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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Two Sisters

A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad

Åsne Seierstad; Translated from the Norwegian by Seán Kinsella

Farrar, Straus and Giroux




The bunk bed was in the center of the room. A white metal rail ensured that whoever lay on top did not roll off. The bed divided the room in two and was made up with colorful bedclothes. By the door there were a desk, a chair, and a wardrobe. On the other side, a chest of drawers and a window with a view of a reddish brick housing block, identical to their own. The window ledge was so low that you could easily swing your legs over it and drop down onto the grass. Notes were taped to the furniture, neatly written letters, first drafted in pencil, then gone over in blue marker: Bed. Window. Chair. Desk. Door. The wallpaper above the chest of drawers was covered in them. Big, small, high, low, warm, cold. The Arabic script was carefully rendered, although obviously the work of a beginner, as several of the letters were mixed up. The translations into Norwegian were spelled correctly but written sloppily in faint pencil.

The younger sister, the one who slept in the top bunk, had put up the notes. They not only adorned the girls’ room but also hung around the rest of the apartment: Lamp. Sofa. Curtain. Shelf. The course in Arabic began with worldly things, but the purpose was spiritual—to read and understand the Koran as it was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

I. He. We. I am. He is. We are. Allahu Akbar. God is great. God is greater. Guide us to the straight path!

* * *

That October morning, Leila had climbed down from the top bunk earlier than usual. She put on a floor-length dress and joined her mother in the kitchen, which was adjacent to the girls’ room. Sara was the one in the family who woke first. She would steal out of bed, placing her feet carefully on the floor so she wouldn’t wake Sadiq. It was not until he missed her warmth, until the bed had cooled and he noticed he was freezing, that he would get up.

Sara stood at the breakfast table, lost in her own thoughts. She looked up in surprise at her daughter, who had turned sixteen the week before. Leila resembled her father—slender, tall, and long-limbed.

“I can help you get the boys ready,” she said.

“Don’t you have school today?” her mother asked.

“Yeah, I just thought you could use a hand…”

“No, you get yourself organized, I can take care of the boys myself.”

In contrast to her big sister, who had taken on several of the household duties, Leila did not usually offer to help out. “Her royal laziness,” her father often called her.

Sara softly roused six-year-old Isaq and eleven-year-old Jibril. She helped Isaq get dressed and hurried the boys into the kitchen.

Sadiq was already standing by the stove.

The brown beans had been prepared the previous evening. Now he sautéed diced onion in oil, added a couple of crushed garlic cloves, a little more oil, then strips of red pepper and spices, until it all took on a darker color. He added the beans and simmered the mixture, then blended it all with a hand mixer. He poured the purée onto a large plate, drizzling olive oil to make golden circles in the brown.

Isaq and Jibril were still drowsy as they plunked down on their chairs. They dipped pieces of bread into the bean stew and popped them in their mouths. Isaq made a mess as usual. Jibril hardly let a crumb fall outside his plate.

Leila hovered around the table, where a pot of black tea with cardamom seeds had been placed.

“Aren’t you going to sit down?” her father asked.

“No, Ayan and I are fasting,” the sixteen-year-old replied.

Her father did not pursue the topic. Leila and her big sister, Ayan, who was in the bathroom, were strict when it came to fasting. Women were not permitted to perform religious rituals while unclean, and the girls wanted to catch up on the days they had missed as soon as possible. Mondays and Thursdays were the best days, when the Prophet Muhammad fasted. Today was Thursday.

Ramadan had been an ordeal. This year the fasting month had fallen in July, when the sun did not go down until after ten o’clock at night and rose just a few hours later. It was long to go without food and drink. Now, during Dhu al-Hijjahthe month of the pilgrimage—the girls were fasting again and had intensified their daily prayer. It was the most sacred period in the Islamic calendar, the best time for the hajj, to travel as a pilgrim to Mecca. Good deeds counted for more now than at other times of the year.

* * *

Ismael, the third brother, who was between Ayan and Leila in age, entered the kitchen with a towel wrapped around his waist. He was on his way to the bathroom, where Ayan had just finished. If he encountered his sisters when strutting around half-naked, he usually lurched into them for fun. “Don’t!” they would shout. “Mom, he’s annoying us!”

