These are the decisive words, verbal knives in the back, that a French girl of 15 years old addressed to her despairing mother having secretly fled to join the Jihad in Syria in 2012, reaching her by phone for a few fleeting moments from her secret residence. It was the French scholar Dounia Bouzar who collected these words in a volume entitled Ils cherchent le paradis, ils ont trouvé l’enfer (‘They are looking for paradise, they found hell’), a book that weaves together the real human stories of a few French families destroyed by the decision of their young children to leave to join up with the militias of Isis or al-Qaeda.
Compelling as a dramatic novel, the text allows you to enter the current phenomenon of terrorist attacks in the heart of the West and the advance of the black banners of Isis, with an alternative and unique take. Seemingly "normal" families, who are perfectly integrated in the social and cultural life of modern-day France, are suddenly confronted with a conversion to a violent, irrational radicalism by a young child, by a barely adolescent brother perhaps, or by a husband who drifts towards burning all bridges with reality.
Through the intimate confidence of grief-stricken parents, the author reveals the dismay of entire families that, based on different experiences and contexts (there are of course Muslims, but also atheists or agnostics, and families from all social classes) begin to meet regularly in search of mutual support. They do so to be able to share together an unbearable burden; the discovery that that son, that daughter, and that husband that they thought they knew, have become strangers within the walls of their own home, with a secret second life on Facebook and membership of a sect of fanatics.
On an ordinary afternoon, fifteen year-old Adèle unexpectedly does not return from school. There is no answer from her phone, her mother starts to panic, seeking clues to explain her disappearance, and finds a note in the girl's room explaining that she has left for Syria in search of paradise. The sister then discovers Adèle's hidden conversations on social networks with her "bearded prince" (whom she will later marry), which are full of reverence for the man and the sect to which he belongs, but also full of doubts and fears which gradually vanish in light of the threatening persuasion meted out by new masters. Her mother and father, at first disbelieving, will have to come to terms with Adèle's transformation from an idealist western girl into a woman veiled in black from head to toe and wife of a jihadist. This is the path described by Bouzar, interweaving the stories of entire families thrown headlong from one day to the next into the inferno of stupefying questions: what happened to my daughter? Who has brainwashed them? What was wrong with our lives and with their education? How can we bring the boys home from Syria?
The author does not censor the families' criticisms about the lack of concrete action by the French government, the general culpable indifference concerning the rising phenomenon of the flight of minors to Syria, or the ignorance of social workers who do not know or do not want to distinguish between a genuine conversion to Islam and the indoctrination of minors by violent extremists. Bouzar makes herself the spokesperson for an awareness campaign for changes in "dangerous" laws, such as those that allow minors to leave the country without parental permission.
The theme of the foreign fighters is an arresting one, and it is alarming a disoriented Europe which has to face up to its own "children" betraying some of their founding values. Responses have come in the form of sociological and economic studies, with prevention and de-radicalisation plans being drawn up, along with investigations on the processes of integration and multiculturalism. The darkest side of this issue seems to be overlooked; the fascination of evil, the strength of contagion of violence and the attraction employed by terrorist groups. These are elements that take root where there is an insatiable desire, as is the case for the young people of the stories reported in the book. Excluding a few cases of mental disturbance, the people narrated by Bouzar are normal boys "from next door", for whom even a comfortable life in a wealthy Paris was no longer enough. The author gives some idea of how much the West - that the narcissism of so many media outlets presents as being under foreign attack - has a problem of its own, with its own sons and daughters. The merit of this book, rendered so substantial by the anguish and real tears that it narrates, is that it starts to uncover this aspect of the historical present: the void that is devouring young lives who go in search of paradise. In search of meaning.