Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book review: Growing Up bin Laden

Osama bin Laden, jihadist plotter and breeder of giant sunflowers.  That's one of the odder images -- Osama wandering through the fields cutting sunflowers for his wives -- presented in this absolutely fascinating book.  At the same time bin Laden was plotting with various fanatics to strike a blow against the infidels corrupting the Muslim world, he was trying to grow the biggest sunflowers in Sudan.  The man loved farming, and apparently some of his happiest moments came when he'd pile the whole family (all four wives and his zillion kids) into cars to go out to the farm, first in Saudia Arabia and later in Sudan.  At the same time he was laying the groundwork for Al Qaeda, he was promoting innovations in agriculture as a way to lift Sudan out of poverty.   

This book is not academic history, meticulously researched, nor is it political analysis.  It may provide some insight into what motivates Osama, but that isn't the intent of the book.  It's oral history on the family level, life inside the bin Laden family as seen by Osama's first wife, Najwa, and his 4th son, Omar.  Najwa married Osama when she was 15 and he was 17, and by her account it was for many years a happy marriage.  They were first cousins so had been childhood playmates and friends long before the idea of marriage occurred to either.  They had what within the well-to-do Muslim world was a rarity:  a love match.  Still, most marriages are arranged, generally by the mothers, and Osama and Najwa's was no exception.  If the marriage hadn't been agreeable to both sets of parents, it wouldn't have happened no matter how the young people felt about each other. 

According to Najwa, marrying young and first cousin marriage are both extremely common in Islamic countries, particularly among wealthier families.  Cousin marriage is a way to keep the wealth and control consolidated.  Whether or not it's had any effects on the gene pool in terms of inherited diseases or simple-mindedness is debatable; Saudi society is sufficiently secretive that there could be whole herds of crazy relatives locked in the figurative attic and no one would know.  In any case, another odd image in the book is evoked by Najwa's happy description of herself as a newlywed in Jeddah fixing breakfast for her husband and being proud of how handsome he looked in his high school uniform before he headed off to school. 

As the book progresses, it struck me several times just how totally alien Saudi (and maybe traditional Muslim in general) society is compared with what we're used to in the United States.  The bin Ladens lived in a traditional manner to the extreme:  Osama was intensely devout from a young age, and spent many hours reading and memorizing the Koran.  Najwa said that many of their happiest moments as newlyweds were spent sitting together reading religious texts.  Osama's fundamentalism inspired his desire to live very simply, no decadent Western inventions in the home, which meant no air conditioning, no television, and, rather bizarrely, no refrigeration.  That last quirk presented challenges for Najwa because it meant food spoiled quickly.  Fortunately, she did have servants who could shop daily -- Najwa herself lived in purdah, leaving the house only when accompanied by a male relative such as her husband or her father (or, once they were old enough to be considered adults, one of her sons).  The only western invention or luxury Osama indulged in was automobiles:  he always drove the latest and fastest models.  Najwa doesn't seem to have resented being trapped in the house, though, especially once Osama married additional wives.  She not only describes the wives as becoming her good friends and sisters, but actually selected wife Number 3 for Osama.  Omar describes his mother as "naive," and no doubt she was -- but it's also clear she viewed her marriage as successful and, at least for the first decade or so, quite happy. 

As long as the family lived in Saudi Arabia, the boys had some contact with influences other than their father and his circle.  They attended school, an experience Omar describes as having been pretty horrible -- Osama insisted his sons go to a public school, not a private one, but the bin Laden name meant many of their classmates and even their teachers resented them for their supposed wealth.  Omar describes suffering both verbal and physical abuse -- he and his brothers lived in constant fear of being raped by fellow students or their teachers; male rape is apparently a major problem in Arab countries, one of those things no one talks about, especially when male rape victims are treated as harshly as female ones.   The boys were targeted because everyone assumed the bin Laden kids were wallowing in luxury at home when the truth was they weren't even allowed to have simple toys, like cheap plastic cars.  The one "toy" Omar remembers his father allowing was a soccer ball.  Osama's daughters received no formal education beyond being taught to read by their mothers.   

