I’m sometimes embarrassed to be such a partisan reader of fiction, and it is certainly the family story that led me to Steve Coll’s The Bin Ladens, rather than the tragedy surrounding its most notorious member. Meticulously reported and written, suspenseful without a hint of melodrama, Coll’s book chronicles the rise of the patriarch Mohamed Bin Laden, who as a teenager left his home in a region of southern Arabia called the Hadhramawt (translated as “Death Is Among Us”) to seek his fortune in Jeddah. Bin Laden’s is a spectacular success story: a boy who began as a porter, sleeping in a roadside ditch, rose to become the favored contractor of the Saudi royal family, in charge of renovations of Mecca and Medina. Bin Laden’s diverse construction camps — where “when the call to prayer rang out, Bin Laden would join the Muslim workers in prostrated worship, but the Italians would carry on or take a coffee break” — were models of religious and ethnic cooperation. He eventually fathered fifty-four children, among them his son, Salem: a joker and a playboy by nature, who nevertheless managed to hold the enormous family together after his father’s death by wielding his abundant charm as a kind of authority. In tense and vivid scenes, Coll describes how the family passion for aviation led to tragedy long before the events of September 11th, when first Mohamed and then Salem were killed in small plane crashes. What Coll does so brilliantly is to find the less obvious correspondences in the family’s history: how Mohamed’s heterogeneous construction camps foreshadow the camps of “racially and ethnically diverse volunteers” that Osama later organizes and funds to lend support to the Afghan mujaheddin in the 1980s; or the fact that Mohamed often brought his sons to see his work in Mecca and Medina, where they would have witnessed, “there beside the holy Ka’ba, …a succession of controlled experiments and falling buildings, scenes that would thrill many young boys.” Coll stops short of drawing neat parallels, or ascribing motivations that are impossible to know. He simply uses these historical echoes to tease out what might in fiction be called the family’s themes — of entrepreneurial success, of international alliances, of death by flight — showing how even this extraordinary family has been unhappy in its own way.
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