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Osama as a son knew him

It was Halloween in Atlanta, Georgia, back in 2003 when I sat in Jean Sasson's office, watching her type letters on a computer, responding to mail from fans.

Weekend Review

 Rows of bookshelves lined the walls of the huge office and many books lay strewn on chairs and covering the floor, leaving little space for anyone to move around.

Sasson can light up a room with her sense of humour and a positive outlook. I love to call her Pollyanna, after the main character in the bestselling 1913 novel of the same name by Eleanor H. Porter. I met Sasson, who eventually wrote my book Mayada Daughter of Iraq, in Baghdad in 1998, one year before I fled my beloved country.

After being released from Saddam Hussain's security prison, the first person I called was Sasson. She was frantic with worry because I had disappeared. Those days in Iraq, it was dangerous for people to talk freely over the telephone with anyone, especially an American.

Sasson responds to human tragedy or sorrow with empathy. She reaches out to make a difference in the lives of those who come into contact with her. And that is why I believe Omar Bin Laden, after all the hardship and sorrow in his life, has at last found a good turn as a result of meeting Sasson.

Reading the book's title the first time, I completed it in my mind as: "Growing Up Bin Laden must have been very difficult". After reading the book I felt "difficult" was an understatement.

The book is a "tell all" by Omar, Osama Bin Laden's fourth son, and Najwa Ganem Bin Laden, Osama's wife and first cousin from his mother's side. Sasson carries the reader through Najwa's story as a child growing up with wonderful feelings towards a cousin who was also a childhood friend, and who she eventually married at the age of 15.

Reading Najwa's account melts the anger felt towards Osama Bin Laden, as the stories she tells are both human and sad. Osama was not born a terrorist. Neither was Najwa ever allowed to look into the life that carried him to Afghanistan and Pakistan following the Soviet invasion.

Through unknown paths

A suburban life full of family stories and lots of love soon turned into a roller-coaster ride, with the husband living in the midst of danger and clandestine operations.

This is a gripping read, as the life of a man who has most of the civilised world standing on edge is revealed in extraordinary detail. One can virtually hear Osama Bin Laden speaking through Najwa and Omar. For Najwa it is love and devotion but for Omar it is otherwise. "I am nothing like my father. While he prays for war, I pray for peace. And now we go our separate ways, each believing that we are right. My father has made his choice and I have made mine. I am, at last, my own man. I can live with that," Omar says.

Sasson writes: "Certainly, Osama Bin Laden had always been extremely private about his personal life. Suddenly here was an opportunity for the world to discover the unknown truth about a man who had not earned the right to maintain that privacy. In the book we follow the memories of both Najwa and Omar, where they describe their life in several places such as Jeddah, Sudan and Afghanistan. Through their words we take a peek at the events that took place in the Bin Laden household in Saudi Arabia on the morning of 9/11.

We also walk with Omar's mother through her last days in Afghanistan and her amazing escape from there only two days before the shattering events that changed the outlook and perceptions of human beings towards many issues.

The book does not apologise for the deeds of Osama Bin Laden, Ayman Al Zawahiri or Al Qaida and the misery it has caused. The book is a testimony to how he lived, and through the very subtle words of the book, we realise that this was a man who is bad inside and out, caring nothing for his children or the outside world. However, we do not feel Omar is betraying his father.

We only read the true feelings of a young man who was not able to cope with a life set by a fanatic father, far away from home, a decent education and a semblance of the modern world we all live in today.

Omar, who is now 28, recounts his very sad childhood, the beatings he got from his father, being prevented from even smiling for no valid reason and so many other stories that add up to make the inside image of a man who is called the prince by so many of his followers.

I do not believe any human being was sadder than Omar when he realised that his own father was responsible for 9/11, as he recalls in the book: "That was the moment to set aside the dream I had indulged, feverishly hoping the world was wrong and it was not my father who brought about that horrible day. This knowledge drives me into the blackest hole."

The book is selling like hotcakes and is heading for the bestseller lists, and it may one day come out as a film.

Growing Up Bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret WorldBy Najwa Bin Laden, Omar Bin Laden and Jean Sasson,Oneworld Publications, 320 pages, £16.99

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