The three teenagers—Ayan, who was nineteen years old; Ismael, eighteen; and Leila, sixteen—had drifted apart. The sisters complained that their brother was only interested in working out, hanging around with friends, and playing computer games. His lack of attendance at the mosque did not go unnoticed. It was embarrassing. “You’re not a Muslim!” Ayan had recently shouted at him, and had gone on to urge her mother to throw him out. She could not live with someone who did not pray.

“He’s just confused!” their mother had said in his defense.

“Kick him out!”

“In the summer,” their mother said, trying to mollify her, “I will take him to a sheikh in Hargeisa, ask him to pray over him, talk to him…”

Ayan had been vociferous in these arguments; Leila had merely followed her lead. The previous evening, when Ismael came home from training, Leila had rushed over and thrown her arms around his neck.

“Oh, Ismael! I’ve missed you!”

“Huh? I’ve only been gone a couple of hours…”

“Where were you?”

“At the gym.”

“How was the workout?”

“Eh … I was working on my upper body. Chest and arms.”

Girls. Seriously. Leila had been mad at him for ages, and then suddenly she was all sweetness and light.

Ismael put on jeans and a shirt and joined the others for breakfast. He opened the refrigerator door, where alongside the note bearing the word thallaja—refrigerator in Arabic—the girls had stuck up words of wisdom from the Islamic Cultural Centre of Norway. On a green sticker, torn at the edges as though someone had tried to peel it off, was written, Allah does not see your wealth and property, He sees your heart and your actions. A purple sticker read, Let he who believes in Allah and the Last Day treat his neighbor with kindness, be generous to his guests and speak the truth, which is good, or remain silent (e.g., refrain from improper and impure talk, slander, lies, spreading rumors etc.).

Ismael stood at the counter spreading mackerel in tomato sauce on three slices of wholemeal bread. The eighteen-year-old was particular about his protein intake and thought his parents used too much oil in their cooking, as well as boiling food too long and frying things to a crisp. He wanted pure, healthy, simple food and disliked Somali seasonings and spices.

He joined the others at the table, bumping playfully into his little brothers as he sat down. Isaq responded by punching him on the arm; Jibril merely squirmed and asked him to stop.

“Let the boys eat,” Sara said.

* * *

The day was slow to break; it would still be a while before the sun appeared over the roofs of the apartment blocks in the east.

Sadiq was on sick leave. He had injured his shoulder when a crate fell on him at the Coca-Cola warehouse. Next week he was going to a physiotherapist he had been referred to by NAV, the Norwegian welfare authority. Thoughts flew through his mind. It was a long time since he had heard from his mother in Somaliland. Was she sick? He would make sure to call her later today.

From the girls’ room he heard a wardrobe door slam and something heavy being moved. Ayan had left secondary school in the spring and was working as an on-call employee for an agency offering personal assistants to elderly people who, as it stated in her contract, required practical assistance in everyday life. It was a sort of gap year before she went to college.

She came out of the bedroom with a suitcase.

“What are you doing with that?” Sadiq asked.

“Aisha is borrowing it,” Ayan replied. “She’s taking a trip.”

The girls and their friend often borrowed things from one another. Aisha lived a few streets away. The sisters sometimes asked their father to drive them over. On one such trip he had asked what they carried in the plastic bags they had taken back and forth. Aisha’s washing machine was broken, they explained, and they were doing her laundry. Aisha was a couple of years older than Ayan; when her husband left her, she had moved back in with her mother and sisters, along with her baby.

Ayan dragged the suitcase behind her down the hall. At the front door she stopped by the mirror and wrapped her curly hair in a hijab.

The elder daughter had inherited her mother’s features: a curved forehead, soft, round cheeks, and deep-set eyes. She tightened the hijab until there was not a single strand of hair showing, pulled a jilbab, a sort of hooded tunic, over it, and finally added a loose cloak. The hallway was filling up; Jibril was standing ready to go, while Isaq was trying to get his foot into a shoe.

“You have to unlace it,” Sadiq told him.

“I can’t,” the boy moaned.

The same rule goes for everything in life, his father said: “Use your brain, not your brawn!”

The youngest boy was built like Sara and Ayan, compact and stout. Sadiq crouched to loosen the tangle of laces.

Ayan was the first to leave. “Bye!” she said, smiling to them.

The door slammed behind her. There was more space in the hallway once she and the suitcase disappeared. Leila took her turn in front of the mirror and copied her sister’s movements. When the garments were on, she remained standing, her schoolbag on her back.

