INSIDE THE KINGDOM
My Life in Saudi Arabia
by Carmen Bin Ladin
Warner Books, 2004
by Chesley Hicks
“Socially, Saudi Arabia is medieval, dark with sin and interdiction,” opens chapter seven of Carmen Bin Ladin’s chronicle of the years she spent married to Yeslam Bin Ladin, one of the infamous Osama’s 22 brothers.
In her 2004 memoir, recently out in paperback, the Western-raised, half-Swiss, half-Persian Bin Ladin (the book refers to Carmen and Yeslam as Bin Ladin, and the rest of the clan, including the notorious brother, as Bin Laden) outlines how she came to meet and marry a young Saudi Arabian jetsetter, leave her Geneva home, and endure life for nine years as a near-captive on his family compound in the Arabian desert.
Bin Ladin describes how the path to this fate really began with her mother. Far from fundamentalist, but nonetheless socially conventional, Carmen’s mother was eager for her eldest daughter to find a husband after her own husband—Carmen’s father, a Swiss man—abruptly left her. Carmen says that when she first met her future husband in Geneva, both were young, idealistic, and living Western lives. At the time, his family—who were taking a long vacation in Geneva—also struck the author as open-minded and even hip. However, as she gradually became acquainted with Yeslam’s family on their own turf, Carmen recognized that her husband was different from the rest—more progressive and appreciative of her Western values and autonomy—just as she was radically different from the Bin Laden clan’s subjugated wives and sisters. Even so, when the oil boom hit Saudi Arabia in the ’70s and it became apparent that colossal cash piles could be collected doing business there, Carmen and Yeslam decided to make a go of it in the desert kingdom.
Before moving there for good after the birth of their first daughter, the couple made several trips to Saudi Arabia, the earliest in order to procure the Saudi King’s mandatory permission to marry. From beneath an abaya—the compulsory head-to-toe covering for Saudi women—Carmen made her prescient first encounter with Saudi Arabia: “I watched the desert approach as we landed. The light through the black gauze cloth was so dim, I didn’t know if this new country was simply the darkest, dimmest place I had ever seen, or if the cloth across my eyes was preventing me from seeing anything that was there.”
Her ensuing Saudi wedding was likewise foreboding. “I waited, in my abaya, in the car,” she writes. “Yeslam and Ibrahim [his brother] brought me out a book that I had to sign. That was the marriage register… Then someone took the book back and we were married.” On this first visit to Saudi Arabia and with each subsequent one, Carmen portrays her increasing awareness of Saudi culture’s deeply entrenched misogyny, utter disregard for women’s welfare, and penchant for violent oppression. Yet she says that when the young couple arrived there to live, she was optimistic. “I thought [wearing the abaya] was temporary,” she writes. “Jeddah was booming, and foreigners had come flocking to the country… I assumed that Saudi culture would move into the modern world, just as other cultures had.” Writing in hindsight, Carmen seems alternately appreciative of and dismayed by her naive temerity, which she says was born both of her youth and having been a teenager in the revolutionary-feeling sixties. Coming from what appears to have been a sheltered, wealthy environment, it’s fair to say she found her Altamont in Saudi Arabia, 1979.
From 1976 to 1979, Carmen witnessed massive, breakneck modern development in Saudi Arabia. Though the culture followed at a glacial pace—she spent those years adjusting to harsh Saudi protocols, learning to circumscribe her public behavior while creating a liberal safe haven within her own home—she describes a relative loosening of fundamentalist strictures. Women began to appear in public without the full abaya, some of the Bin Laden wives brought their children to the birthday parties Carmen threw for her daughters (observation of birthdays is considered sacrilege by some strict Saudi Muslims). But it all came to a grinding halt in 1979 with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. The Iranian revolution caused panic in the royal family, which was already straining between the pull of the austere Wahabist Islam it purported to uphold and many of the royal family members’ libertine inclinations. “The more debauched princes,” Carmen writes, “continued indulging in their privately lavish lifestyles, while at the same time the royal family enforced increasing restrictions on the ordinary people they ruled.” Nearly overnight, the kingdom’s streets reverted to its brutish, tribal past, the culture of which Carmen spends a good portion of her book dissecting—revealing the parts to be even less appealing than the desiccated whole.
