes, and psychiatric reports in which he had described them. And what if Breivik was an unreliable witness to what went through his head? “A journalist must constantly evaluate and bear in mind the degree of veracity in any statement.” In other words: trust me.
It is a measure of Seierstad’s monumental achievement in One of Us that we do trust her—not just because of her even, authoritative tone, efficiently conveyed by the translator, Sarah Death, but because of her diligence as a digger of facts. From a social welfare office report on the child Breivik in 1984 (“he sat up at the table, busy with games, plasticine or Playmobil toys”) to an unwelcome visit three friends paid him on February 13, 2009, it is clear that she sought out every detail that could possibly provide background for or anticipate July 22.
That Seierstad should inquire so deeply into Breivik’s background—his skittish and delusional mother, Wenche, his early brushes with the Norwegian psychiatric establishment—is to be expected. But she also includes a family of Kurdish refugees whom we meet in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and follow closely during their life as immigrants in Norway, and some blue-eyed northerners leading blameless lives inside the Arctic Circle. Without being told as much, we know that these and other characters are all moving toward July 22 and that they will run, like meltwater from different peaks, into the maelstrom of that day. Because we know how things will end, every banal occurrence in their lives is fraught with consequence. We hope they survive. But when, after the bombing of the prime minister’s office, Breivik turns up at the summer camp on Utøya, there follow forty-two pages of closely written murder, as unflinching as Seierstad’s description of a naked old woman in a Kabul bathhouse.
The density of the biographical detail in One of Us renders moot the usual questions about whether Breivik is mad or an ideologue, whether he represents anyone or anything but himself. Breivik is Breivik. The people he killed are Simon, Bano, and others we have come to know.
Now Seierstad has carried out her second investigation into an aberrant and apparently incomprehensible form of political violence. What One of Us does for Norwegian domestic terror, her new book aims to do for the Norwegian jihad.
In the opening chapter of Two Sisters, Sadiq Juma, a Somali immigrant to Norway, receives an e-mail from his nineteen-year-old daughter, Ayan. She tells him that she and her sister, Leila, who is sixteen, are on their way to Syria. It’s October 2013 and the expansion of the Islamic State from Iraq into northern Syria is inspiring hundreds of European Muslims to join the new, divinely favored society in Mesopotamia. But what does this have to do with Sadiq, an underemployed warehouse worker living on state largesse in the Oslo suburb of Bærum, or his wife Sara, who pines for her family in Somaliland? At the news of his daughters’ departure, “the blood drained from Sadiq’s head,” Seierstad reports. “This had to be a joke.”
Radicalization is often a slow process. It requires a combination of psychological aptitude, inattentive authority, and an effective radicalizer. It also requires a sufficiently strong sense of grievance to override the repulsion that acts of callous violence usually inspire. On the contrary, these acts begin to give their perpetrators a sick delight. We saw nearly all of this with Breivik, and we will see it with Ayan and Leila Juma.
Seierstad does deal with events in Syria, but her most pressing question here is one she also asked in One of Us: “Where did it start?” In Two Sisters she gives a detailed account of the family’s life in Norway following their migration to the country in 1998. Aside from the natural apartness felt by immigrants everywhere, Sadiq, Sara, their two daughters, and their three sons meet with less of the casual racism that is the lot of many young Muslims growing up in France, for example, and nothing to speak of in the way of institutionalized discrimination. “As long as you don’t bother anyone,” the mother of another Somali girl tells her daughter, “Norway won’t bother you,” which seems like a good definition of Scandinavian-style liberalism.
Despite the cold winters, Norway isn’t a bad place to be, or so it seems at the school Ayan attends in her early teens, where she impresses teachers with her assertiveness and creativity. Her best friends are a Chinese girl and a Croatian girl with whom she shares lip gloss, boy troubles, and text messages “strewn with hearts and smileys, emojis crying and weeping tears of laughter.” Life, Seierstad writes, is “one big delightful drama.”
The parents, Sadiq and Sara, are unable to supervise their children’s adolescence in a society they barely know themselves. Worried that they will lose their Somali and Muslim identities, Sara signs the sisters up for lessons with a Koran teacher who supports martyrdom operations. When Ayan neglects her schoolwork and volunteers for Islam Net, a group of student proselytes, Sara is happy that her daughter will not bring shame on her family as ill-mannered Norwegian girls sometimes do. But what Sara views hopefully as a reassertion of culture is in fact the stirring of a rebellion that targets not only the West but also Somaliland, the family’s traditions, and herself.
