Goateed, conventionally handsome in that olive-skinned way of lanky Arab men, unconventionally dreadlocked to the hips in the—your choice—Ancient Egyptian or modern Jamaican style and oddly affable, considering the questions posed to him (about his whereabouts on 9/11, about his father’s whereabouts, about his stint in an Afghan terrorist training camp), Omar Osama bin Laden and his British-born wife are all about peace, love and reconciliation. Should we be surprised? Not at all. Hard as it may be to swallow, anachronistically as it may sound (can fathers be ring-leading terrorists?), Osama bin Laden was by all accounts a loving, involved father.
First Marriage, First Children
Omar Osama bin Laden was born in 1957 to bin Laden and his first wife, Najwa, one of 11 children from that union. “Unlike his own father,” Lawrence Wright reports in The Looming Tower, “Osama was attentive and playful with his own children—he loved to take his quickly expanding family to the beach—but he was also demanding. He had unyielding ideas about the need to prepare them for the tough life ahead.” At the time the bin Ladens were living in Saudi Arabia, and “on the weekends, he brought both his sons and his daughters with him to the farm to live with camels and horses. They would sleep under the stars, and if it was cold, they would dig and cover themselves with sand. Bin Laden refused to let them attend school, instead bringing tutors into the house, so he could supervise every detail of their education.”
One of bin Laden’s sons with Najwa was born with a rare borth defect called hydrocephalus, most simply understood as water on the brain. It prompted a trip to the United Kingdom by bin Laden himself to seek treatment for his son. It may not have been his first trip to Britain. Writing in The New Yorker in October 2005, Steve Coll notes that bin Laden traveled to Britain to treat an eye condition when he was 10, staying there for a month, and later even traveled to the United States. But there’s a touch of speculation around that trip.
Why bin Laden Embraced Polygamy
There’s no speculation about a decision bin Laden took with a childhood friend, Jamal Khalifa, when the two of them were attending university in Saudi Arabia. They would embrace polygamy, even though it had become relatively unacceptable in Saudi Arabia. Their reason: they wanted to show the right way to practice polygamy, according to Quranic allowances of up to four wives. (Put simply, the Quran doesn’t mandate four wives. It calls for one, but it allows up to four on a strict condition: the husband must show absolutely no favoritism to any one wife, treating them all equally. Husbands incapable of being so egalitarian are enjoined against marrying more than one wife. Naturally, the Quran, not the friendliest how-to book so far as women are concerned, doesn’t give women the same allowance.)
Wives and Doctorates
Bin Laden did eventually marry a total of four wives. In 1982, he married his second one, sa woman seven years his senior, allegedly a descendant of Prophet Muhammad’s family—and the holder of a doctorate in child psychology. She bore bin Laden one son and continued teaching at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She was known as Umm Hamza.
A few years later bin Laden married another doctorate holder (in Arabic grammar, this Ph.D., which, like the child-psychology doctorate, came handy around the house with the education of the children). Umm Khaled, as Wife No. 3 was known, originally from Medina, would bear bin laden three daughters and a son. Then came Wife Number 4, Umm Ali, from Mecca (thus enhancing the symbolic symmetry, in bin Laden’s mind, of his wives and the Prophet Muhammad’s footsteps), would bear him three children. All of bin Laden’s wives maintained a degree of autonomy and, in at least a couple of cases, worked outside the home.
Bin Laden’s Marriage Zen
How did Osama manage it all? Lawrence quotes bin Laden saying the following theory of marriage and multiple wives: “One is okay, like walking. Two is like riding a bicycle: it’s fast but a little unstable. Three is a tricycle, stable but slow. And when we come to four, ah! This is the ideal. Now you can pass everyone.” Lawrence does not report what the bin Laden women’s theory of marriage may have been, although at least one of the marriages—to Umm Ali—ended in divorce. The first marriage, to Umm Abdullah, mother to Omar, was not great, either, especially as Omar and one of his brothers hated the kind of semi-deprived life they’d been forced to lead, especially during bin Laden’s Sudan years.
That past likely plays a role today in defining the contrast Omar bin Laden presents to the world, though there’s no reason to doubt him when he relates the conversation he had with his father about leaving him: “I told him I was going, and wanted to try life and see what it was like outside because, from a young age I was with my father, and I only saw and heard my father and his friends,” Omar told CNN. “My father told me, ‘If this is what your choice—your decision—is, what can I tell you? I like you to be with me, but this is your decision.’”
Too bad the father couldn’t show that much equanimity toward the world.