Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Book Review: "Inside the Kingdom" by Carmen Bin Ladin

I surprised myself by enjoying this book. I say "surprised" because I thought it was just going to be a mundane reflection on the aristocratic Iranian-Swiss author's marriage to Yeslam Bin Ladin (half-brother to The Osama), but instead it read like a social and cultural commentary on the people, especially the women, of Saudi Arabia. It is true that the author also spent time talking about her relationship with the Bin Ladins, but it was not excessive. The message I thought the author was trying to convey is that it must be the ultimate misfortune to be born a Saudi woman. According to her, for a Saudi woman everything is "haram" or sinful. Even the Arabic word for woman, "hormah", comes from the word haram.

"...everything seemed to be haram, or sinful; and if it wasn't sinful it was "abe", shameful. It was haram to play music, abe to walk around in the street, abe to talk to a male servant, haram to be seen by a man outside the family..."

However, I don't see this happening only in Saudi Arabia or other Muslim countries practising "Wahabism"---for instance, the Hasidic Jews don't allow their women too many liberties either. I remember being appalled when I read that these women apart from always having to cover their hair, couldn't even sing at the Sabbath because it is possible that hearing their singing voices may cause men to sin!

Then, Saudi Arabia being a patriacrchal country, for Saudi women it is essential to produce male heirs:

...it is not just a question of your personal status in society (Saudi women are named after their first-born sons, eg. the mother of Yeslam was called, Om Yeslam), but it can be a question of basic survival because in the event of a husband's death, the mother and her daughters become dependent on the first-born son. He is their guardian and must approve of simple decisions such as travel, education, the choice of a husband etc. If the mother has only daughters then her husband's father (if he is still living) or the husband's brother becomes her guardian and will also inherit 50 percent of her estate. So, as you can tell, it is imperative for a Saudi woman to have a son. The author herself had three girls, Wafah, now 28, Najia, 27 and Noor, 17. And it was precisely because she had daughters that she gradually became 'more sensitive to the dismal, oppressive conditioning that Saudi girls must suffer as they grow into women. Ultimately she found herself compelled to save her daughters from that culture. She simply couldn't watch her precious girls submit to Saudi customs.

In addtion to the author's observations of Saudi culture, I also enjoyed the many pages of information she shared about the founder of the Bin Ladin industries, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Ladin. His story is truly inspiring. He was a poor, illiterate man from one of the most deprived regions on earth-the Hadramaut, in Yemen. He emigrated to Saudi Arabia and became the most powerful man in the Kingdom's fledgling economy. He worked hard and lived life king-sized with his 22 wives (four official), 25 sons and 29 daughters, maybe more.

In addition to Sheikh Mohammed, she also drew other fascinating portraits of people with whom she came in touch with---her mother-in-law, her sisters-in-law, including Osama's downtrodden wife, Najwah. One memorable anecdote being a recounting of a picnic trip to the desert made by the bin Laden women. Because it was scorchingly hot everyone was giving their thirsty babies water in baby bottles, apart from Osama's wife, who had been forbidden to feed their baby with a rubber teat, it being somehow un-Islamic! (The baby nearly dehydrated as a result, as she was only able to give him water from a spoon.)

Anyway, the author's account of being a foreigner married into a family where women did nothing, read nothing and were kept like pets and where their husbands would fly into a murderous rage if they so much as showed their face to another man, but ignore lesbian parties, is a good introduction to the Wahabi ways of Saudi Arabia. Carmen is able to hang in there with her two daughters till the events in Iran in 1979 (when the Shah was overthrown) have a constricting effect in Saudi Arabia. Yeslam, her husband, turns toward religion and mistresses; Carmen toward freedom in Geneva and a long-drawn-out divorce proceeding on a monthly alimony payment that’s even less than what Yeslam pays his private pilot.

The Acceptable Face of the Bin LadinsTelegraph.co.uk