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Bin Ladens: In defence of the innocent

Author Jean Sasson talks about casting aside her prejudices about the Bin Ladens and finding gems of people in Osama's wife and son

  • A 1985 picture of Osama Bin Laden in military fatigues at a farm in Jeddah during the Russian occupation of AfImage Credit: Courtesy of Omar Bin Laden Family Photo Collection
  • Author Jean Sasson in her officeImage Credit: Supplied
Weekend Review

For Jean Sasson, an author who made her name writing about remarkable women, Growing Up Bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World, is a bit of a departure. This time she lets Omar Bin Laden, the fourth son of the Al Qaida chief, do most of the talking, with additional inputs from his mother, Najwa, Osama's first wife.

The book is the first about Osama written with the help of his family members and provides an interesting glimpse of the personal life of the world's most wanted man. Omar speaks of growing up in an austere and strict environment in their palatial home in Saudi Arabia (where they were not allowed to use the air-conditioning), in a tough neighbourhood in Sudan, where Osama was visited by various other extremists, and in the unforgiving caves of Tora Bora in Afghanistan. Omar speaks of his early admiration — and longing — for his father, who always seemed withdrawn, too occupied with his militant activities to spend time with his children. But the path of war was not for Omar, who left Afghanistan with his father's permission. "I am nothing like my father," he says. "While he prays for war, I pray for peace."

Speaking to Weekend Review, Sasson shares her experiences with and impressions about the Bin Ladens. She passionately defends Omar's and Najwa's innocence, stressing their kindness and inherent honesty.

Back in 2001, I remember you were the first person to tell me about Osama Bin Laden masterminding 9/11. How big a challenge was this book to you and technically how difficult was writing it?

Although I would never hold one person responsible for another person's actions, I was undecided in the beginning as to whether I was the appropriate person to write this book. I would certainly not want to take up a project unless I could be fair to the subject. I felt wounded about 9/11, not only as an American but also as a human being. I experienced horror at the loss of lives and sorrow for the victims; people who were innocent and who had kissed their children goodbye on that morning and gone to work. So it required a lot of thinking.

But after speaking to Omar more than once, I felt very good vibes about him — so I followed my instinct.

Soon into our conversation, I received an Arabic note written by Najwa where she was telling little stories about her son Omar. I felt very emotional reading a mother's sweet stories about her son, of whom she was so proud. Najwa knew her son was a special young man, someone exceptionally generous, kind and sensitive. Those are qualities I am drawn to in any human being. Thinking about it, I felt strongly that I could do justice to their stories — stories that were extremely important for the world.

Since 9/11, the world has clamoured for details of the private life of Osama Bin Laden. For the first time, there was someone brave enough to tell something of his life, although both Najwa and Omar had limits and I respected those limits. These are not two people trying to create a sensation. They were very delicate and I respect that.

Technically, the writing of the book was a challenge. Omar could speak some English so he and I were able to speak over the telephone and exchange e-mails, so we managed quite well. But to get Najwa's stories was a bit more difficult. I do not speak Arabic, although I can understand a little. Najwa is better at English than I am at Arabic but she spoke only enough for very brief exchanges.

So this book required a trusted translation, which I found in a very close and dear friend who is Lebanese, a devoted friend whom I would trust with my life. Once my friend agreed to take on this important task, I would write questions for Najwa in English and e-mail them to my friend in Lebanon who would translate them into Arabic. Those Arabic questions would be sent back to me and then I would fax them to Najwa.

Najwa was really hardworking and sharp and would answer the questions within 24 hours. Getting them back to me sometimes proved more difficult as we had difficulties with the telephone lines that kept going off. But we managed. After receiving her answers in Arabic, once again I would send them to my friend and Najwa's answers would be translated into English. The process was extremely time-consuming and tedious but when reading her very special stories, I knew they were worth the time and energy that I had spent. This procedure carried on for about 15 months, so we were all exhausted with the process but once again, it was worth it. As we all know, anything worthwhile takes a lot of hard work.

Can you tell us how you and the Bin Ladens found each other, and how you decided to take such a risk in writing this book, especially as the US administration went to war because of 9/11 — a war that was brought about by the husband of one and the father of the other person interviewed for the book?

I received an e-mail from Omar, identifying himself and expressing his desire that I should write his story. I get a lot of crank e-mails and at first thought this was one too. But Omar had provided a telephone number in Egypt and so I called. After talking and discussing various things, I realised that it was indeed Omar who had mailed me. I instantly got a positive impression of Omar, a good feeling that has only grown over time. I now count Omar as a friend. Najwa was right — she has a very special son.

As for the "risk", actually, I never once thought of writing their stories as a risk. Danger did not enter my mind. Certainly [the American] government does not tell writers who or what they should write about. Did I feel danger from other areas? No, actually. And even if I did, that would make me move forward even more firmly. The topics of a writer's books are really a private matter.

While people might not agree, they have no right to order me to write only about certain topics. I think most rational thinkers agree that all people have the right to the truth of their lives to be told. I am of a nature that I do not hold a child responsible for his father's acts, nor a wife for her husband's. I respect their situations and I do not expect them to have the very same feelings about things that I do. I read once that people defend what they know and each of us has different experiences which affect us for our entire lives. We all have the right to tell the truth of our lives as long as we do not harm others with our actions. I know that neither Omar nor his mother has ever harmed anyone.

