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The Life of Carmen Bin Laden

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Not long ago I was browsing through a second hand bookshop and came across a book entitled The Veiled Kingdom  [Virago  Press, 2004]  This is the story of a woman who was once married to one of the Bin Laden clan. Her name is Carmen Bin Laden and she was married to Yeslam Bin Laden, Osama’s older brother by another wife.

For those who are not up to speed with the number of Bin Ladens – Sheikh Mohammed Bin Laden had 22 wives [not all at the same time] and 54 children. This Sheikh Mohammed would marry and divorce his wives and then either have the divorced wives live at separate quarters in his large place or give the divorced wives palatial residences near Jedda in Saudi Arabia. He was able to do this as he was head of the main construction firm in Saudi Arabia during the time of the oil boom in the 60s and beyond. The wives whether divorced or not had access to so much money they could not spend it quickly enough.  As well as his own sumptuous residence for his current and ex-wives in Jedda Sheikh Mohommad, towards the end of his life he built his own group of houses for his various family agglomerations at a place called Kilometer 7 outside Jedda on the road to Mecca. This Sheikh was held in such high esteem by the ruling Sauds at one stage that his firm was the only one allowed into Mecca. The Sheikh died in 1967 survived by dozens of widows and several dozen children.

Carmen began her life in Europe - she was born to a Swiss father and Iranian mother who belonged to an educated family. However, while she was brought up a Muslim, her mother was not overly strict about her religious beliefs and Carmen grew up seeing both the Islamic world and the west. In her book she describes how she met Yeslam in Switzerland in the early 1970s when he was about 24. He  came to rent part of her mother’s house during a stay in Switzerland. He was ‘charming’ and  got to talking to Carmen who learned he was number 10 child and the son of one of Mohommad Bin Laden’s divorced wives. She was impressed with his attentiveness and ‘compelling presence’ and little by little he told her about his 29 sisters and 24 brothers [howzat for getting to know the family!]. Carmen was young, idealistic and naïve. She and Yeslam both had had experience of living in Europe and America and she imagined a cosmopolitan life with him. She believes he genuinely cared for her inasmuch as his cultural background allowed him to care for women . She thought him quite westernized  and agreed to marry him and even travelled to Saudi Arabia for the quick ceremony, thinking all would be well. On the plane flying to Saudi Arabia she describes how she thought her future husband  looked romantic and exotic in his long white Saudi tobe. Before disembarking she agreed to put on the thick black abaya covering hands head and body and rode in a car through the desert to the Bin Laden complex at Kilometer 7 to meet her future mother in law. However the moment she put on the abaya her heart sank at looking out at the world from this dark cloth over her face and body. She saw a stagnant isolated world. However she hoped it would progress and develop and that women would not have to wear abayas for too long. She describes her marriage thus:

Yeslam and Ibrahim drove me to the parking lot of an administrative building to register our wedding. I waited in my abaya in the car while they went inside. Yeslam and Ibrahim brought out a book for me to sign It was the marriage register …Then someone took the book back and we were married. [p45] 

Later there was a celebration and Carmen wore a white wedding dress covered by a black chador as she was driven to a hotel for the celebration – after a brief time seated next to Yeslam on a dias, she then joined a women’s only celebration – the men celebrated elsewhere. 

After a brief stay in Saudi Arabia where she was caught in ‘hypnotic inactivity’ offering endless coffee to other women, putting on clothes and cooking,  she and Yeslam flew to the United States where Yeslam completed his studies. She recalls scrunching up the abaya and throwing it in a cupboard and yearning for the trip to the US.  Carmen had a child not long after  in the US and Yeslam of course was disappointed it was a girl and walked out of the room at the hospital. Not to be daunted Carmen still kept her hopes high even when the couple returned to Jedda in 1976 . Carmen knew that ‘heavy feeling’ again as she donned the abaya and realised now that she could not toss it away this time . She says ‘It was an insult to my intelligence and my freedom but I didn’t make a big drama of it To cover my unease I accepted the Saudi explanation that the abaya symbolised respect for women. More fundamentally I was convinced that it would be temporary.’ [p 60]

However, Carmen’s optimism was not to be realised. She lived in seclusion at Kilometer 7 only going out with her husband when he returned from his work with the Bin Laden firm. Servants did the shopping – it was haram  to leave the house without a male relative and they were mostly at work. One day when Yeslam agreed to go with Carmen to a shop she was full of excitement only to find out the male owner had to exit the shop so she could enter secretly. All she saw in this ‘shop’ was  an untidy warehouse with stacks of boxes and she had to search through box after box to buy baby formula for her baby. That was her shopping trip. Back at Kilometer 7 she says.

I could feel myself sinking into lassitude. I felt bored and aimless as a goldfish, swimming slower and slower inside an absolutely smooth glass bowl with nothing to do gulping for air…The heat crushed us all into submission.[p65]

She describes the patriarchal society in which every gesture a woman makes is monitored and where, because she was Iranian, Carmen felt that she was never totally accepted. She went on to have another girl to everyone’s disappointment and continued the life of seclusion. At one point she crossed the road alone to a house on the other side to talk to another woman and this shocked the Saudi women.