“Do you want a lift?” her father asked. He was still struggling with Isaq’s laces.

On days Leila started class at the same time as her younger siblings, she usually joined them in the car, even though her school lay just a short walk away.

“No thanks,” she replied.

Her father looked up in surprise.

“I need to lose some weight, get more exercise,” she explained.

“You? You’ve no fat on you! You’re a stick!” Sara said, rolling her eyes.

Leila just smiled and gave both her parents a hug.

“I love you, Dad,” she whispered in her father’s ear. “I love you, Mom,” she whispered to her mother.

The declarations of love were in Somali. The siblings always spoke Somali to their mother. With their father it varied, and between themselves Norwegian was most common.

“Will we walk together?” Ismael asked.

They both attended Rud Upper Secondary School. Leila was in the first year of the health and social curriculum; he was in his third year, studying electronics. They rarely accompanied each other in the morning, but since she had been “her old self” the previous evening, it seemed strange not to go to school together, as they had always done in childhood.

“No, I’ve got to…” Leila replied.

Her brother did not catch her answer, just noticed her disappearing out the door with her rucksack.

Finally the rest of the family was all set. The smaller boys ran up the steps, Jibril first, followed by Isaq. The terraced block of flats was built on a steep slope. In order to exit the upper side of the building, they had to ascend three flights of stairs.

Kolsås ridge, rising up like a dark wall behind the housing estate, was shrouded in a layer of fog. Sadiq unlocked the car while the boys argued about who would sit in front.

“Okay, okay, okay,” their father chided them. “How was it last time? Jibril was in the passenger seat; now it’s Isaq’s turn.”

They waited for the car to warm up, then Sadiq swung out from the parking lot, much too sharply, much too fast, as usual.

At Bryn School, Jibril, who was in his sixth year, wanted his father to leave right away; being seen with Daddy was embarrassing. But Isaq, who had just started school two months before, asked their father to walk him into the schoolyard.

When the bell rang, Sadiq drove home to collect Sara and take her to a doctor’s appointment. Lately she had been suffering from headaches, pains in her neck, fingers, wrists, legs, and feet. She was often tired and run-down, felt cold and clammy. Were there any remedies? Maybe iron supplements would help? Calcium? Vitamin D? She had begun taking fish oil capsules, but they had not helped. “What I need is hot camel milk,” she used to say. That would make the pains go away. She was living in a country at a time of year when the sun did not warm her up, scarcely gave off light. She was not made for this.

They drove to the local shopping center and found a spot with free parking for three hours, then they walked to the Bærum Health Clinic. When the family came to Norway, they were settled in Bærum, an affluent neighborhood nine miles southwest of Oslo. At the clinic, their family GP listened to Sadiq’s translation of his wife’s problems, posed a few questions, examined her, and came to the conclusion that what she needed was not more pills but a change in lifestyle. Sara had to exercise more and start walking, and she should lose a considerable amount of weight.

After the appointment, Sadiq drove his wife back home. She lay down to rest, as she often did during the day.

The boys were finished with school at half past one. Leila usually got home shortly after them. She would take off her hijab and floor-length cloak, wash, pray, and eat a little something before going into the room she shared with Ayan. There, she would turn on her PC to do homework or listen to sermons and Koran recitals. The girls spent a lot of time in their room. “Don’t come in!” they called out, irritated, if anyone tried the door handle.

While other mothers fretted about their daughters having boyfriends or dressing indecently, Sara had nothing to worry about. Her daughters always did as she told them. They asked permission for everything, even to knock on the neighbors’ doors, she boasted to her friends. It was gratifying that they did not melt too much into Norwegian ways. Ismael, on the other hand, was a source of concern. He was slipping away from his Somali background, she felt, and was in danger of becoming too Norwegian.

* * *

The minute hand on the clock passed three. Ismael had come home early from school, having promised to help his little brothers with their homework. They were lagging behind in a number of subjects. The three of them were sitting around the kitchen table. Strange that Leila was not home yet.

Sara tried calling her. Her mobile phone was turned off. Ayan did not pick up either. Maybe the girls had something scheduled for the afternoon that she had not been aware of.

She waited awhile before phoning again. First Leila. Then Ayan. Finally Sadiq. None of them took the call. She asked Ismael to send a text message. Something must have happened. Why else would Leila be late?

