The book encapsulates the history of Saudi Arabia, tracking a family that emerged from obscurity
THE BIN LADENS — The Story of a Family and Its Fortune: Steve Coll; Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110017. Rs. 695.
This reviewer went through three stages as he read “The Bin Ladens: The story of a family and its fortune”. The first stage was one of awe at the formidable research the author Steve Coll has carried out. About half way through the book, the second stage took over and this was one of wonder whether anyone needed to know so much about one sprawling clan. As this question loomed large, the third began almost seamlessly. This was marked by profound respect for the author for undertaking such an ambitious project and nearly pulling it off.
First, the research. Anyone who has lived and worked in the Arab countries , especially as a journalist, knows how difficult it is to prise open these opaque societies. Given the novelty of a lively media culture in these parts, few are willing to engage with inquisitive outsiders. Perhaps it is a function of the politeness that infuses discourse in the Arabic world, but there is a palpable discomfort in dealing directly with systematic enquiry. Respondents either assume that the questioner has a grasp of the background and the sensitivity to nuance or just do not bother to explain beyond a point if he does not.
Getting a grip over a subject involves much movement back and forth in the thought processes, the connecting of apparently unconnected facts and the slow build up of fundamentals in the perception. And, at the end of it all, the conception so formed can still resemble a mirage — clearly discernible in all details and colour but still somewhat unsubstantial.
In these circumstances, the temptation to fall back on clichés is almost irresistible. For instance, the cliché that the people of the Arab world are unable to come to terms with modernity and have therefore lapsed into religious revivalism of a particularly virulent kind is one that appears to have gained currency at present. Yes! Facts can be found to support this cliché, but even as it is being imbibed there is a nagging doubt whether it comes anywhere close to a real understanding. That is again because research on the Arab world can be a formidable task. In the linear thinking associated with research, it is assumed that the researcher can move progressively from one source to the next in the course of enquiry. But all too often, in West Asia that essential next source in the chain can prove elusive.
Given this background, Coll must be said to have pulled off a remarkable feat by tracking so much about a family that emerged from obscurity more than 70 years ago and has since spread so widely in terms of its numbers and interests. The story of the clan founded by Mohammed bin Laden, a contractor from the Hadramawt region of Yemen whose fortunes were dependent on the benevolence of the Al Sauds and therefore inextricably linked with those of the royal house, is in many ways an encapsulation of the history of Saudi Arabia.
This history is about the interweaving of three strands. It is about Abdulaziz ibn Saud leading his Bedouin hordes to the conquest of the Hejaz and thereby the heart not merely of the peninsula but also, in a figurative sense, of the Islamic world. It is about the Ikhwan, a particularly staunch set of Wahabis from the Nejd, that formed the core of the first Saudi king’s support base and thereby played a major role in shaping the kingdom’s world view. Lastly, the story is about the discovery and exploitation of huge oil wealth and what it meant for the struggle between modernity and tradition.
Coll’s book provides fascinating insights into the interplay of these three phenomena. Sure, there are a few vignettes about the profligacy of Saudi princelings and scions of business houses. But these have to be seen in the context of a wider setting in which Saudis gorge on the material comforts of modernity while disdaining the morality of a West that is perceived to have lost its moorings.
Indians are known to switch between different identities and even civilisational eras during the course of a single day. In the case of Saudis the intensity of such switch-overs seems to be much more. For instance, the strength of family bonds within huge Saudi clans (Mohammed bin Laden had over 50 children from innumerable wives but no sibling was a stranger to another) looks like a throw-back to an earlier age even to an Indian exposed to a joint family culture in his childhood.
As mentioned at the outset, although the narrative is fascinating, the reader begins to wonder at one stage, “All this is fine but what does it tell me about the only bin Laden I am really interested in?” The author has succeeded far more than many others, especially the hagiographers, in giving a tangible form to Osama’s personality. But as with the country that Osama bin Laden’s family considered its home for the past seven decades, the final shape still remains elusive.