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The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century Hardcover – April 1, 2008
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Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century is the groundbreaking history of a family and its fortune. It chronicles a young illiterate Yemeni bricklayer, Mohamed Bin Laden, who went to the new, oil-rich country of Saudi Arabia and quickly became a vital figure in its development, building great mosques and highways and making himself and many of his children millionaires. It is also a story of the Saudi royal family, whom the Bin Ladens served loyally and without whose capricious favor they would have been nothing. And it is a story of tensions and contradictions in a country founded on extreme religious purity, which then became awash in oil money and dazzled by the temptations of the West. In only two generations the Bin Ladens moved from a famine-stricken desert canyon to luxury jets, yachts, and private compounds around the world, even going into business with Hollywood celebrities. These religious and cultural gyrations resulted in everything from enthusiasm for America—exemplified by Osama’s free-living pilot brother Salem—to an overwhelming determination to destroy it.
The Bin Ladens is a meticulously researched, colorful, shocking, entertaining, and disturbing narrative of global integration and its limitations. It encapsulates the unsettling contradictions of globalization in the story of a single family who has used money, mobility, and technology to dramatically varied ends.
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From Publishers Weekly
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- Publisher : Penguin Press; 1st edition (April 1, 2008)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 671 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1594201641
- ISBN-13 : 978-1594201646
- Item Weight : 2.2 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,566,880 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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I shuttered when I saw the book's length--almost 600 pages. This is a LOT more than I think I will ever need to know. But I was wrong, for among other reasons, it is a book about much more than this one family. I realized that Coll emulated another great journalist, Neil Sheehan, who told the story of the Vietnam War through a principal actor, John Paul Vann. Like Sheehan's book, "A Bright Shining Lie," Coll's is immensely readable; he could have easily gone on for another 400 pages. The book is written for Americans, and part of his skill is to find an American analogy to explain an Arabian event / concept. Consider: "The attitude toward Bin Laden among even a poor but proud Nejdi tribal family, to say nothing of the Al-Saud royal family, was akin to that which a 1950s-era WASP banker executive in New England might hold toward a dark-skinned, grade-school-educated entrepreneurial Sicilian who built his lakeside summer cottage--charming fellow, but keep him away from the girls." (p57). Or, in speaking of the Arab "warriors" who flocked to "jihad" in Afghanistan in the `80's: "Their commitment to the Afghans resembled that of American students who spend a few days a year hammering houses together for the poor. They might be moved by altruism, but they also sought a touch of cool." (p254). Coll leavens his journalistic writing style with a droll wit: "Richard Nixon, better qualified than some world leaders to recognize a man with paranoid and anti-Semitic tendencies..." (p156).
The author delivered on the book's title. He renders believable portraits on the major and minor characters in the family, starting with the founder of the modern dynasty, Mohammad, who was forced to emigrate from the Yemen in the `30's, perhaps passing Freya in the process. He lost an eye on his first job, and was so poor when he arrived in Jeddah that he slept in a ditch. Although Coll does not specifically make the "Horatio Alger" comparison, Mohammad's rise in Arabia was done on that basis: grit, determination, hard work, and, of course, carefully nurtured political contacts. There was Salem, the guitar-playing, karaoke-singing, Sybarite, whose fate was to be forced into the family's "CEO role" at an early age. Though no Human Resources department would have declared him "qualified," overall Salem did an impressive job. Randa was his favorite sister, an impressive Saudi woman in her own right, who just "went down hard," as hard as her father and brother, though not as quickly. And of course Osama himself, most difficult to research, but described in measured and balanced terms, humanized as a painfully shy teenager, who became "born again" (Coll's phrase, on page 201), finding meaning, and perhaps his `missing' father, in religion. He reached for a "CEO role" also, but in a vastly different venture.
Like Sheehen on Vietnam, Coll had numerous insights into the larger context in which the Bin Laden's operated, Saudi Arabia. Unlike Sheehen, who had lived in Vietnam, Coll had never lived in the Kingdom, so his quite perceptive insights on the country, and Western-Saudi interactions, are all the more impressive. Consider: "For many Saudis, Western vice confirmed the precepts of Arabian misogyny, and for many Americans and Europeans, Arabian vices confirmed the precepts of Western racism" p (314). In terms of whether or not the Saudis are "excessively" paranoid, his chapter on the Trojan Desk provides much perspective: "Prince Nayef, the interior minister, presented perhaps the greatest obstacle to trust and cooperation after Fahd's stroke. Nayef was particularly hostile toward the CIA. During the 1970s, the CIA had presented him with a new desk for his office as a gift. Afterwards, Nayef discovered a listening devise on the desk. He had a long memory." Quoting Sami Angawi: "we keep the foreigners out, but everything else you can think of--shopping malls, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald's, neon signs" (we let in)... And for a country with maladroit PR skills, and therefore consequently having reaped far too many negative books about them, Coll says of Carmen bin Laden: "After the terrorist attacks, Carmen chose what many Saudis would regard as the nuclear option: she wrote a book." (!) Indeed. (Explanation point added).
