Book: The Bin Ladens

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Book:

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century

Author: Steve Coll
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Publisher: Penguin Books

Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and author of the national bestseller Ghost Wars, Steve Coll presents the story of the Bin Laden family’s rise to power and privilege, revealing new information to show how American influences changed the family and how one member’s rebellion changed America.

The Bin Ladens rose from poverty to privilege; they loyally served the Saudi royal family for generations-and then one of their number changed history on September 11, 2001. Two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Coll tells the epic story of the rise of the Bin Laden family and of the wildly diverse lifestyles of the generation to which Osama bin Laden belongs, and against whom he rebelled. Starting with the family’s escape from famine at the beginning of the twentieth century through its jet-set era in America after the 1970s oil boom, and finally to the family’s attempts to recover from September 11, The Bin Ladens unearths extensive new material about the family and its relationship with the United States, and provides a richly revealing and emblematic narrative of our globally interconnected times.

To a much greater extent than has been previously understood, the Bin Laden family owned an impressive share of the America upon which Osama ultimately declared war-shopping centers, apartment complexes, luxury estates, privatized prisons in Massachusetts, corporate stocks, an airport, and much more. They financed Hollywood movies and negotiated over real estate with Donald Trump. They came to regard George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Prince Charles as friends of their family. And yet, as was true of the larger relationship between the Saudi and American governments, when tested by Osama’s violence, the family’s involvement in the United States proved to be narrow and brittle. Among the many memorable figures that cross these pages is Osama’s older brother, Salem-a free-living, chainsmoking, guitar-strumming pilot, adventurer, and businessman who cavorted across America and Europe and once proposed marriage to four American and European girlfriends simultaneously, attempting to win a bet with the king of Saudi Arabia. Osama and Salem’s father, Mohamed bin Laden, is another force in the narrative-an illiterate bricklayer who created the family fortune through perspicacity and wit, until his sudden death in an airplane crash in 1967, an accident caused by an error by his American pilot.

At the story’s heart lies an immigrant family’s attempt to adapt simultaneously to Saudi Arabia’s puritanism and America’s myriad temptations. The family generation to which Osama belonged-twenty-five brothers and twenty-nine sisters-had to cope with intense change. Most of them were born into a poor society where religion dominated public life. Yet by the time they became young adults, these Bin Ladens found themselves bombarded by Western-influenced ideas about individual choice, by gleaming new shopping malls and international fashion brands, by Hollywood movies and changing sexual mores-a dizzying world that was theirs for the taking, because they each received annual dividends that started in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. How they navigated these demands is an authentic, humanizing story of Saudi Arabia, America, and the sources of attraction and repulsion still present in the countries’ awkward embrace.

Reviews

Barnes and Noble

Steve Coll’s 2004 Ghost Wars won its author his second Pulitzer Prize and set the standard for books on al Qaeda. The Bin Ladens, his first work since that masterpiece, is a portrait of an extended family, a dynasty founded by an illiterate bricklayer who died in a plane crash caused by his American pilot. (Indeed, Coll shows that the Bin Laden chronicles have been marked repeatedly by airplane disasters.) These Arabian building pioneers carelessly straddled two incompatible cultures; partying and globetrotting even as family members bankrolled extreme religious fundamentalists. With the same dazzling reportorial precision that marked Ghost Wars, the former Washington Post associate editor documents the Bin Ladens’ narrow and brittle involvement with their “western friends.”

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