Then a remarkable change takes place. Between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, Ayan becomes a convinced jihadi who loathes the kuffar, or infidels, of her adoptive country (“whoreway,” as she calls it), and campaigns for the introduction of sharia law. Juvenile gestures start to take on more threatening forms. Under the influence of her older sister, Leila starts watching YouTube videos of people being beheaded by ISIS. She excuses herself if music or films are played in class. When a classmate asks her if she is hot under the niqab she wears outside the school gates, she replies, “It’s hotter in hell.” As with Breivik’s mother, who saw nothing untoward in her son’s growing stockpile of arms, Sara convinces herself that her hate-filled daughters are essentially benign.
The Norwegian authorities are no less naive. The country’s educators have been warned about female mutilation and arranged marriages among Muslims, and the secularizing trend of their own recent history has blinded them to the fact that a teenage drift toward religious fanaticism is more likely to be an act of revolt than one of submission. When Ayan writes in an essay that non-Muslims are weeds, her impeccably liberal teacher tries to convince her that what she really means is that “in a garden you needed many different types of plants”—in other words, more diversity.
After class the same teacher asks if she is being married off:
“No,” Ayan replied.
“Then why are you dressed like that?”
Ayan did not answer.
“To get married?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Are they sending you to Somalia?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Dressing this way, you’ll only shut yourself off from society, from people, from working life…”
“Who said I wanted to work in Norway?”
It has become a truism of jihad commentary that young male Muslims go off to die in the expectation of unlimited sex in the afterlife. But ISIS’s real innovation is to shred the skein of family obligations—notably arranged and kin marriages—that holds together most traditional Muslim societies; and it promises the girls a good time, too. Proclaiming jihad to be a religious obligation for which a father’s permission isn’t needed, the group invites girls to travel to Syria without a chaperone and wed a jihadi of their choice, the better to rear the next generation of fighters. The attractions of such a thrilling elopement are obvious enough, particularly if the alternative is to marry an uninteresting relative, and this seems to have been an important factor behind Ayan and Leila’s flight. There is as much Lydia Bennet in these jihadi brides as there is Osama bin Laden.
When Ayan comes to this part of her preparations, she chooses a young widower called Hisham, a Norwegian of Eritrean descent who is already in Syria. The circumstances of the death of Hisham’s first wife—who is left nameless—speak of a twisted religiosity at home. After his departure for Syria, his first wife grew depressed, a state of mind her father associated with possession by a djinn. He arranged for the djinn to be driven out, which involved having the woman beaten by an exorcist in a mosque. Things got out of hand. She was brought to a hospital and pronounced dead from cardiac arrest.
Seierstad’s account of the long-distance engagement of Hisham and Ayan is at once sinister and prurient:
He asked her to click on the camera icon. She put on her niqab and placed her finger on the symbol. She saw him. He saw her eyes.
“So how did you become ‘radicalized,’ then?” he asked, in a flirty way. He chuckled softly. “Aren’t you actually an Islam Net girl?” In other words, a girl who did not go all the way, one who halted at the threshold.
“No, I am not! I’ll show you,” Ayan replied.
“Lift your veil, then,” he said.
She raised it and showed him her face.
“Take it off,” he challenged.
She took it off.
Here is a moment of intimacy between people whose ideas about romance could hardly be more different from those of most of Seierstad’s readers, but expressed in a salacious style that makes one almost embarrassed to be looking on. It is one of the points in Two Sisters at which Seierstad tests her credibility as a narrator. How are we expected to receive this scene—played out by two people with whom Seierstad has apparently never spoken—as the truth, or an approximation of it?
The Syria depicted in the chapters that deal with Sadiq’s pursuit of his daughters seems far from any common understanding of godliness. Torture and summary execution are the stock-in-trade of the various opposition groups fighting the Assad regime (and one another), while smugglers and middlemen work the cracks for profit; one of these, an all-purpose fixer called Osman, becomes Sadiq’s accomplice in a plan to grab the girls in Raqqa and bring them back across the Turkish border.
It’s a Hobbesian state with aspects of the absurd, in which former stalwarts of Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party evolve into ISIS butchers and jihadi brides brag on Twitter about how their slaves and zealots chopped down an oak tree because it was proud and overbearing. The jihadis post and tweet as obsessively as their infidel counterparts, and their portrayals of the caliphate have their own clichés and recurring motifs. In Seierstad’s words, the message is: “Welcome to the lovely life where everything is free and, moreover, helps you get to paradise.”
