Week 51: Growing Up Bin Laden
Growing Up bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World, by Najwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden, and Jean Sasson
I've read several of Jean Sasson's previous books about the lives of women in Saudi Arabia with great interest, and when I saw that this book was written by her, I knew it would be a worthwhile read. (When I first heard of the book I thought that it would be pretty sensationalistic.) Najwa bin Laden is Osama's first wife, who no longer lives with him, and Omar is his fourth son.
Najwa and Omar both tell their stories from their own perspectives. The text moves back and forth between the two, staying fairly chronological, so Najwa's life dominates the first half of the book, and Omar becomes more prominent in the second half as he grows up and starts to understand what his father is doing.
Najwa starts off with the story of her childhood, but she married her cousin Osama when they were both still teenagers. At the time, he seems to have been a normal Saudi guy--he was still in school, known for being serious, kind, and traditional, and all in all they were quite happy. Najwa lived in purdah from the time of her marriage, which means she almost never went out of her home and really only saw other female relatives most of the time (which eventually includes Osama's other wives). It's interesting, and tragic, to see how her life slowly changed as Osama became more radical and militaristic. She is clearly a very conservative and traditional woman, and at no time does she ever say anything bad about her husband, even as she narrates a life lived in close restriction and ever-worsening deprivation. She was kept very ignorant of her husband's activities and, even at the end, it's unclear how much she knows, as she stays in purdah.
The bin Ladens eventually left Saudi Arabia and lived in Sudan (near the end of their time there, it becomes clear that Najwa has never seen the city she lived next to for years). After that, they moved to Afghanistan, to the mountain of Tora Bora. There, Najwa was expected to care for her large family and even bear more children while living in a old shepherd's hut with no conveniences whatsoever.
Omar's part of the story gives a very different perspective on the same family life. He is the fourth son and appears to have a naturally peacemaking and compassionate personality. As a boy, he could leave the home and go to school, but as a bin Laden son his life was miserable from the start. He was wealthy, and others assumed that he was spoiled, but in fact his father was becoming more and more of an ascetic. The boys were given little attention from their father, but expected to act in unnatural ways (no smiling, no mischief, no fun), live in a nearly unfurnished house without air conditioning, and were frequently beaten. They all had asthma but were not supposed to have modern medicine. They were unmercifully bullied at school by both teachers and students. Omar did not attend school at all after about age 12, and while his peers were receiving world-class educations, he was left behind in ignorance. With his father mostly absent and neglectful, Omar took on much of the responsibility of looking after his mother and younger brothers and sisters. This upbringing warped all the sons, some of whom developed severe problems; Omar seems to have come out of it best.
As Omar got older, his father took him to Tora Bora, expecting to groom his responsible son as a successor. Omar was horrified by the conditions his mother and younger siblings would have to live in and by al-Qaeda's mission. Eventually he figured out how to get his mother and youngest siblings out--knowing that something was going to happen, they left in early September 2001--but most of his younger siblings were not allowed to leave. Their fates are unknown.
I sympathized with both, but Najwa's narrative appealed to me more than Omar's, probably because I am a wife and mother myself, and she really seems like a person I'd like. The social system they lived in trapped both of them for years, since their culture demands strict obedience and subservience to a husband or father. I was very impressed with how they have survived their difficulties. It's clear that both have been severely damaged by their years with Osama.
I would recommend this book if you're interested in issues of terrorism, the Middle East, and women's lives under radical Islam. Jean Sasson has been writing about women in the Middle East for years and has the background to handle this difficult material without making it sensational or inaccurate (as far as I can tell).
Sasson's other books include Princess, Princess Sultana's Daughters, and Princess Sultana's Circle. Those are the ones I've read, and they are semi-anonymous narratives by a princess of Saudi Arabia, describing what it is like to live in that extremely restrictive society. I would recommend them as well, (though I confess I'm sometimes annoyed by Sultana's extremely mercurial temperament!).