Review

Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia

by Carmen Bin Ladin



For more than a dozen years during the 1970s and '80s, Carmen Bin
Ladin lived a shadowy and increasingly threatened existence as the
problematic foreign wife of a junior member of Saudi Arabia's
powerful Bin Laden clan. (Spellings of this now-infamous name vary,
depending on whether one refers to an individual or the
family.)

That she escaped (along with two young daughters) a veiled and
psychologically suffocating life in the most restrictive Islamic
nation in the world, and chose to tell about it so many years
later, is remarkable in itself. Even today, although legally
divorced and financially independent, she alludes to living under
the pressure of periodic harassment by Bin Laden clan
operatives.

Lured by what seemed to be true, youthful love and (at first) an
extended "honeymoon" of affection, respect, and material indulgence
from husband Yeslam --- whose elusive sibling is the notorious
Osama --- the half-Swiss, half-Persian Carmen had fewer illusions
about her new role than most Saudi outsiders. But even she didn't
imagine the full impact of living in a rigidly patriarchal regime
where internal family politics proved every bit as onerous as the
heavy, tent-like abayas all women must wear if they dare set
foot outside the home.

Viewed through the often humbling lens of perfect hindsight, life
in Saudi Arabia a quarter-century ago looked full of promise. Young
Carmen and her equally idealistic husband lived a cosmopolitan and
sophisticated life, sustained effortlessly on the abundant
resources of old family wealth and the sudden influx of vast new
oil revenues. In Europe and North America, they lived as
Westernized jet-setters; in Saudi Arabia, they slipped through a
kind of Alice-in-Wonderland looking glass, where everything was in
flux, where an ancient Islamic society was struggling with
seemingly opposite demands of theocracy and modernity.

And for a while, as Carmen poignantly recalls through personal
anecdotes and several dozen black-and-white family snapshots, it
seems as if the forces of liberalization and openness were gaining
the ascendant. There were more opportunities for women to study and
work, more freedom of unchaperoned association, more personal
autonomy in conduct and apparel. But this tantalizing taste of
freedom and equality, this crack in the door of religion-based
oppression, abruptly slammed shut with the Kuwait invasion and 1990
Gulf War.

By then, her volatile marriage to the increasingly distant,
extremist and hypochondriac Yeslam Bin Ladin had been emotionally
over for some time, which made Saudi Arabia's accelerated rush back
to the Middle Ages even more onerous for Carmen and daughters Wafah
and Najia. With almost no genuine friendship to draw on from among
the passive, materialistic and often self-absorbed wives, sisters,
mistresses or daughters of the vast Bin Laden household, Carmen
(while pregnant with a third daughter who would be born in Europe)
orchestrated a meticulous plan of escape. Not surprisingly, many
details of that plan are not divulged, except that it succeeded in
giving the former abaya prisoner and her children a new
lease on life in a world where women can speak, move, dress, and
believe for themselves.

Carmen Bin Ladin didn't start out as a feminist, social activist,
author, or even a student of applied religion. But her passionate
and often breathlessly told story says much about her commitment to
genuine transcending love; as a mother, daughter, even (however
briefly) as a wife. Just critics will find here no opportunistic
infidel (of which she's been accused numerous times), nor an
opponent of true Islam. She is by no means alone in contending that
the Wahhabist sect that rules Saudi Arabia according to its own
interpretation of Shari'a Law is in fact a perversion of the faith
revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, and is in dire need of
reclamation and reform. But perhaps that's the substance of another
book.

When I closed the cover on Carmen Bin Ladin's fast-paced but often
gut-wrenching INSIDE THE KINGDOM, it didn't even matter to me that
the rather sensationalist hook of the "Osama connection" never
amounted to more than a name in the background, nor that she never
apparently even met the alleged perpetrator of the catastrophes of
September 11, 2001. Like her, all I wanted to do was rush outside
into the sunshine, breathe unveiled air, and thank God/Allah for
creating a world whose beauty still manages to transcend the
terrible things human beings keep doing to one another.

Reviewed by Pauline Finch (paulinefinch@rogers.com) on January 22, 2011

Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia
by Carmen Bin Ladin

  • Publication Date: July 14, 2004
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446577081
  • ISBN-13: 9780446577083