A social novel tells the story of twins caught up in the rise of the Islamic State group.
A resident of a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon, Badria Cherkassy already has six children and doesn’t want any more. But when two of her cousins are killed fighting for Hezbollah, she changes her mind. The twins Hassan and Hussain are born on an August night in 1992 and are a mirror image of each other: “Hassan has a dimple on his left cheek, a patch of red at the end of his right eyebrow, and his hair whorl goes left. Check those things on Hussain; you’ll find them on the opposite side of Hassan’s.” The Cherkassy family is Sunni, though Badria is from a Shiite family, and when tensions between Lebanon’s Sunni and Shiite communities spill into violence in 2008, the 16-year-old twins are confused by the situation and about who is in the right. Things are further complicated by the machinations of other countries in the region. The twins join a Wahhabi study group to learn about the true nature of Islam, which, with the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, leads them to sign up with a jihadi unit. When their band is folded into a new organization called the Islamic State group, the twins will have to decide the extent to which IS reflects their beliefs—especially given Hussain’s attraction to men. In his ambitious and timely novel, Sbaiti’s (Twenty Days in Kuwait, 2014) prose is workmanlike, but it manages to pack in a lot of historical context: “With the swelling of its population, the camp became home to various known or secret ideologies and groups, ranging from Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood to the many splinters of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and radical Islamist groups.” This sometimes detracts from the immersive quality of the narrative. But if the author’s goal is to explore the human cost of the Syrian civil war via the perspective of a relatable and diverse cast of characters, he mostly succeeds.
A sometimes messy but largely effective tale set against the backdrop of IS.