Osama's involvement in Afghanistan in the 1980s had made him a hero to the general public in Saudi Arabia, but his public disagreements with the royal family over U.S. involvement in the Gulf War threatened to land him in prison.  Before he could be arrested, he left the country and moved his family to Sudan.  Omar describes the initial time period in Sudan as being the happiest of his life:  the boys were enrolled in a school where no one knew anything about them, he was able to make friends, he and his brothers had a good time building tree forts in the garden at their compound, kept many pets, and generally were more relaxed than they had been back in Saudi Arabia.  This idyllic period did not last, of course.  Osama's involvment in radical jihad intensified, there was an assassination attempt that led to the boys being pulled out of school, and limited their contacts to only the immediate family and servants, and eventually the Sudanese government told Osama and his cohort to leave the country. 

After arriving in Afghanistan and seeing where Osama expected his wives and family to live -- a cluster of primitive stone huts at Tora Bora, buildings that had no running water, electricity, or even glass in the windows (the openings were covered with animal hides) -- Omar said he knew then that he would eventually break with his father.  It had become clear to him that Osama's single-minded focus on jihad and increasing fanaticism was dragging the family down and could never have a good end.  Still, he stuck it out for several years until he was able to persuade his mother to leave, too, late in 2000.  They went first to Syria, which was where his mother's family lived, and Omar appealed to the Saudi government to reinstate his Saudi citizenship and allow him to go to Jeddah, the city he considered home.  He was eventually able to do so, and an aunt, one of his father's half-sisters, helped him get re-established in Jeddah. 

I'm not sure what surprised me most about the book.  I had read elsewhere that Osama was noted for his devoutness and strict adherence to religious doctrine; I guess I didn't realize he'd taken it to the extreme of practically becoming the Islamic equivalent of Amish.  No refrigeration or air conditioning?  And his wives just say, sure, fine with us?  That was bizarre.  (One of his wives did divorce him, but it wasn't until after they'd had three children.)  Najwa's comments on clothing were intriguing -- her struggles with the abbayah, for example, weren't what a person would expect.  It didn't bother her to be fully veiled in public, something that wasn't common in Syria where she grew up, but it did annoy her that she felt so clumsy in the abbayah.  She wanted to glide gracefully like the Saudi women she saw instead of worrying all the time about tripping over things.  By the time they moved to Afghanistan, however, she'd gotten so used to the abbayah that she wasn't happy when Osama announced his family would now dress as the Afghani people did.  Given a choice between the abbayah and the burqa, she preferred the abbayah even if (and this was another surprise) the burqa is easier to wear because it leaves both hands free and also allows for the woman's eyes to be exposed so vision isn't as restricted as it is with traditional Saudi veils. Burqas can also be quite colorful, made from bright fabrics and decorated with embroidery while the traditional Saudi abbayah is black.  

The one thing with implications beyond insights into Osama bin Laden's personal life was the references  to Pakistan.  Over and over Omar bin Laden mentions Pakistan as being Osama's fallback, the place he can go if things get too hot in Afghanistan.  Pakistan is the country Osama's friends, allies, and supporters flew in and out of (they'd fly into Pakistan and then drive across the border to Afghanistan), it's the country Osama ducked into when he was feeling paranoid, and it's where many people believe Osama fled in the fall of 2001.  He obviously had safe houses and bases established there.  So why, then, are we still bombing the shit out of Afghanistan? 


  1. because they can't bomb the shit out of pakistan...

  2. It is easier to bomb a country that's armed with rocks than one that's got nuclear weapons, isn't it?

  3. True, that. And then we wonder why Iran wants a nuclear bomb. They don't want to be the next Iraq or Afghanistan, I'd guess...


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