Several times Osama bin Laden came to visit but he never looked Carmen in the face as he held to a super rigid form of Wahhabism from his earliest years which meant he could not look at a woman’s uncovered face, even if she was at home. Osama would go and speak to Yeslam and his other brothers  in another room. She stayed with the women while the men talked. So rabid was Osama that at one point Carmen saw Osama’s wife nursing their crying child Abdallah. Osama’s wife kept trying to feed the boy with water from a teaspoon . Carmen tries to intervene saying he needed milk but apparently milk from a bottle was forbidden and for some reason in that situation the mother could not breast feed her child. Carmen describes her shock at seeing the suffering child scream louder and louder and the mother’s insistence on obeying Osama . She begs her husband to tell Osama to allow the child milk from a bottle but her husband refuses to intervene. The child just continued to suffer while she looked on helplessly at the situation. This incident made a deep impression on Carmen and was a turning point for her. Her eyes begin to open further and further to the harsh strictures of Saudi society. Lavish displays of wealth were surrounded by totally inalterable rules devised in the 7th century and which the Saudi women were brought up to obey without questioning. In the end Carmen realizes that her own girls would be brought up in this way, be denied a real education , apart from learning to recite the Qu’ran. She says at one point

I had been free to choose, and I had chosen a life that was restricted in many small ways along with some big ones. By making that choice however, I had ensured that my daughters would not be free to choose I had chosen. In my nightmares I saw my little girls growing up to become Saudi women – bent over under the weight of their subservience cloaked darkness. [p 152]

She realizes what is in store for her daughters – lack of education, lack of respect, lack of any freedom to move about. At the same time, Carmen sees that over a period of years Yeslam has changed into a more petulant emotional person. After several years of marriage, and after a period of difficulties in the Bin Laden firm when Yeslam feels he is badly done by in the endless intrigues that occurred there among the brothers,  at one point he suggests they all go to stay in Switzerland. Carmen jumps at the chance – her daughters are growing up and she wants to enroll them in a proper school. In Switzerland, however, Yeslam’s  behaviour becomes more and more erratic. He forces Carmen to have an abortion when she becomes pregnant and she is overcome with sorrow. She falsely thinks that agreeing to this she will somehow save the marriage . She becomes pregnant again and he insists on her having an abortion and she refuses which enrages him.  While she is pregnant,  Carmen discovers Yeslam is meeting with a lady number 2 and is becoming more domineering and insistent on his own ways – more than when he was younger and besotted with her. When he insists Carmen return to Jedda she refuses. He leaves in disgust and that is the end of their union.

Carmen feels she had a lucky escape as if she had returned to Saudi Arabia she may never have been able to leave as a woman needs the permission of her husband, brother or father to leave the Kingdom. Moreover her daughters may never have been able to leave. From that moment on Carmen’s daughters are educated and as things turn out Carmen has another baby girl. She is very happy with her children but Yeslam drops all contact with them and lives a jet setter life . Carmen realizes that she has escaped from a paranoid restrictive country and has learned about Wahhabism from the inside. She says

…the Saudis have become the guardians of absolute orthodoxy in the Islamic world. The only difference between Saudi Islam and that of the ultra hard-line Afghan Taliban is the opulence and private self-indulgence of the al-Sauds. The Saudis are the Taliban in luxury.

When 9/11 happens she realizes more than ever that she never belonged with the Saudis and all she holds dear is in the west whose freedom she ardently defends. Of course the Bin Ladens dropped her. Of her past she says:

During the years that I lived among the Bin Laden family in Saudi Arabia, Osama came to exemplify everything that repelled me in that opaque and harsh country: the unbending dogma that ruled all our lives, the arrogance and pridefulness of the Saudis and their lack of compassion for people who didn’t share their beliefs. That contempt for outsiders and unyielding orthodoxy  spurred me on to a fourteen year fight to give my children a life in the free world. [pp5-6]

Carmen Bin Laden now is totally dedicated to her daughters and to the values of  western civilization. She does not say in the book if she has left Islam formally but her dedication to the west and her public repudiation of all that Islam stands for suggests she has. She says of her past

My struggle to keep my daughters has made me stronger. But it seems that Yeslam has changed far more than I have. Or perhaps at some deeper level my husband was always a Saudi: self-centred, arrogant and dismissive. His background simply caught up with him as he grew older. I was blind to reality, star-struck and foolish, imagining a love – story where there was only a struggle for power and dominance. Once I disobeyed my dreams turned to dust and my charming prince turned against me: it was all a Saudi fairly tale and the brunt of my punishment will always be borne by my children.

The way she recounts her life story, she is upfront and honest and the book has a certain compelling interest. She tells it from the inside and describes the Bin Laden compound and the endless imprisonment of the women well. She managed to escape from Saudi Arabia and more importantly found the true value of freedom and democracy in the west.

Last Updated on Sunday, 21 March 2010 19:45  

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