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Inside the KingdomMy Life in Saudi Arabia
By Carmen Bin Ladin
Thorndike PressCopyright © 2004 Carmen Bin Ladin
All right reserved.
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, WAS ONE OF THE MOST TRAGIC dates of our lifetimes. It took, and shattered, the lives of thousands of innocent people. It robbed the Western world of its sense of freedom and security. For me, it was a nightmare of grief and horror-one that will imprison me and my three daughters for the rest of our lives.
And yet 9/11 began as a lovely Indian summer day. I was enjoying a leisurely drive from Lausanne to Geneva with my eldest daughter, Wafah, when one of my closest friends, who was working in New York, called me on my cell phone.
"Something terrible just happened," he told me, his voice urgent, from his office in Manhattan. "I'm watching the news. It's incredible: A plane hit one of the towers of the World Trade Center." And then, his voice rising further, he yelled, "Wait a minute-there's another plane-it's going straight toward the second tower. Oh my God"-he was screaming now-"it hit the second tower!"
As he described the second hit, something in me snapped. This was no freak accident. This had to be a deliberately plotted attack, on a country I had always loved and looked on as my second home. I froze. Then waves of horror crashed over me as I realized that somewhere at the bottom of this lay the shadow of my brother-in-law: Osama Bin Laden.
Beside me in the car, my daughter Wafah was yelling, "What? What happened?" I was in shock. I managed to force out a few words. Wafah lived in New York. She had just graduated from Columbia Law School, and had spent the summer with me in Switzerland. She was planning to head back to her New York apartment in four days' time. Now she was in tears, frantically punching in numbers on her cell phone, trying to reach all her friends.
My first instinct was to call my dearest friend, Mary Martha, in California. I had to hear her voice. She had already heard about the double attack in New York, and she told me a third plane had just hit the Pentagon. The world was spinning off its axis: I could feel it.
I raced to the high school attended by my youngest daughter, Noor. The look of shock in her eyes told me she already knew. The blood had drained from her face.
We rushed home to meet my middle girl, Najia, as she returned from college. She, too, was devastated. Like many millions of other people around the world, the children and I watched CNN, mesmerized, alternately weeping and phoning everyone we knew.
As the hours passed, my worst fear came true. One man's face and name was on every news bulletin: Osama Bin Laden. My daughters' uncle. A man whose name they shared, but whom they had never met, and whose values were totally foreign to them. I felt a sick sense of doom. This day would change all of our lives, forever.
OSAMA BIN LADEN IS THE YOUNGER BROTHER OF MY husband, Yeslam. He is one of many brothers, and I knew him only distantly, when I lived in Saudi Arabia, years ago. At the time, Osama was a young man, but he always had a commanding presence. Osama was tall, and stern, and his fierce piety was intimidating, even to the more religious members of his family.
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 struggle to give my children a life of freedom.
In my struggle to sever our ties to Saudi Arabia, I began amassing information on my husband's family. I watched as Osama grew in might and notoriety, spiraling deeper into murderous rage against the United States from his redoubt in Afghanistan.
Osama was a warlord, who assisted the Afghan rebels in their fight against the Soviet occupation of their country. When the Soviets left, Osama returned home, to Saudi Arabia. For many he was already a hero.
When Iraq invaded Kuwait, in 1990, Osama was outraged at the idea that U.S. forces might use Saudi Arabia as a base. He offered Saudi King Fahd the use of his Afghan warriors to fight Saddam Hussein. Some of the more religious princes thought Osama's ideas had merit, but King Fahd refused.
Osama began making incendiary statements against the corruption and moral bankruptcy of the Saudi ruling family, and the Americans who were defending them. Finally, Osama was forced to leave his country, and take refuge in Sudan, where his compound of armed men was surrounded by sentries in tanks. Then he moved back to Afghanistan.
In those days, even though we were separated, I was still on speaking terms with Yeslam, who kept me up-to-date on the evolution in Saudi Arabia and the Bin Laden family news-including Osama's whereabouts. Yeslam told me that Osama's power was growing, despite his exile. Osama, he said, was under the protection of conservative members of the Saudi royal family.
In 1996, when a truck bomb blasted the Khobar Towers living quarters of American forces posted in Dahran, in eastern Saudi Arabia, Osama was mentioned as a possible culprit. I was dumbstruck, yet I knew it could be true. Who else could possibly have at his disposal enough explosives in a country so highly controlled? Osama was a warrior, a zealot, and a member of the family that jointly owned the Bin Laden Organization-the wealthiest and most powerful construction company in Saudi Arabia. I knew of Osama's fiercely extreme opinions, and deep down I felt that he was capable of a terrible, blind violence.
As attack followed attack, I read everything I could lay my hands on about Osama. So on September 9, 2001, when the news broke of the attack on Afghan fighter Ahmed Shah Massoud, I realized it had to be Osama's doing. I walked over to the television, with a sick feeling. "This is Osama. He is getting ready for something truly awful." "Oh Carmen, you're obsessed," scoffed a friend of mine. But I knew.
I wish I had been wrong.
It never occurred to me that Osama was plotting an assault on the heart of New York. I thought perhaps it would be an embassy-that would have been bad enough. But when the World Trade Center went down in flames just two days after Massoud's death, it hit me again. The sick feeling in my stomach. The fear.
