Sonderbooks Book Reviews by Sondra Eklund

Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004
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****Inside the Kingdom

My Life in Saudi Arabia

by Carmen Bin Ladin

Reviewed October 1, 2004.
Warner Books, New York, 2004.   206 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2004, #14, Personal Stories and Reflections

Here’s a gripping and hard-to-put-down story of one woman’s look at Saudi culture and the Bin Laden family.

Carmen Bin Ladin grew up in Switzerland, the daughter of a Persian mother and a Swiss father.  She met and fell in love with the charming Yeslam Bin Ladin in 1973.  They married and went to America and attended USC together.  As oil prices went up, Yeslam felt he needed to go back to Saudi Arabia to help in the family business.

In Saudi Arabia, Carmen had to learn to get along in a culture of complete repression of women.  At first, she rejoiced in little ways that women seemed to be gaining more freedom, and her husband backed her up.  After 1979 and the revolution in Iran, however, Saudis began cracking down, trying to follow Islam more strictly.  As a member of the family second only in influence and wealth to the royal family, Carmen had privileges, but the restrictions were stifling.  She lived for her vacations in Geneva, when she could show her face again.

Eventually, for the sake of her three daughters, Carmen had to leave Saudi Arabia.  When her husband began cheating on her, she sought a divorce.  Although a man can easily get a divorce in Saudi Arabia, she has been working for years to get one in Switzerland.

The stories Carmen Bin Ladin tells are shocking.  I had no idea the scope of the repression in Saudi Arabia, nor the close ties between the royal family and the huge family of Bin Ladens.  (Osama Bin Laden has more than sixty brothers and sisters.)  This book reminded me of “Burned Alive” by Souad, only “Inside the Kingdom” was written from a western woman’s perspective.  She tried to adjust to Saudi life for the sake of the man she loved, but simply couldn’t give up the freedom or, even worse, face the thought of her daughters losing their freedom.

Carmen Bin Ladin chose to tell her story, first to explain to the world that she and her daughters abhor the actions of her brother-in-law, but also to explain that those actions are a natural outgrowth of a society of repression.  “When Osama dies, I fear there will be a thousand men to take his place.  The ground of Saudi Arabia is fertile soil for intolerance and arrogance, and for contempt toward outsiders.  It is a country where there is no room for mildness, mercy, compassion, or doubt.  Every detail of life is defined absolutely.  Every inclination for natural pleasure and emotion is forbidden.  Saudis have the unshakable conviction that they are right.  They head the Islamic nations.  They were born in the land of Mecca.  Their way has been chosen by God.”

“In the end, I believe that what shaped Osama is the strict Wahabi doctrine.  In my analysis and experience, a vast majority of people in Saudi Arabia feel just like him.  In their eyes, you cannot be too religious.  They have no room to grow as individuals.  They are desperately angry at the West for its countless, irresistible temptations.  They refuse to evolve, to adapt.  For them, it is easier to crush those temptations—to destroy them, to kill them, like an errant teenager.”

Her story is simple, direct, and powerful.  There are many more scholarly books out there that talk about causes of terrorism and problems in the Middle East.  This story from the eyes of one woman who tried to fit into Saudi society doesn’t tell you about the problems, it shows you.

Copyright © 2005 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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