I Lost My Daughter To The Salafists, One French Mother's Tale

Claire, who raised her daughter near Paris as an atheist, has seen the teen fall in love with a deeply conservative young man from Egypt. The dream is to escape to live under Sharia law.

Behind the hijab
Behind the hijab
Soren Seelow

PARIS — Through the pink voile curtains in her room, Hélène looks out onto the trees in the playground of her old nursery school. Some children are playing hopscotch. Hélène is 17 years old. She lives near Paris with her mother, a teacher, on the second floor of a red brick schoolhouse in a large flat that comes with the job.

Hélène hasn’t left the apartment in weeks.

Five times a day, at fixed hours, she puts on clothing that conceals her figure and prostrates herself on a pink mat in the bathroom that serves as prayer rug. Hélène has broken off relationships with her male friends. She no longer listens to music. The make-up she was using until a couple of months ago has been thrown out. She took down the photographs of herself and her friends that hung in a heart shape on the wall above her bed.

Also over the past few months, she has bought two jilbabs, one black and the other the dark color of eggplant. The long full-cut garments are made to hide her hair and the contours of her body.

Cloistered in her childhood room, Hélène is waiting until she turns 18 and is no longer a minor when she intends to leave for Cairo and marry her Egyptian sweetheart. A month ago, she wrote out a list of 26 "major objectives." Heading it, in capital letters: "When I turn 18, set aside some money so I can leave quickly and practice my religion."

The couple intends to move to a country with Sharia law so that Hélène can realize her dream of wearing a niqab and "submit to the will of her husband," her mother Claire explains.

On the living room table, the distraught mother nervously spreads out files, photo albums, a cell phone, and turns on her computer where she has stored text messages, official correspondence, Facebook profiles — all the stages of her child’s radicalization, the signs of "brainwashing." Hélène never attended religion classes. Her parents are atheists and she went to public schools.

Ramadan in secret

The young woman converted to Islam in the spring of 2012, when she was 15. With two girlfriends from high school, she pronounced the phrase "Allah is the only god and Mohamed is his messenger." She stopped eating pork and began observing Ramadan in secret. Her mother discovered this while they were on holiday at the Club Med in Djerba (Tunisia) but didn’t get unduly upset about it.

Paris — Photo: LiisArt

Then her daughter announced she’d decided to stop smoking and dating, and to never drink alcohol. "She seemed to be seeking a framework, something that we perhaps hadn’t given her. We were always a bit lax, particularly her father — from whom I separated when she was six," says Claire ever in search of answers. "I accepted her conversion because it didn’t seem to me that it would have any consequences."

But at the beginning of 2014, the pace of the girl’s metamorphosis hastened. Hélène stopped tweezing her eyebrows, and replaced her skinny jeans with figure-concealing clothing. She broke with her male friends — several of them Muslim — when she decided she would no longer keep mixed company.

One day, to her mother’s stupefaction, she tore up a photo of herself as a child. Then in an email several pages long addressed to her family and interspersed with Koranic verses she announced her decision to adopt the veil.

Claire became alarmed. She did some research about Islam and had some long discussions with her daughter, showing her interviews with Elisabeth Badinter, the philosopher and feminist, and the imam from Bordeaux, Tareq Oubrou, with his view on the veil. Her daughter replied that those who do not respect the Koran and Sunnah to the letter are not real Muslims.

"I didn’t know it yet, but my daughter was in the process of becoming a Salafist," says Claire.

While the Salafists favor a literal reading of religious texts, not all espouse jihad. And Hélène never expressed any desire to go to Syria. Everything pointed to her identifying with the quietist Muslim tradition based on predication. But this little girl with a lot of growing up to do had integrated many warped notions.

Hélène watches videos of Nabil Al-Awadi, a Kuwaiti preacher suspected of being one of the major funders of the "Islamic State" (ISIS). "These films refute Darwinism, and talk about the end of the world, heaven and hell…," her mother says with a sigh.

Terrorized at the idea that her daughter might leave for Syria, Claire sometimes manages to get her to watch reports on ISIS. She asks her what she thinks of the beheadings. Her daughter answers that she "can’t judge, I only believe what I see. These could be montages produced by the Americans." What about taking hostages? "It depends on the cause, they’re sometimes treated well."

Panicked, Claire takes Hélène to the emergency psychiatric ward. She is agitated, but her daughter remains calm. The doctor tells Claire she is fatigued and that she must respect her child’s faith. "They didn’t understand that I wasn’t talking about religion but mental manipulation!"

It was only on May 20 that Claire understood more about her daughter’s conversion. Hélène had fallen in love with a young Egyptian, Adham, whom she met at Janson-de-Sailly high school in Paris’s 16th arrondissement. Since returning to Egypt, the young man had taken charge of her religious education and regularly sent her Salafist videos.

Allah is watching

Claire picks up the smartphone she has confiscated from her daughter and scrolls through the messages. "When I discovered this correspondence it took me a whole night to read it. I couldn’t believe it, it was horrible. The next morning I was sick to my stomach. Then I went and filed a complaint for abuse of weakness and mental manipulation. At the prefecture I filed an opposition à la sortie du territoire to prevent her from leaving the country while she is still a minor."

Cairo — Photo: Ahmed Hamed Ahmed

Adham, whom Hélène calls "Nounours" (Teddy Bear), returned to Cairo in the spring. His texts peppered with heart icons and "ROFLs" ("rolling on floor laughing") forbid her to have any contact with men. He also forbids her from going to the movies, as doing so would constitute an act of "miscreance," and urges her to break with her family. The correspondence, intense and obsessive, adds up to dozens of text messages a day.

"No kissing anybody hello or goodbye (…). I trust you (…). Do you manage to avoid the men when there are guests?

— I’ll try, inch’Allah.

— Touching a pubescent male stranger = fornication. That’s one of the things that can annul the marriage (…). Good night my heart, my life, my love, my princess, my wife, my baby.

— You’re going to annul because somebody forced me to shake a guy’s hand? I won’t always be able to avoid it, Nounours, I do what I can, inch’Allah.

— I’m not joking, you don’t ‘do what you can,’ you do it (…). Religion comes before all else. You’ve been warned, this is serious. ALLAH SEES YOU!"

Adham promises to take Hélène to live in a country where there is Sharia law, like Brunei — "a country that’s 100% Muslim." He renames her "Sarah" — "it goes down better" — and tells her that her mother is a "miscreant."

For several weeks now Claire has been implementing "de-indoctrination" tactics she calls her "pink strategy." "It’s no longer possible to appeal to reason. I’m trying to heal her with love." She convinced her daughter to throw out her old prayer rug, bought her a kitten and took her to Ikea where she bought the pink mat and a cat tree. Hélène is so taken with the little cat she’s even forgotten some of her prayer sessions. And she’s started rereading her favorite children’s books, Grimm’s fairy tales and "One Thousand and One Nights."

But the countdown has started in Claire’s head: in 11 months, her daughter turns 18.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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