Sara was prone to thinking the worst. Perhaps somebody had assaulted her daughter? She knew there were Norwegians who did not like those with darker skin, or Muslims, at any rate, and Leila had said she’d been harassed by a gang of boys once.

Finally Ayan answered her telephone.

“Where are you?” her mother burst out. “I’m very anxious about Leila, she hasn’t come home yet!”

“Don’t worry. Leila is with me,” Ayan replied.

“Ahh!” Sara exclaimed, relieved. “That’s good!”

As long as they were together, everything was all right. She took a few cuts of lamb from the refrigerator and filled a saucepan with enough water to boil rice for seven.

* * *

Sadiq was sitting in the library in Sandvika, the center of Bærum municipality, reading Science Illustrated. His shoulder ached; it was going to be a while before he would be able to return to work at Coca-Cola. He wanted another job. Once, he had dreamed of being an engineer and had attended an evening course in Oslo to obtain the qualifications needed for serious study—but he had given up.

He loved this library. He came here nearly every day. The first thing he did was pluck his favorite magazine off the shelf, peruse it, and then go online.

Sadiq went outside to have a cigarette and noticed the missed calls.

“The girls are out doing something,” his wife told him. “Can you call them and say you’ll pick them up? Then you all come home for dinner.”

He pressed Ayan’s number, then Leila’s. They might be at the Rahma Mosque nearby or at Aisha’s. Leila’s telephone was turned off. Ayan did not answer. Could they have gone to the Tawfiiq Mosque in Oslo?

He went back into the library and chatted for a while with a friend. Around five o’clock he left for home. He took off his shoes in the hall before heading straight for the living room and the sofa. He wanted to lie down while he waited for dinner.

The sofa, in black imitation leather, was across from the TV. On the wall behind him hung a picture of Mecca. In the corner, over toward the balcony, were a few carpets and an old exercise machine. Otherwise the living room was empty, sparsely furnished à la Somali.

Sara asked him to try to call the girls again.

“Where are they? I don’t have time for this!” he exclaimed.

A little after six o’clock, Ayan answered her telephone.

“Calm down, Dad,” she said. Then she waited a moment, as though to give him time, before continuing. “Abo, sit down.” Her voice was slightly hoarse. “We’ve sent you an e-mail. Read it.”

She hung up.

Sadiq fetched the laptop from his backpack, found his glasses, and opened his e-mail. There was an unread message at the top, sent at 17:49, October 17, 2013.

“Peace, God’s mercy and blessings upon you, Mom and Dad,” it said in Somali. The text continued in Norwegian.

We love you both sooo much and you have given us everything in life. We are eternally grateful for everything ?.

Sadiq read on.

We ask your forgiveness for all the pain we have caused you. We love you both sooo much, would do anything for you, and would never do anything to purposely hurt you, and is it not then fair and proper that we do everything for ALLAH swt’s sake and are grateful for what he has given us by following his rules, laws, and commands.

Muslims are under attack from all quarters, and we need to do something. We want so much to help Muslims, and the only way we can really do that is by being with them in both suffering and joy. Sitting home and sending money is no longer enough. With this in mind we have decided to travel to Syria and help out down there as best we can. We know this sounds absurd but it is haqq and we must go. We fear what ALLAH swt will say to us on the day of judgment.

The blood drained from Sadiq’s head. Everything went black. All his energy left him. While he continued to read, the air around him thickened. This had to be a joke. They were messing around with him.

Abo you know this is fard al-ayn not only for men but also for women and whoever is able.

Sadiq quickly scanned the e-mail to find an explanation for all this nonsense. He knew fard al-ayn—the obligations of each individual, like prayer, fasting, charity, and traveling to Mecca.

We have now left and will soon arrive inshallah. Please do not be cross with us, it was sooo hard for us to leave without saying goodbye in the way you both deserve. Forgive us inshallah, when we made this choice we did so with what was best for our ummah in mind, but also what was best for our family, and it might be difficult to understand now, but inshallah this decision will help us all on the day of judgment inshallah.

We love you both sooo much and hope you will not break off ties with us, inshallah we will send a message when we arrive at the hotel and then you can call inshallah.

We want to tell you again that we love you with all of our hearts and are sorry you had to find out this way, we have already asked too much of you but we have to ask a favor: for both our safety and yours no one outside the family can know we have left, this cannot be stressed enough. Please try to understand our actions inshallah.