Now I know that it will never go away again.
In the days that followed the attack on the World Trade Center, our lives revolved around the TV news bulletins. The toll of victims kept rising, as the dust settled on the ashen streets of my children's favorite city. We watched people searching for the missing, clutching old snapshots in their hands. Bereaved relatives told reporters about the last phone messages left on their answering machines before their loved ones died. There were those awful photographs of people jumping. I kept thinking, "What if Wafah had been there?" I felt so very deeply for those mothers, for those children.
My three girls were distraught with grief and bewilderment. Noor, the girl who just one year earlier had brought an American flag home from South Carolina to stick on her bedroom wall, sank into despondency. She sobbed, "Mom, New York will never be the same." Fortunately, she never became the target of hostility from her classmates: Her pro-American cheerleading had made her the subject of friendly teasing for years, so all her friends realized how truly hurt my little girl was.
We hardly left the house. Reporters called constantly: I was the only Bin Laden in Europe with a listed phone number. Friends called, their voices strained. Then they stopped calling. We were rapidly becoming personae non grata. The Bin Laden name frightened even the hardiest professionals. A new law firm refused to take my divorce case: I suddenly found myself without a lawyer.
Of all of us, it was Najia who focused most on the suffering of the World Trade Center's victims. She couldn't bear to watch TV most of the time. Her name was becoming public currency: This was particularly hard to bear for such a private person. Najia is perhaps the most discreet of all my children. She doesn't display her emotions easily, but I could see she was stricken.
The terrible irony was that we identified, and grieved, with the victims, while the outside world saw us as aggressors. We were trapped in a Kafkaesque situation-particularly Wafah. After four years of law school, Wafah's life was in New York. Her apartment was just blocks from the World Trade Center. She talked night and day about her friends there; she felt she had to be in New York, and wanted to fly back immediately.
Then one newspaper reported that Wafah had been tipped off: She had, they said, fled New York just days before the attack. This was untrue. Wafah had been with me, in Switzerland, since June. But other papers picked up the story. They said Wafah had known in advance about the attack, and had done nothing to protect the people and the home that she loved.
A friend who was staying in Wafah's New York apartment called: She had begun receiving death threats. It was an understandable reaction-how could strangers distinguish one Bin Laden from another?
I felt I had no choice. I alone could defend my daughters. I issued a statement saying that my three girls and I had had no connection whatsoever with this evil, barbaric attack on America, a country we loved and whose values we shared and admired. I went on TV. I wrote to the newspapers to express our sorrow. My long battle to free myself and my children from the ideals of Saudi Arabia was all the evidence I could offer for our innocence: that, and our goodwill, and the pain we felt for Osama's victims.
I had so longed for an end to my bitter fight against the Bin Ladens and their country. But now I faced a whole new struggle. I would have to shepherd my children through the anguish they felt as their name became synonymous with evil, infamy, and death.
My private life had become a public story.
IRONICALLY, IT WAS ONLY AFTER SEPTEMBER 11 THAT my fourteen-year fight for freedom from Saudi Arabia made sense to the people around me. Before that, I think no one truly understood what was at stake-not the courts, not the judge, not even my friends. Even in my own country, Switzerland, I was perceived, more or less, as just another woman embroiled in a nasty international divorce.
But I always knew that my fight went far deeper than that. I was fighting to gain freedom from one of the most powerful societies and families in the world-to salvage my daughters from a merciless culture that denied their most basic rights. In Saudi Arabia they could not even walk alone in the street, let alone choose the path of their own lives. I fought to free them from the hard-core fundamentalist values of Saudi Arabian society, and its contempt for the tolerance and liberty of the West, which I have learned to value deeply.
I am afraid that even today, the West does not fully understand Saudi Arabia and its rigid value system. For nine years, I lived inside the powerful Bin Laden clan, with its close and complex links to the royal family. My daughters went to Saudi schools. I lived, to a great extent, the life of a Saudi woman. And over time, I learned and analyzed the mechanisms of that opaque society, and the harsh and bitter rules that it enforces on its daughters.
I could not stand quietly by while my little girls' bright minds were extinguished. I could not teach them to submit to the values of Saudi Arabia. I could not watch them be branded as rebels because of the Western values that I taught them-despite all the punishment that might ensue. And were they to comply with Saudi society, I could not face the prospect that my daughters might grow up to become like the faceless, voiceless women I lived among.
Above all I could not watch my daughters be denied what I valued most: freedom of choice. I had to free them, and myself.
This is my story.
Excerpted from Inside the Kingdom by Carmen Bin Ladin Copyright © 2004 by Carmen Bin Ladin.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
|A Letter to My Daughters||9|
|2||A Secret Garden||23|
|3||Falling in Love||32|
|4||My Saudi Wedding||47|
|6||Life with the Bin Ladens||81|
|8||Life as an Alien||101|
|9||Two Mothers, Two Babies||122|
|10||My Own Chief Inmate||129|
|15||A Saudi Couple||222|
|16||Sisters in Islam||233|
|17||Princes and Princesses||248|
|18||Leaving Saudi Arabia||268|