London, Nov. 9: A sister-in-law of the world’s most wanted terrorist leader has described her life in Saudi Arabia as a “prison” and says that the young Osama bin Laden was so religiously zealous that he “froze” when he saw her face unveiled.
Carmen bin Laden, who is divorcing the al Qaida leader’s half-brother, Yeslam, said even in the privacy of her home, Osama bin Laden “couldn’t bear looking at my naked face. He never deigned to speak a word to me”.
Carmen bin Laden, who was born in Switzerland, has lifted the lid on life in the bin Laden family and within a Saudi community in a book, In the Opaque Kingdom, to be published in Britain next month by Virago.
The book chronicles her marriage to Yeslam and her life in Jeddah, a city where, she says, “women are no more than house pets” and their “bright minds are brainwashed”.
As Carmen Dufour, the daughter of a Swiss businessman and an Iranian mother, she met Yeslam bin Laden in Geneva in 1973. He had come there to escape the heat of the Saudi Arabian summer. Her first impressions of him were of someone, “courteous, handsome and intelligent”.
A romance blossomed and they enrolled at the University of Southern California where Carmen studied English and Yeslam took business studies. In 1976, Yeslam decided they should return to Jeddah to capitalise on the oil boom. The couple had three daughters but — to his great disappointment, she says — no sons.
While her husband was working she looked after their children but was forbidden to cross the street or walk in her garden without a veil. She told the International Herald Tribune last week: “I suffered the company of women who never read a book and only talked about their relatives and the Koran.”
It was while visiting her new relatives in Jeddah that she first encountered Osama bin Laden. “He was slight of build but tall, with a stern, commanding presence” she says. “All the bin Ladens are Wahhabite Muslims, but Osama’s fierce, forbidding piety intimidated even his more religious relatives.”
Although Osama bin Laden was publicly denounced by other members of his family after September 11 2001, his popularity is not diminished among many Saudis, Carmen says. “The clan ties are sacred,” she says. “The financial conduits remain opaque. Westerners just don’t understand the culture.”
Carmen bin Laden and her husband have been separated for 10 years. Their oldest daughter, Waffa, 26, who studied at Columbia University and was in New York on September 11, 2001, now lives in London. She smokes, drinks alcohol and is a fixture on London’s social scene. The other daughters, Nagia, 24, and Noor, 15, live with her in Geneva.
She says: “My book is about why I took the girls out of Saudi Arabia. In the Arab world a girl is never free. Most women who leave are forced to leave their children behind. Mine are not like their female cousins who are forced to cover up. It is my duty to speak, even if it is dangerous. I don’t want them to censor me like in Saudi Arabia.”
She says that she felt forced to abandon Saudi strictures because “I could no longer take it and didn’t want my children to grow up in a prison”. Her husband, who has publicly denounced his half-brother, now lives in Geneva.