Praise be to Allah, the lord of the worlds ?. Ayan & Leila ?.

Sadiq held his hands in front of his face.

“What does it say?” Sara stood leaning over his shoulder, her gaze switching between the black letters on the screen and her husband.

“Ismael, come here!” Sadiq called out.

In his room, Ismael, hearing his father’s unsteady voice, wondered what he had done wrong now.

“Read it aloud,” Sadiq said when his son entered the room.

After a few lines, Ismael’s voice began to quiver.

“What? What?” Sara shouted. Ismael read first in Norwegian and then translated into Somali for his mother.

“… We have decided to travel to Syria…” he read.

Illahayow i awi! Allah, help me!” Sara cried, and fell to the floor.

Sadiq tried to help her up but tumbled down himself. He remained sitting there, his arms around his wife, rocking her.

“I can’t believe it,” he mumbled. “It’s not possible.”

The smaller boys stared at them. Isaq came over, crept close to his parents.

“Daddy, where have they gone?” Jibril asked.

“I don’t know,” Sadiq replied.

He tried to gather the chaos in his mind. They could not have taken off just like that, without warning, no, he did not believe it. There were three possibilities. One, they were joking. Two, someone else had written the e-mail. Three, he had not read it correctly.

* * *

The police operations center logged the call at 9:54 p.m. The caller had “received an e-mail from two daughters where they informed him they had left for Syria to take part in jihad.”

Sadiq implored the police to track the girls’ telephones to find out where they were.

“Someone has kidnapped them!” Sara exclaimed.

Sadiq called and called. The girls could not have gotten far! Finally he heard a click on the other end of the line.


He interrupted his daughter, cleared his throat, and tried to calm down.

“Ayan, stop where you are, it doesn’t matter where, stay there, I’m on my way, I’ll put gas in the tank, please, wherever you are, just wait there and—”

“Dad, listen to me—”

“I’m coming to pick you up, I’m taking the car, where are you?”

“In Sweden.”

“Wait for me. I’ll drive, or no, I’ll fly, I’ll take a plane!”

“Forget about it, Dad.”

“Think about this, both of you, we need to talk. Who are you with?”

The line went dead. When Sadiq rang back, he was told the number he was trying to call had no network coverage.

He rang the police operations center again. The operator logged the girls’ location as “an unidentified hotel in Sweden.”

Suddenly Ismael shouted something from his room and came into the living room pointing at his laptop.

“Ayan is online, she’s on Facebook!”

Sadiq saw a name he recognized, his daughter’s middle name: Fatima Abdallah.

He sat down and wrote to her: “My child, tell me where you are so I can come and meet you, or answer the telephone. You’re causing the family huge problems. Don’t make things worse. My dear chiiiiild, please, my chiiiild, talk to me.”

He sat staring at the screen. Ayan’s voice had been firm. Obdurate. They had to go to Syria. To help. The people there were in need. It was their duty.

The decisiveness Sadiq had mustered when he called the police was gone.

Sara was talking to a friend on the telephone.

“Oh, you poor things,” her friend said. “I heard about some girls from England who went to Syria and…”

There was a smell of burning coming from the kitchen. The rice lay black in the bottom of the saucepan.

Isaq seemed to have become a part of Sadiq’s body, clinging to his father like a baby animal. Sadiq let him be. Jibril circled them both, anxiously, vigilantly.

Ayan usually put the boys to bed, read to them from the Koran, then told them about the life of Muhammad or talked to them about the day that had been.

That night they went to bed without the blessings of the Prophet.

* * *

At 10:47 p.m. a reply ticked in from Fatima Abdallah, aka Ayan. She used Facebook Messenger.

“Abo, you all need to relax. It’s better to speak when everyone has calmed down and had a chance to think.”

“Okay, talk to me now,” her father answered.

“Can’t we talk tomorrow?” she suggested. “Whatever you do, for all our sakes, don’t tell anyone.”

“My child, you are stronger than to allow yourself to be brainwashed. I believe you are my little Ayan who used to listen to me. Your mother is in a coma. The house is full of policemen. Child Welfare are here.”

“Why did you call them? We told you not to do that!”

“My child, did either of you tell us anything?”

“You would never have let us go.”

