Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book review: Growing up Bin Laden

Try not to laugh.


Book review: Growing up Bin Laden
The Sunday Times
November 15, 2009

Growing up Bin Laden: Osama’s Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World by Jean Sasson, Najwa Bin Laden and Omar bin Laden
The Sunday Times review by Robert Harris

Growing Up Bin Laden purports to be the memoirs of his first wife, Najwa (mother of 11 of his children), and her fourth son, Omar, now 28 and married to a British woman. Their accounts have been woven into a fascinating narrative by an American writer, Jean Sasson. Anyone who has read the letters of Stalin’s daughter, say, or the memoirs of Hitler’s entourage, will recognise the same tone of bewildered loyalty warring with appalled disbelief. Indeed, the careers of Hitler, Stalin and Bin Laden seem to have many of the same toxic precursors: an absent father (Bin Laden’s died when he was 10); a strong maternal presence; a grudge against the world, nurtured in childhood; high intelligence, manifested by a prodigious memory (Bin Laden had such a genius for mental arithmetic “men would come to our home and ask him to match his wits against a calculator”) and an inner coldness (“my father…never cuddled me or my brothers”).

Life with such men is seldom congenial, but in terms of sheer domestic awfulness Bin Laden seems to be in a category of his own. Najwa, only 15 at the time of their marriage, describes him as “the most serious man I’ve ever known”, so devout in his Muslim faith that “everything lively was banned”. There was no music in the household, no television, no toys, scant furniture and, even in the heat of Saudi Arabia, no western fripperies such as a refrigerator or air-conditioning. Najwa succumbed to a regime that in the West would be seen as little better than slavery, thickly veiled from head to toe, forbidden to travel alone or set foot out of doors unaccompanied, powerless to control her children’s upbringing (she claims to have borne Bin Laden seven sons and four daughters), obliged to share her husband with three other wives in strict rotation.

Even before he became a terrorist, Bin Laden’s idea of family fun was to make his wives and children go into the desert and sleep in holes in the sand. “No one protested, not even our babies. Everyone did as told, slowly easing our bodies into those dirt holes, waiting for a long, long night to pass.” Laughter was permitted only if the teeth were not exposed. Prescription drugs were forbidden except for dire emergencies: young Omar, a chronic asthmatic, was told to relieve his symptoms by breathing through a honeycomb, a useless remedy. If Bin Laden’s sons failed to conform to his rules, he beat them vigorously with his cane. “Although our father was a quiet figure, and generally spoke softly, his patience hung on a short thread. He was easily angered and could reach a point of violence in an instant.” Bin Laden actively sought out hardship. “Life has to be a burden,” he lectured his son. “Life has to be hard.” Hence the overnight stays in holes.


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