What do you do when your last name moves from famous to infamous on a scale hard to imagine? You write a book; in a media driven age one must fight fire with fire. Take Carmen Bin Ladin (yes that Bin Ladin). Having married into the wealthy Saudi family in the 1970’s she finds herself today ostracized and alone, disconnected from the Western world – due to suspicion and fear -and disowned by the Bin Ladin family she lived with for decades and whose name she still bears. Post-9/11 her name will be forever connected to that horrible act and to her former husband’s younger brother.
In an attempt to tell her side of the story, and expose the society she escaped from, she has written a book. Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia is in many ways a tragedy but it is also a sort of amature sociology. It tells the story of how Carmen, caught up in the optimism and naivete of youth in the 1970’s, fell in love with Yeslam Bin Ladin the 10th son of Sheik Mohamed Bin Ladin (clan patriarch and founder of one of the largest and wealthiest construction companies in the middle east). They met in Switzerland (Carmen’s mother was Persian but her father was Swiss), travelled to Los Angles to attend USC, and generally enjoyed the wealth supplied by their families. Things began to unravel when she moved to Saudi Arabia when Yeslam took up a position in the family business.
The middle section of the book traces her growing unease as she experiences the suffocating Saudi culture where women are mere possessions whose lives are limited to serving their husbands and sons. Transported from the freedom of Geneva and California to the harsh world of Kilometre Seven, the Bin Ladin compound in Jeddah, Carmen experiences a culture shock she was never prepared for. She is forced to be covered from head to foot in black fabric whenever she is in public, she can’t even speak to her brother-in-laws let alone strangers in public, she is trapped inside the house for days with little intellectual stimulation surrounded by desert, in most aspects of her life she is wholly dependent on men.
Despite the best of intentions and the love and support of her husband, Carmen begins to doubt whether she can survive in this strange world. She is particularly worried about how her daughters will grow up in this harsh environment. When the economic boom fails to bring liberalization, and when her relationship with her husband falters, she begins actively to think of escape. The collapse of her marriage in Geneva allows her to keep her daughters -although she is still seeking a divorce – but it also leaves her isolated and alone. The acts of September 11 further isolate her from Westerners and Saudi’s alike.
This is not a particularly profound or insightful book. There is very little involved – other than some inside gossip about the wealthy lives of Saudi princes and the Bin Ladin clan – that can’t be found in other sources on Middle Eastern culture. What Carmen Bin Ladin brings is honesty and passion. This is her real life story of a life few could imagine. Yes she enjoyed wealth – in both the West and in Saudi Arabia – to a degree many find hard to fathom but she also was forced to experience restrictions on her freedoms and way of life that many in the West can’t comprehend. The strength of the story is to see it through her eyes.
Outside of the sociological and emotional insights involved, the underlying story is basically a love story that becomes a tragedy. It may seem cheesy and melodramatic – and it is in many ways – but it is nonetheless true and interesting. The tragedies of the rich and famous are here given an extra dimension of political and cultural meaning. After 9/11 being a Bin Ladin takes on a whole new meaning. The inability of the Saudi’s to change is also a sobering thought. I suppose, if there is a happy ending to this story it is that Carmen Bin Ladin’s daughters are now free to pursue the lives they choose.
It may be a cliche but Carmen surely knows that wealth and power alone can’t bring you happiness. In today’s climate where conversations can often turn vitriolic and where political hyperbole seems ubiquitous, it doesn’t hurt to remind ourselves just how much freedom we do enjoy. If Carmen’s story helps more people appreciate what they have and what life is like for far too many in the Middle East then it will have been a valuable contribution.
For more see this Guardian piece.