Coll examines numerous conjectures and rumors, puncturing some, for example that Osama lead a wild life in Beirut prior to becoming "born again." Coll also does some judicious speculation, merited in my opinion since we will never really know what happened inside Osama's mind. Coll identifies this speculation when he does it, for example, what effect might have occurred on Osama's youthful mind when he witnessed the massive demolition of building around the Holy Haram in Mecca during a renovation project in the 1960's, and what effect was the fact that he lost both his father and older brother in airplane tragedies that involved Americans?
For a book so meticulously researched and well written, there was one jarring mistake: "In May 2003, Al Qaeda cells inside Saudi Arabia launched a series of mostly ineffectual attacks against the Interior Ministry, American compounds in the oil zones, and against the US consulate in Jeddah." (p 561) This one sentence contains numerous errors, at several different levels. On May 12, 2003, three residential compounds in Riyadh were attacked by suicide bombers. The compounds were neither in the "oil zones," nor were they American, though seven Americans died in the attacks, as did around 43 others. In the subsequent three years there were numerous other attacks, against Western and Saudi targets, including a police headquarters in Riyadh, the US consulate in Jeddah, oil installations in Yanbu, the Oasis compound in Dhahran, French picnickers returning from Madan Saleh, and numerous others. By conducting these attacks, "Al Qaeda" sent a strong, though unintended message, particularly to those Saudis who felt, concerning the attacks of 9-11, that "But you know, at the end of the day, the Americans deserved it." (p 525) The message: It can also happen here. Although the 50 who died on May 12, 2003, and the hundreds who died in subsequent attacks, cannot protest the injudicious use of the word "ineffectual," a rebuke may best come from the ironic ending to Remarque's classic book on World War I: "... he died on a day so quiet and still along the entire front that the high command confined its report to a single sentence: `All Quiet on the Western Front.'"
A couple of points I wished Coll had probed deeper, and taken a more definitive stand. One concerned the birth of Al Qaeda, which he refers to as "...ambiguity present at..." on p 337. This was occurring in 1998, yet the concept of Al Qaeda was used in the trials of the World Trade Center bombers in 1993. In the excellent BBC documentary, "The Power of Nightmares," the producers say that the concept of Al Qaeda was invented during the trials so that the defendants could be prosecuted by laws originally designed for the Mafia. Furthermore, they claimed that Osama liked the concept of an actual network, as opposed to a loose confederation of ideological cohorts who adopted violence for political means, and therefore adopted the term and concept. Coll's opinion on this matter would be valuable.
Finally, concerning Osama's own "disposition," Coll, rightly reluctant to predict the future, suggests at the end that he is still living in the Afghan-Pakistan border area, and that if past is prologue, he will eventually be betrayed. Most plausible, certainly. Why this betrayal has not already happened, given the $25 million price tag on his head, and the history of previous disagreements and betrayals of "colleagues" in the movement, deserves discussion with prudent conjecture. In 2006 I met with then Congresswoman Heather Wilson, of NM First Congressional District, to discuss several concerns. On the "success" of the Bush economy, and future deficit reductions, she was quite positive and loquacious - hum - but as to the question why the United States had not yet caught Osama, I received only silence, and a request for the next question. America deserves more than silence, three years further on.
Overall, an excellent, essential read, and on this topic, I'll chance a prediction: Coll's work will not be superseded, though hopefully additional material will be available for him to update it. The book should be studied in all our universities, as well as by those who continue to read after they graduate.
The most notable thing about the book is that you get so much more than what you probably bargain for based on the title. Yes, this is a story about the Bin Laden family (the whole family, not just Osama which is fascinating in and of itself), but what I quickly realized is that you can't tell the story of the Bin Ladens without also telling in part the story of Saudi Arabia and Washington's relationship with it. The result is a in-depth look at how Saudi Arabia has changed since the the 40s and the tremendous amount of influence that the Bin Ladens (and the al-Sauds) on the development of the Middle East.
What makes this book particularly interesting is how Coll intertwines hard and fast political history with the types of stories one would find in a novel. The Bin Laden family is such a unique and fascinating oddity within the world of the Middle East their story makes the book hard to put down. One almost gets the sense that the book actually is a novel...it's very well-written and Coll does an excellent job pulling it all together in a way that allows the reader to see the impact the Bin Ladens have had on modern day Saudi Arabia. One of the most interesting and somewhat creepy parts of the book is that Osama Bin Laden's father died in a plane accident (the pilot was American), and the successor and eldest son, Salem, died in a plane crash in Texas. It adds a whole new layer of complexity to 9/11 in some way.
But in any case, this is a fascinating book and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the modern Middle East.
It is impartial and incredibly interesting from a cultural, political, and economic standpoint. Has a little bit of war, secrecy, corruption, religious extremism, and other topics which will keep almost any reader hooked.