“Ayyyaaaan, fear God if you truly believe in Him. You are not allowed to travel without a male guardian. Name one sheikh who has permitted this so that he can convince me with theological evidence. I’ll go blind if I don’t find you!”

“Abo, relax! I’ll send you an entire book.”

“My daughters, we will never forgive what you have done, not now or in eternity. And neither will you receive any divine reward for this.”

“Dad, don’t say things you will regret. Everyone is worn-out, we’re very tired, can we talk tomorrow?”

“Paradise lies at the feet of your mother. That is a hadith, my child—the word of the Prophet. Your mother’s in the hospital, lying in a coma. How will you succeed? Where will the divine reward you seek come from? My child, do not invest in hell!”

“You have two small children to take care of, be strong for their sakes. We’re safe and can look after ourselves,” Ayan assured him.

“Don’t be naïve!” Sadiq wrote, and repeated that paradise was at their mother’s feet. “Have you forgotten that?” he asked his elder daughter.

“Paradise comes with the grace of Allah,” Ayan replied. She logged off Messenger.

* * *

A picture appeared on Ismael’s mobile phone, on Snapchat: a large steak on a plate, a white tablecloth, nice cutlery.

“Last meal in Europe!” it said beneath the photo, which disappeared after a few seconds.

The text had been sent via Viber. Ismael clicked on the message. What his sister did not know was that the message app automatically showed your whereabouts if you had not disabled that function.

Seyhan, Adana, Turkey, it read. He clicked again. A map came up, and a blue dot. He zoomed in and saw an intersection, streets.

“They’re in Turkey!” Ismael came rushing in to show his parents the dot. “I can see exactly where they are! Call the police, they need to get in touch with the Turkish police, they can arrest them, there in the restaurant. They’re eating there right now!”

Sadiq called the police and gave them the information his daughter had unwittingly provided. It was past eleven o’clock at night.

“We’re in a desperate situation. You need to help us right now. Find them before it is too late!” Sadiq urged.

His words were taken down in the operations center and the information forwarded to the local department of PST, the Norwegian Police Security Service.

The message lay there, unread, in an unopened e-mail, all night, while the girls settled down to sleep at the Grand Hotel in Adana, where they had checked in using their own passports and under their full names.

* * *

Half an hour before midnight, Sadiq’s laptop notified him an e-mail message had been received. It was from Ayan. It contained no greeting, no dear Mom and Dad, but got straight to the point.

Read the ENTIRE book and find out who the author is before replying, we have planned and thought this through for almost an ENTIRE year, we would never do something like this on impulse. Yours sincerely Ayan

Sadiq opened the attachment. It was a book manuscript and on the first page it read:


The First Obligation After Iman

By Dr. Abdullah Azzam

(May Allah accept him as Shaheed)

It started with a quotation from Muhammad: “… But those who are killed in the Way of Allah, he will never let their deeds be lost.”

Sadiq remained seated and read. Ismael shut the door to his room. He lay on the bed with the phone in his hand, staring at the ceiling. It all felt unreal. He logged on to Facebook, scrolled, clicked, and his mind whirled. Suddenly he saw that Fatima Abdallah was back online again.

“Ayan. It’s Ismael,” he typed. “I know you have left. What are you planning to do there? Like, actually do. When do you land in Syria?”

His big sister replied right away. “First, what’s happening at home? Are the police there? Are child services there?”

“No. No.”

“Thank God! Is Mom in a coma?”

“She’s crying. Is miserable. Your turn.”

“Well, we’re going to do what we need to do.”

“What do you mean by that exactly?”

“Everything from fetching water for the sick to working in refugee camps.”

“Mom thinks you’re going to get married. With men waging jihad in order to satisfy them. Lol. Mom thinks you’re going to be raped.”

“God forbid. You know we’re not like that.”

“I’m not sure what I know anymore.”

“What do you think I am, a whore?”

“I don’t know,” answered Ismael, adding a sad emoji. “Thought you trusted me more. You could have at least said something to me.”

“You would have stopped us!” his sister wrote. “Tell Mom we’re sorry for the worry we’ve caused, but Allah comes first, before anyone else.”

“She’s mad at you, in her coma.”

“She’s not in a coma.”

“She can just about manage to speak, and she’s crying. What would you call that?”

“If she’s crying then she’s not in a coma. Don’t lie to us about things like that.”