Throughout book—sometimes with a redundancy perhaps resounding with the years spent silent on the matter, and with how intensely she believes it a threat to the world—Carmen depicts a Saudi culture as crude as the oil that sustains it. She contrasts the culture of Saudi Islam with the Persian Islamic culture of her grandmother: “The Saudi version of Islam—Wahabism—is ferocious in its enforcement of a stark and ancient social code. This is not a complex intellectual culture like that of Iran or Egypt.” In her view, contemporary Saudi Arabia amounts to little more than a primitive tribal society that stumbled upon a whole lotta money, which has brought the country gross material wealth and power but not a whit of sophistication or enlightenment. She offers vivid, succinct depictions of the ways in which the Saudis have adopted garish and gaudy simulations of Western opulence without any sense of form or function She describes her first impression of her mother-in-law’s home: “It was a relief to take off my abaya. Suddenly the light inside the house seemed blinding. There were so many chandeliers blazing, it was like stepping into a lamp shop… The lack of sophistication surprised me. I had imagined an exotic Oriental abode, like in the movies, or like my grandmother’s home in Iran. After all, Yeslam’s father had been one of the richest men in Saudi Arabia. But this was just a basic house furnished in poor taste.” She also presents numerous examples of comically absurd but painfully oppressive Saudi moral bureaucracy, generally employed to keep women lowly.
And where she thought she might find sorority among the repressed women with whom she lived in the Bin Laden compound, she instead found relationships among wives and sisters to be superficial and catty—a consequence in part of their being relentlessly segregated, herded, and quartered like breeding heifers. Carmen depicts many Saudi women as spiritually and intellectually lobotomized, forced to get by on the favors they are able to curry from the men who control them, usually by dint of deceit and manipulation. Their dynamic reflects a concentration camp mentality—the sense that there are never enough resources to go around and what is given to another extracts from one’s own welfare. This might seem strange in as wealthy a nation as Saudi Arabia, but polygamy is the norm there—so it seems each wife knows she is only as good as her last performance. Even the wives’ forays into lesbianism come off as desperate attempts to compensate for what they don’t get from men and aren’t allowed to do for themselves. Carmen addresses these behaviors with varying degrees of compassion and resentment, and of course takes care to detail the exceptions—a handful of women with whom she could relate, including some who remained close following her estrangement from the kingdom.
And the men in Carmen’s kingdom are generally craven-hearted brutes wearing complacent veneers. By adolescence, Carmen says, boys have learned to control their own mothers with an arrogance and sense of entitlement bred deeply into them. Within the family, they are subject mainly to birth order. The formerly nomadic tribes relied heavily on patrilineal clan organization: still in full effect today according to Carmen. “Families are headed by patriarchs and obedience to the patriarch is absolute,” she writes. “The only values that count in Saudi Arabia are loyalty and submission—first to Islam then to the clan.”
Carmen says she got by not just pursuing illusory Saudi liberalism, but by going on a mission to educate herself on the country’s history and the inextricably entangled intrigues of the Saudi royal and Bin Laden families. She achieved her goal by listening to the conversations around her and reading books and newspapers smuggled in from elsewhere. Apparently the governmental watchdogs dared not investigate luggage or packages bearing the Bin Laden name, so she even was able to access information that was critical of the royal family.
The result of that inquiry helps make Inside the Kingdom the compelling read it is. Carmen connects what’s going on in her personal life to what’s happening globally and in Saudi Arabia in particular. It’s a view into Saudi culture and a political history lesson, shown in the unfolding of the author’s personal saga.
Carmen’s rendition of modern Saudi affairs resides largely in an examination of legacy, which is a recurring theme in the book. She frames the current state of the Bin Laden family as reflective of each brother’s relationship to the pious, self-made, and shrewd patriarch, Sheik Mohammed Bin Laden, who had 22 wives and 54 children before he died at age 59 in a plane crash—rumored to have occurred en route to his taking a 23rd wife. “Sadly,” Carmen writes, “none of his children has ever really measured up to Sheikh Mohamed,” her misgivings about the family he spawned oddly notwithstanding her admiration for the legend of the man she never met. One doesn’t have to read too far between Inside the Kingdom‘s lines to see that Carmen craves a father figure.
Similarly, Carmen identifies her haste to marry as, in part, answering her mother’s insecurity and concern for appearances—something that she says was not of her mother’s true character but a carry-over from her Iranian upbringing that only expressed itself after she was humiliated by her husband’s departure. (Carmen’s mother never admitted her divorce to her own family). “That is what it meant to me to be from the Middle East,” Carmen writes. “You lived behind secrets. You hid things that were disagreeable.” It is not clear when in Carmen’s life she fully figured this out, though she describes an epiphany—one of a few in the book—she had upon returning to Iran as an adult. Though she maintains her respect for the rich and ancient Iranian culture, she describes having been devastated to find that life on Iran’s streets did not resemble the aristocratic gardens within the walls of her grandmother’s estate she visited as a child. Carmen says she told Yeslam when she first met him that she would never marry, as she didn’t want to see her children abandoned by a father as she and her three sisters were. Yet about 15 years later, that is precisely the predicament in which Carmen finds herself.