“The war,” Seierstad reminds us, “consisted of hundreds of minor conflicts, many of them centuries old. They all concerned the same things: land, soil, resources.” Few outsiders—and certainly not the foreign fighters and their families, who are squatting in the houses of Kurds, Alawites, and Christians—seem to care about the Syria that is dying. In this setting it somehow comes as little surprise when Leila is shot and wounded in a firefight while going to a rendezvous with her father, who himself barely survives being captured and tortured in an ISIS prison.
“Did you send someone to kill Dad?” Ayan’s brother Ismael asks her. Seierstad has lifted this line from a copious communications log between various members of the family, which illustrates the perils of writing an epic using the slight language of the online chat. It’s not the only moment of bathos in the Syria sections of the book, in which Seierstad rarely achieves the power and authority of One of Us. Writing about another Norwegian jihadi bride, Seierstad tells us that she “had been the wife of Oslo’s Alpha Islamist par excellence…the charismatic playboy possessing the X factor of power.” Whether responsibility for this atrocity lies with the author or her new translator, Seán Kinsella, isn’t clear to this non-Norwegian reader.
It’s also a problem that we don’t know how much of the sisters’ professed satisfaction with their lives, their husbands, and their children—both having given birth to girls—is genuine, and how much is put on for the ISIS censors. Are they remaining in Raqqa of their own free will? In another long explanatory epilogue, Seierstad tells us that the sisters didn’t respond when she asked to talk to them. It was probably unavoidable that she came to rely on the girls’ parents, Sadiq in particular, as her main source of information. She could not have hoped, in this case, to recapture the standard of panoptic observation—and authority—that she set in One of Us.
But she persists nonetheless with her customary practice of writing herself entirely out of the story, along with the methods she has used to get to the facts. This time, when she asks us to trust her, we wonder if we should. We need her to spell out what she knows and how she knows it. In the course of his desperate attempts to recover his daughters, Sadiq gradually realizes that they are not coming back. It prompts a fracture in his life. “I am Sadiq,” he tells himself soon after the girls run away, “a man in charge of my family.” By the end of Two Sisters, he is no longer in charge. The book is about not only the perils of Islamism but also a rebellion against a form of Somali patriarchy that has been refracted through the gray pluralism of Norway, and its replacement by definition, meaning, and light.
Seierstad’s account ends in 2016, by which time Russian, Iranian, and American interventions are pushing the caliphate toward extinction. In September of that year, Leila calls her mother to wish her a happy Eid el-Fetr, which is the last we hear of the Juma girls. And now, two and a half years on, the political cost of bringing the ISIS caliphate to the verge of extinction is the restoration of Assad’s rule in Syria. That the dream of a universal caliphate will remain a potent force should not be doubted; the challenge for Western countries is to deal with returnees from its recent iteration—many of them women like Ayan, Leila, and their children—in such a way that they cannot further its cause.
Apart from the obvious thematic symmetries between Two Sisters and One of Us, there is also a demographic one. Both books are concerned with the extreme proclivities of a minuscule number of people. There has been only one Anders Breivik, while the total known contribution of Norway to ISIS, as of 2016, was around ninety people. The girls are part of a tiny pattern, but a pattern nonetheless.
“As a journalist,” Seierstad reasons in the epilogue of Two Sisters, “it is my task to put my finger on problematic aspects of our society. Confronted with this story, we must ask: Is this merely to do with them, or does it also have something to do with us?” And yet, having asked this question, she resolutely declines to answer it: “I relate my findings. It is up to each reader to draw his or her own conclusions.” Her driving interest remains in the minutiae of character and situation. To reduce Breivik or the Juma girls to a representative or a sample by offering generalizations would dull the facets of personality she has spent so much energy buffing up.
There may be a case for arguing that Breivik is sui generis and the Juma girls two members of a community of extremists. But to press that point might be to fall into the trap of assuming that people like Breivik—who have extreme or violent reactions to the cosmopolitan, liberal order—can be explained with reference only to their own idiosyncrasies, whereas the blame for Islamic radicalism in the West should be put not on individuals but on the hostile host countries or even Islam itself. Here as elsewhere, Seierstad leaves us to figure things out. It is all part of the hands-off approach that she first attempted in The Bookseller of Kabul and that reached its climax in One of Us. Compared to those books Two Sisters is only a partial success, but nevertheless Seierstad is able to define with unusual clarity the warped human timber that draws her probing and indefatigable mind.