“Hmm, I exaggerated, I can make a video of her.”


“How did you get the money?”

“I worked.”

“How much money do you have?”

“We have enough. Anyway, ask Dad to read the whole book I e-mailed him.”

She handed the telephone to her sister.

“Ismael, dear Ismael, it’s Leila. I love Mom more than anything on earth, but when it comes to ALLAH and the Prophet, I fear what ALLAH will ask me on the day of judgment. I know I am hurting a lot of people here in dunya, but I am not thinking of dunya at the moment. I’m doing this because I love my mother and father and my whole family sooo much, it’s not just for my akhirah but for all of yours too. I’m not a particularly good daughter and I don’t give my parents what they REALLY deserve, but this is my chance to make up for that by being of help to them in akhirah. Please try to understand. If you had the chance to help your parents on judgment day at the expense of maybe hurting them in dunya but in so doing help get them into Jannah, wouldn’t you also do EVERYTHING in your power for that chance?”

The message came in bits. Leila was pressing Send line by line as she wrote. Ismael knew enough about Islam to understand the content. Dunya was life here on earth, akhirah was the afterlife, and Jannah was paradise.

“Are you coming back? Like, ever?” Ismael wrote from his bed.

“We don’t know for sure, but we have no wish to,” Leila answered.

“So we’re probably never going to see each other again?” Ismael included a crying emoji.

“Don’t ever think that, we always have Skype, haha.”

“But in real life?”

“You never know.”

Ismael sent a disappointed emoji and added, “Oh, well.”

“How are you?” his little sister asked.

“Feel weird. Dunno. Sad.”

“It hasn’t sunk in yet for us either. Don’t be sad, we’re not dead and we’re doing fine. Try to think positive. Think pink ? Remember in the spring? You said I would NEVER do anything like this because I was too cowardly?”

“Yeah, you win. Can you come home now?”

Leila did not reply right away, so he added quickly: “Haha. Have fun. Do what you think is right.”

“We will.”

“I’m cool,” answered Ismael.

“Good night.”

Leila sent a smiley and a heart.

She logged off.

Ismael lay in bed with the phone in his hand. Tears trickled down his cheeks.

* * *

In the living room, Sadiq was reading Defense of the Muslim Lands while keeping an eye on his mobile phone and Facebook account in case his daughters texted him or went online.

“There is no Caliphate,” the text began. “A glorious empire the world once feared. A people entrusted with the final revelation of God. The religion destined for the whole of humanity. Where is it today?” asked the writer. “The unclean have duped the dull masses of Muslims by installing their wooden-headed puppets as false figureheads of states that remain under their control. Colonialism has taken a new face. They have come from every horizon to share us among them like callers to a feast. There is no greater humiliation for the people expected to lead humanity to redemption. How will they recognize the gravity of the situation? Their house is crumbling and their neighbors are laughing.”

Sadiq skimmed the text. Muslims had to unite under one caliph. That had to be fought for by the sword.

Abdullah Azzam was the father of modern jihadism. He had become acquainted with Osama bin Laden while teaching in Saudi Arabia in the early 1980s, and was a driving force behind the Saudi businessman’s financing of mujahideen—the holy warriors who fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. There his friendship with bin Laden deepened and he set down a fatwa concerning the rules for when jihad was an individual obligation—fard al-ayn—and when you could let others fight for you—fard kifaya.

“To offer prayer—as opposed to waging jihad on the battlefield—is like the trifling of children,” Azzam wrote in contempt for what he perceived as cowardice. “For every tear you have shed upon your cheek, we have shed in its place blood, on our chests. You are jesting with your worship; while you worshippers offer your worship, mujahideen offer their blood and person.”

The Palestinian scholar wrote that if a piece of Muslim land, even the size of a hand span, was infringed upon, then jihad became fard al-ayn for all Muslims, male and female. “The child shall march forward without the permission of its parents and the wife without the permission of the husband.”

This was what the girls wanted him to know from this book—that their obligations to the Muslim ummah meant they could depart without his consent, that the teachings of the learned supported them. Sadiq closed the document.





Read the ENTIRE book before replying. And the part that hurt the most: We have planned and thought this through for almost an ENTIRE year.

Sadiq did not sleep that night.

The heavens had come crashing down.

Copyright © 2016 by Åsne Seierstad

Translation copyright © 2018 by Seán Kinsella