February 1, 2010
The Bin Ladens by Steve Coll (2008)
The Bin Ladens is a fact-filled yet entertaining history of this larger than life Arabian dynasty. We learn about the family progenitor, Mohamed Bin laden who migrated from his native Yemen to Saudi Arabia as a bricklayer, and ended up being one of the most successful businessmen in the country. The rise of his Bin Laden Construction company coincided with the decision by the Saudi royal family to modernize the country. His work for the Sauds developed into a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship and made Bin Laden rich beyond his wildest dreams. Before his death in 1967, Bin Laden had fathered 54 children with 22 different wives.
When Mohamed died in a plane crash, one of his eldest sons, Salem, became the patriarch of the family. Salem was an interesting character. Unlike his devout father-or his fanatical half-brother Osama-Salem was quite fond of, and comfortable in secular, Western culture. Salem attended college in England, drank alcohol, played in a rock band and chased women. He apparently made a nuisance of himself among the Saudi royals by his constant “outrageous” behavior and his penchant for fart jokes. I actually laughed out loud on a couple of occasions as Coll recounted his antics. Salem had a dark side though. Despite his love of western culture, Islamic traditionalism was embedded in his essence. He apparently once punched an employee for merely speaking to his sister without permission. Salem seems to embody the turbulent and paradoxical relationship that many Saudis have with the west. Salem too died in a plance crash in 1988 in Texas. It is impossible not to notice the ironic connection of Bin Ladens and American aviation. Salem died in Texas as he piloted an ultralight aircraft and the pilot in Mohamed’s crash was also an American. The cause of the crash was said to be pilot error.
The most famous Bin Laden is of course, Osama, who Coll thoroughly investigates. From a young age, Osama was quite religious. He was also shy, polite and a bit of a “mama’s boy.” Initially he was extremely loyal to the Saudi royal family, even after he developed his radical views. It was only after they publicly rebuked him (in the early 90’s) for his jihad activities and tried to turn his family against him (in his view) that he turned on them. His animosity towards America is obviously discussed as well, mostly due to the US military presence on Saudi soil, their support for Israel against the Palestinians, and a perceived general attack on Muslims and Islam around the world. While Osama's religiosity was certainly not unique in a land such as Saudi Arabia, compared to his more secular siblings, he was always slightly peculiar.
Numerous other Bin Ladens are also discussed, but most of them are much more minor figures in this Arabian epic. I’m not sure I agree with another reviewer who says that Coll “exonerates” the Bin Laden family as “noble” and “ashamed” of Osama. While it doesn’t seem that any of his family members were involved in his terroristic activities (and many probably are genuinely repelled by them), there does seem to be a thread of ambivalence running through the family and Saudi society in general. Toward the end, Coll quotes a certain Saudi prince who says, “while I don’t condone Osama’s actions, at the end of the day, the Americans deserved it.” All in all, a fascinating study of the Bin laden dynasty.