Being Mrs. Osama: A guest post by Manjula Narayan

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Ever since the Abottabad incident, the focus has been on Bin Laden’s wives. Especially on the youngest the Yemeni Amal Ahmed al-Sadah in whose bedroom Osama was shot down. From her, presumably, the world learnt about life within the house that was initially described as a mansion but seems from videos more like a large hovel.

And then there emerged a picture of the world’s most dreaded terrorist’s complicated family life – well, complicated to serial monogamists at least. Each of Osama’s three remaining wives – he married six times – occupied a single floor with her children and two of them, Khairiah Sabar and Siham Sibar taught the brood of 13 children. And none of them stepped outside that compound. Pause for a moment to think about how claustrophobic that must have been and how fertile a ground for the loving nurturance of raging neuroses and petty jealousies.

And there also emerged the story of Osama’s first wife, Najwa Ghanem, his Syrian first cousin whom he married when he was 17 and still just one of the sons of a super rich Saudi builder. When Mohammed Bin Laden died in a plane crash in 1967, Osama inherited a handsome pile that he used to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. And what of Najwa? She stuck with the man, bearing him 11 children, as he turned from business princeling into a jihadi who eschewed air conditioning and cold drinks during the Afghan summer. No doubt, in true fundamentalist style, anything that spoke of comfort was suspect. Even to a man who once enjoyed zipping around Riyadh in luxury cars.

There are conflicting reports about exactly when Najwa ran out of patience and left her husband. Some accounts say she and one of her sons, Omar, whose memoir Growing Up bin Laden will now see a spike in sales, left in 1999. Others have her fleeing Afghanistan for Syria after 9/11 with a mentally challenged son. It’s that detail that had me. The mentally challenged son.

What do jihadis do when their children are ill? Do they just go on fighting the infidels and indoctrinating young men to blow themselves up in bazaars, and leave their wives to deal with the infinitely more fearsome work of nursing a sick child back to health? Would Najwa have thought it hopeless to turn to her husband with her heartache? Would he have ordered her to reconcile herself to her fate since he was too busy with his holy war?

Apparently, bin Laden once told an interviewer that life became more enjoyable “when your children and your wife become part of your struggle”. Life must have been a struggle in that Abottabad compound alright with its army of home schooled children who would have driven the women crazy like all children in confined spaces do.

And who treated them for all their little colds and coughs, did any of them have troublesome allergies and what of the immunisation schedules and did they get their polio drops? These are the sorts of mundane worries that occupy the minds of most women with children. And what of the women themselves? Childbirth must have been a dangerous business in the wilds of Afghanistan at the mercy of the local midwife with her sharpened kitchen knives and country potions.

What did Osama mean to them? Did they feel tenderly towards him even after they learnt of the Twin Towers tragedy? By then, Najwa had already left the man presumably unable to come to terms with how far he had travelled. Not that it could have been a marriage with much intimacy as we know it. It’s difficult to imagine Osama discussing long term plans to blow up the Pentagon in bed. Men are generally tightlipped about happenings at the office even when they aren’t leading a whole war against the unrighteous. Did she have moments of rage when she wanted to teach her husband a lesson, to make him suffer as she had suffered through all those years when a pedicure must have seemed like the height of decadence? Perhaps. But though Najwa left Osama, they were never divorced, which means a lot in a milieu where a divorce doesn’t involve tedious visits to marriage counsellors or the family court.

There is a very obvious book waiting to be written about all the Mrs Osamas. It’s said you can judge a man by the wife he chooses. The ones Osama picked were stoic and hardworking so he probably never had to worry about the little big things. Things like the wellbeing of his children. Perhaps there’s a case for raising irreligious, irresponsible little girls. If Najwa and co had been more high maintenance, Osama bin Laden would never have had the time or the mental space to reshape the world in the tragic way he did.

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Manjula Narayan is,  among other things, a writer based in Delhi. You can follow her on Twitter (@utterflea) and read her blog here.

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