And in that vein, the dissolution of the Saudi royal family itself can be seen as a microcosm of modern Saudi Arabia. Carmen says there are rumored to be some 25,000 in the Saudi clan now, and she portrays the generation coming to dominate the country as remarkably shiftless. They all receive some stipend or another from the country’s oil wealth and believe themselves above work (Carmen depicts Saudis relying heavily upon yet abusing their foreign hired help, treating them as slaves). Add to that the Saudi belief that, as the caretakers of Mecca, they are a chosen people, and you have delusional, dysfunctional elite—yet depicted as possessing little substance with which to fill their lives. One can only wonder how that legacy will unfold when the oil wells begin to run dry.
Returning to the Bin Laden legacy: there is the book’s tacitly central character of Osama, and there is Yeslam. Among Carmen’s chief reasons for writing her memoir, she says, was the opportunity to exonerate her daughters and herself from the scourge wrought on their surname, and to warn the world of the roiling Saudi threat. Osama, she says, was neither a black sheep nor an exalted member of the Bin Laden family while she lived in the compound. She met him only briefly on a few occasions and comes to no definitive conclusion about him other than that his pious commitment to strict fundamentalism and its causes celebres seemed to earn him increasing respect in polarized, backward-sliding Saudi society. Near the book’s conclusion she writes: “I cannot believe that the Bin Ladens have cut Osama off completely. I simply can’t see them depriving a brother of his annual dividend from their father’s company, and sharing it among themselves. This would be unthinkable—among the Bin Ladens, no matter what a brother does, he remains a brother.” She also says: “It’s certainly possible that Osama retains ties to the royal family, too. The Bin Ladens and the princes work together, very closely. They are secretive and they are united.” On 9-ll she asserts: “Though they have made a few public statements condemning the tragedy, neither clan has gone to any length to prove that they have not given Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaida moral and financial support in the past, and that they are currently not doing so.”
Yeslam, as it turns out, succumbs to neuroses and, ultimately, to the pull of the clan’s gravity. According to Carmen, Saudi Arabia is a nation of wealthy hypochondriacs who fly across the globe to visit their various favorite doctors and collect prescriptions. Her husband, whose level-headed, intelligent composure had always impressed her, eventually joins and then even surpasses their obsessive ranks. She watches as he slips deeper into anxiety disorder, becoming phobic, distant, and, finally, estranged. It’s hard not to feel the parallels between his trajectory and that of his country. He ascends his family’s stature-ladder, defying birth order, establishing contacts within the royal family, and making a name for himself as a highly successful businessman. He marries a Western woman to whom he intimately and intellectually relates, while always managing to maintain face in traditional Saudi culture as it catapults into Western capitalism. But eventually his sanity splinters, his own psychiatric decline and the subsequent deterioration of his marriage mirroring the kingdom’s decent into fractured consciousness.
It seems that as Carmen was finishing her book, she was still involved in a protracted, painful divorce from Yeslam. She says that as she watched Yeslam lose his sanguine self-possession, she also saw him drawn further into the recesses of Saudi moral despotism. When she recognizes that she’s losing him as an ally, she realizes that she and her daughters are close to becoming true captives in Saudi Arabia. Her daughters are coming of age–and becoming subject to the Saudi interpretation of womanhood. Finally, with of one of their annual visits to Switzerland, they simply don’t return to the desert. Then the marriage disintegrates. Carmen says that though he was living in Geneva, Yeslam became ever more Saudi, and even started cheating on her. They divorce. The odd thing is that Yelsam stays in Switzerland, too, but lives an entirely separate life and eventually denies the existence of his daughters. According to Carmen, he used his might and money to try to extradite all of their daughters to Saudi Arabia—even though he’d asked her to abort her pregnancy with the third daughter—where she would lose access to them. Apparently parts of their battle became public news in Switzerland—something one imagines might also have compelled Carmen to set the record straight with a book.
Though there are some holes in the telling, one tends to believe Carmen’s story comes from the heart, and that her insights are solid. Her tale is a memoir, yet it’s not as forthcoming as it could be. For instance, she never reveals the source of her birth family’s wealth, though it’s apparent and certainly shapes her experiences and perspective on the world. (Hell, I doubt you meet and marry a Bin Laden if you’re not rich to begin with.) Sometimes you get the feeling that as far out on limb as she’s gone to tell her story, she’s still holding back at times—maybe a remnant of her mother’s secretive conventionalism.
She offers lucid views into many of the kingdom’s angles and shadows, but Carmen says little about the intimate intertwining of US and Saudi legacies. Her approach is uncritical of Western values, coming rather from a vantage of unmitigated gratitude for the freedoms the West offers in relief to Mideastern oppressions. Indeed she even sees in the rigors of her own divorce from Yeslam an epochal struggle against Saudi tyranny. In the conclusion, she says that she fears for her and her three daughters’ safety in the wake of the book’s release. But a year later, it doesn’t seem to have roused dire controversy. Maybe it’s because she never injured Allah in her writing, or perhaps it is because her words are too close to the truth.
For more on the Bin Laden dynasty see:
WW4 REPORT #43
WW4 REPORT #28
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Sept. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution