Ibn Rushd: the voice of rationality

History, critique of religion (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), Iraq, Iran, Mexico and Spain.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Review of Carmen bin Ladin's new book.

At last the book came yesterday and I couldn't put it down. I read it in 2 days, and could've read it in only one, had I not gone to sleep. This is perhaps the best book on a life of a Saudi in Saudi Arabia. The book is called Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia and the subtitle tells you that most of the book takes place in Saudi, not out of it, even though her time outside of it was little indeed. She offers us an inside look that foreigners (especially Westerners) never see. She was offered this look because she married a Saudi, Yeslam bin Ladin, 10th in the line of the bin Laden family. She differentiates between herself and her immediate family with the different spelling.

The action takes place mostly in the late '70s and '80s. She opens and closes with 9/11 as the guiding motif behind the book: she needed to write about her life there so that her 3 daughters would be safe in the West where they would have freedoms.

She describes for us what the heat is like, what happens when it rains (61), how Saudi society works, and what it's like for women. I give now some passages, so that you may see for yourself what she has to say.

All of a sudden I began noticing little things, as if society was going backward. One afternoon, I was in a supermarket when a pregnant woman fainted; her husband rushed to help her up. The mutawa were there, and they stopped him, yelling at him that he must not take his wife in his arms in public.
If the prayer call rang out when we were shopping, we couldn't stay, as before, while the men went out to pray: The shopkeepers were frightened, and closed their shutters hurriedly.
The mutawa yelled at us in the street - "You, woman, what are you doing?" - if our hands were showing, or if my abaya was held too high. Abdou, my Sudanese driver, would always protect me - "Bin Laden." Even now, the religious integrity of a Bin Laden woman could not be questioned. Nonetheless, I began to be afraid.
The mutawa broke into homes and smashed hi-fis. If they found alcohol, they hauled men off to jail and beat them there. They prohibited the sale of children's dolls - dolls became contraband, like whiskey, because they were human images. Suddenly, the only dolls for sale were shapeless figures with no faces, like the one owned by Aïsha, the Prophet Mohamed's child-wife, in the seventh century. But this was 1979!
There was no discussing such matters with the Bin Laden women. They would never have violated the rules in the first place. To them, the mutawa were doing their job, and that job was honorable and just. They felt certain there was no such thing as being too strictly religious. But the foreigners all noticed how much more severe, and terrifying, the mutawa had become.
Once I did strike up a converstion on the subject with my sister-in-law Rafah. We were talking about the veil, and I told her I found it unnecessary and insulting - insulting to Saudi men. Were they really so weak and so obsessed with sex that they would be tempted to sin by a mere glance at a woman's face? Rafah stared at me as though I'd been speaking ancient Greek. I could read it in her eyes - "poor ignorant foreigner." I simply could not get through to her. (120-121)

The emphasis above is mine.
I remember the look of astonishment and dismay that passed between my mother-in-law and Yeslam's sister Fawzia when I first thanked their maid - just for something trivial, like a cup of tea. It was quite startling. And I remember the surprise, and a kind of joy, that sprang into that young woman's face. (37)

The next excerpt focuses on her arrival for the first time in Jeddah to be married. She comes with her sister.
Then Yeslam and I took the plance to Jeddah, with my sister Salomé. (My mother and my other two sisters followed us two days later.) Yeslam wore the white cotton Saudi robe called a thobe. It is quite crisp and elegant when it is done will: I thought him even more romantic in this exotic costume. A few minutes before we landed, Salomé and I put on our veils. We were covered completely in thick black cloth - hands, head, body. Just our feet stuck out. Even our eyes were hidden behind the impenetrable black gauze. I looked over at Salomé. It was a shock. She had no face.

I watched the desert approach as we landed. The light through the black gauze cloth was so dim, I didn't know if this new country was simply the darkest, emptiest place I had ever seen, or if the cloth across my eyes was preventing me from seeing anything that was there. It gave me a strange, oppressive feeling. This was not like when I had tried the veil on at the tailor's in Geneva. Then I had been excited - I was getting married - but now I felt a sense of melancholy inside me, an apprehension that met the blackness of the outside world.

The heat was stifling. I could hardly breathe under the thick folds of my abaya. Every movement was slow and awkward. We came down the steps of the plane, and my sister stumbled on the stairs. Everything spilled out of her beauty case, and yet nobody helped her up or picked up anything. She turned to me, a completely black triangle speaking, and said, "What is this place?" In Saudi Arabia, no man could touch her, or even come too close.

I was so fixated on keeping the veil in place, I couldn't pay attention to aything else. I caught sight of Yeslam's brother Ibrahim, with his crinkly eyes and friendly face. I loudly called, "Hi, Ibrahim" - I was so relieved, to see someone familiar - but he said nothing. He looked almost embarrassed. Then, very softly, he said "Hi." I had forgotten, although Yeslam had wanred me: I was not permitted to speak to any man in public. (32-33)

This first encounter seems scary with the fall and no one to help or answer a simple hello. I have also read about similar falls in Afganistan because the women couldn't see where they were going.

My little Najia was a few months old, and Osama's wife, Najwah - a Syrian girl, the daughter of one of his mother's brothers - had a baby, Abdallah, who was about the same age. Osama's baby commenced howling, and kept it up for hours. He was thirsty. Najwah kept trying to feed him water with a teaspoon, but it was bovious this tiny baby was far too small to manage to drink properly from a spoon. My little Najia was gulping water from her baby bottle constantly, and I offered it to Najwah.

"Take it, he's thirsty," I told her.

But najwah wouldn't take the bottle. She was almost crying herself. "He doesn't want the water," she kept saying. "He won't take the sppon."

Om Yeslam had to explain to me that Osama didn't want the baby to use a bottle. There was simply nothing Najwah could do about it. She was so sad, and so powerless - a drab little figure, very young, cradling her baby in the fold of here arm, watching him in such obvious distress. I couldn't stand it.

It was punishingly hot outside: perhaps a hundred degrees. A baby can dehydrate in a few hours at such temperatures. I couldn't believe someone would really let his tiny child suffer so much over some ridiculous dogmatic idea about a rubber teat. I couldn't just sit there and watch this happen.

Surely Yeslam could do something. I couldn't go over to the men's side of the house to appeal to him to intercede: As a sister-in-law I was not permitted to enter the men's quarters unveiled. But a sister, who had grown up unveiled with her brothers, could go there. I begged one of the sisters to get Yeslam.

When Yeslam arrived, I railed at him. "Go and tell your brother that his child is suffering," I said. "The baby needs a bottle. This has to stop."

But Yeslam came back shaking his head. He told me, "It's no use. This is Osama."

Osama is known in the family for his piety and is well respected. Oops, I forgot the page number in the quote block, so the pages are 85-86. I don't know exactly how to work this blogger yet. An amusing account follows, with more heat.

One time, after a sandstorm, I asked our elderly Pakistani doorman to clean the marble terrace we had installed outside the house. He took the new mop I had purchased, wet it, and began moving it around in circles. The result was muddy circles. I repeated my request; the result was the same. I admit I raised my voice - I was exasperated. I asked him what, exactly, he could not understand about this simply task. But then I stopped myself. What did this poor man know of mopping? He had lived most of his life witha beaten-earth floor. So I kicked off my sneakers, hiked up the legs of my pants, and began to show him how to mop, in straight lines.

Yeslam arrived just at that moment. "What are you doing?" he cried at me, infuraited. I hurried inside. I didn't know what he thought was worse - displaying my ankles to a man, or mopping the floor. A Bin Laden woman does neither.

I found that incident rather amusing; but on other occasions I was somewhat less forgiving. I once found Yeslam's Yemeni driver parked inside our compound, in front of our house, with the motor running. Even from a distance of a few meters I could feel the heat coming off the engine and could smell it burning. I said, "Turn off the engine, it'ls going to overheat." But Yeslam's driver ignored me. "I have to keep the air-conditioning on for Sheikh Yeslam," he said. When I insisted, he added, "I don't take orders from women."

It was so insulting and absurd - the car was on the verge of bursting into flames! I yelled at him, "When Sheikh Yeslam is not here, I'm the one in charge!" Bakr heard the commotion from his house across the street, and came over to intervene. Needless to say, the driver immediately turned off the engine. (98-99).

The emphasis of Yeslam is in the original. Now I'm sure you're all wondering about the incident with Osama at the door. I will put it next.

One day, Yeslam's younger brother Osama came to visit. Today, of course, he is by far the most notorious of Yeslam's brothers. Back then, however, he was a minor figure: a young student attending King Abdel Aziz University in Jeddah, respected in the family for his stern religious beliefs, and recently married to a Syrian niece of his mother's.

Osama was perfectly integrated into the family, although he didn't live at Kilometer Seven. He was a tall man, despite the slightness of his build, and he had a commanding presence - when Osama stepped into the room, you felt it. But he was not strikingly different from the other brothers - just younger, and more reserved. That afternoon I was plyaing with Wafah, in the hallway, and when the doorbell rang, I stupidly, automatically, answered it myself, instead of calling for the houseboy.

Catching sight of Osama and Aïsha's son Mafouz, I smiled and aksed them in. "Yeslam is here," I assured them. But Osama snapped his head away when he saw me, and glared back toward the gate. "No, really," I insisted. "Come in." Osama was making rapid back-off gestures with his hand, waving me aside, muttering something in Arabic, but I truly didn't understand what he meant. Mafouz could see that I was seemingly lacking in the basics of social etiquette, and he finally explained that Osama could not see my naked face.

In Saudi culture, any man who might one day become your husband is not supposed to see you unveiled. The only men who may look at a woman's face are her father, her brothers, her husband, her stepfather. Osama was among those men who followed the rule strictly. So I retreated ina back room while my admirably devout brother-in-law visited my husband. I felt stupid and awkward. (70-71)


Throughout the book she shows that she knows what Saudi society is like and explains the Bedouin culture. Bakr is the 1st son, Yeslam 10th and Osama 17th. Yeslam is by far the smartest and most able to handle a company, as is shown by the book. His brothers took advantage of him and claimed credit in the papers for his doing. But of course, in Saudi society you cannot harm your brothers because they are your allies. The Iraqi saying that Zeyad said is also quoted in this book: Me and my cousin against the outsider, me and my brother against my cousin.

The Bin Laden famliy is made up of full brothers and half brothers. If you were a full brother, you had it better with them than if you were only half.

She also goes in depth with the social ills of Saudi. Homosexuality is high in both men and women, both lay and royal. Alcohol is common, as evidenced by the earlier story of the Religious Police (mutawa).

There is a chapter near the end that deals with the royals, called Princes and Princesses. I will post this in another day with some other observations after I read the book Princess by Jean Sasson. I have also read Veiled Threat by Sally Armstrong and she makes comments on bone density problems too.

Needless to say, you should buy and read this book. It is possibly the best that money can buy. You see the women's side of it, and see how the men are oppressed and kept from advancing. The reason why women have no rights is because the men have none themselves.

Edit: What a dumb post, the alignments are all wrong. I've tried to fix it a bit with bold for my comments in between and a line at the bottom. I don't know why it did that. Remember, I still want to show you the parts on homosexuality.


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