They are innocent, good people. I am proud to have helped them tell their stories. I learnt a lot and learning is living at its best.

I am aware that you tend to choose women as heroes for your books, as you are deeply interested in the lives and welfare of women all over the world. However, this time we have Omar, an Arab Muslim male, and his father as the two main characters in the book. What were your feelings towards this shift?

You are right in that I generally write about women. I wrote about a few men in The Rape of Kuwait. And my historical fiction, Ester's Child, has a male as the main character.

But generally my main interest has been to discover unusual stories about women, and to write those stories. That is why I was glad Najwa decided to participate.

However, I believe Omar's story would stand on its own, although it added an extremely interesting dimension to have his mother participate. I didn't think of Osama as a main character as he was "discussed" by his wife and son but certainly, I didn't interview him and have nothing in this book first-hand from him.

So, to finally answer your question: I feel extremely good about this shift with this book. Omar's story is more than compelling as it provides information his mother didn't even know about. Don't forget: Najwa has lived the life of a very conservative Muslim woman. She was not involved in her husband's political or militant life. So she could not have revealed anything of that nature. Omar, on the other hand, was drawn in by his father, who chose him to be his second-in-command, although Omar pulled away from that possibility because he is repelled by physical violence. Once he became a teenager, Omar was more aware of the seriousness of the situation, that his father was becoming a world-known figure and that his father's political and militant life didn't agree with him. Omar was the son chosen to accompany his father from Sudan to Afghanistan. None of Osama's sons knew more about him than his fourth son, Omar, did.

So this book not only reveals the private life but also tells us something about what Osama's militant and political life was like. [But] that was not my focus. Many other writers have researched and written excellent books about that side of Omar's father. I chose to stick to a personal account of their private life, simply because that is what I do — I'm a person drawn to people and their personal stories. I get very involved in the personal lives of my subjects and generally end up being extremely close friends with the people I write about.

How did you find Najwa and her son Omar as human beings? Do you feel sorry for them?

I found both Omar and his mother to be lovely human beings almost from the beginning. As time went on, I was even more impressed with them. I believe that Najwa has a mother's heart which loves and cares for children. Children were her life — as the mother of 11 children, everything of her daily life revolved around children.

Omar, as I mentioned, I found to be caring and sensitive. Omar is an extremely generous person who would give his last riyal away if someone else was in need, even if it meant he would not eat. Believe me, this is not a rah-rah session for Omar. But honestly, I can't think of one bad thing to say about this young man. And after talking to him nearly every day for about two years now, I think I know this person. If I were in a jam, I would want Omar Bin Laden to be on my side because he has an honest heart. A person with an honest heart is a treasure.

Neither Najwa nor Omar feel sorry for themselves, so I certainly do not feel sorry for them. They are both proud, good people. I feel bad that some people tarnish their image, even when they are not guilty of anything.

 How were Omar, his mother and siblings treated by relatives after 9/11?

Omar tells me his mother's relatives have been wonderful and supportive of both of them. The Bin Laden family has very kindly reached out to help him.

Omar also tells me that various leaders in the area have been especially nice to him and his family, from King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia and various Saudi princes, to the ruler of Qatar who opened his country and heart to Omar, to the Syrian government, which has been very nice to the family. So, there are many people who have reached out to this family and I think that is wonderful.

How were you able to put your feelings as an American aside when writing about this family?

There was never a conflict between my mind and my heart on this matter but that is not because I don't genuinely care about the victims or the grieving families left behind. I watched every moment of that horrible day. I couldn't get out of bed — I was paralysed by shock and horror. It was one terrifying moment after another. I'm an American who loves her country.

I've been on the top floors of the Twin Towers. I fly in aeroplanes frequently. I could have been a victim. I felt the same about the London bombings, the train bombings in Madrid, the Bali bombings. I have travelled to all those places — all those people were innocent. I have wept like a baby over the innocent people lost — good people — some small children. I later purchased the New York Times book that gave personal accounts of the people lost. In memory of those innocent souls, I read that book thrice, carefully studying each photograph, honouring them by thinking of their lives, saying a little prayer for them and for their family members. I genuinely cared and still do.

Yet, although I care deeply about the people lost in 9/11, plus many other attacks, I am not going to focus my anger on what happened to those innocent people against other innocent people, which in this case happened to be two people who didn't even know those attacks were going to take place. I never once thought of Najwa or Omar as being responsible for those attacks. Why? Because they were not a part of it. I ask readers to remember that Najwa was a mother living an isolated life. Her husband did not confide in her any of his plans. He kept his wife and children away from his militant life. And, don't forget, Omar was a child during so many of those years. He was never a member of Al Qaida. He found out about all those attacks after the fact. He was in Saudi Arabia on 9/11 and was as shocked as anyone. So, no, I didn't have a conflict about writing their stories. They are innocent, just as the victims were innocent. I don't have a tendency to brand innocent people as guilty.

What message would you like to tell your readers and fans about this roller coaster ride?

I've never been great at coming up with messages to give people. Most people are free thinkers and come up with their own conclusions on most matters. However, I do put my heart and soul into writing books that tell the story of a life. Those books, I hope, provide messages. The most important message I hope my books provide is the importance of being kind to one another. I really dislike intentional cruelty or unkindness, to man, woman or beast. If we could all be kind, tolerate and understanding, most of the problems of the world would evaporate, don't you think?

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