The First Book of the Week is “The Bookseller of Kabul” by Asne Seierstad, translated by Ingrid Christophersen, originally published in 2002.
“To him, power is more important than peace. He’s mad enough to jeopardize the lives of thousands just so he can be in charge. I can’t imagine why the Americans want to cooperate with a man like that.”
-Said of the Afghan warlord Padsha Khan, who took over Central Asia after the Taliban left in 2002.
The Americans hired Khan to look for members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar. The warlord used the American-provided money, weapons (such as B-52’s and F-16 fighter planes), communications devices (such as a satellite phone) and intelligence devices (all of which were also provided to the warlord’s enemies) to kill his enemies in a local conflict in the provinces– instead of seeking America’s enemies.
This paperback tersely yet effectively described the culture of strict Muslim households as seen through the lifestyle (as dictated by its eventual patriarch, Sultan, the oldest son– the favorite child) of a few generations and branches of the Khan family tree. Crazy about books, in the early 1970’s, Sultan opened his first bookshop in Kabul. With his obsessively hard work, his business grew to three shops in a few decades.
As is well known, in September 1996, Afghanistan became a theocracy under the Taliban. Sultan’s behavior and attitudes was typical for a man of his generation and entrepreneurial bent. He traveled to Tehran, Tashkent and Moscow to acquire all kinds of books to sell. He did jail time for offering subversive ones. In Afghanistan, there was actually book-burning in November 1999.
Sultan decreed that his sons quit high school to manage his stores, and his wife performed the administrative work. During the most politically oppressive times, he, his wife and four children lived in Pakistan. After the Taliban were driven out of his native land of Afghanistan in 2002, his family returned. War was the order of the day for his son’s entire seventeen-year lifetime, as the country then devolved into civil war among warlords.
Against the wishes of his extended family and his first wife, Sultan married a sixteen-year old girl. The girl’s family needed the customary gifts bestowed on them, including supplies, food and animals.
Sultan risked his life, paying people-smugglers in order to go to Pakistan primarily to visit business contacts (and his family), as, after 9/11, the country closed its border with Afghanistan. Lahore in Pakistan had no regard for intellectual property laws, so Sultan could get two to three thousand percent profit margins on stolen texts of books he had printed there. The kind of lawlessness that existed on the Afghan side of the Khyber pass included a free-for-all on hashish and weaponry.
Read the book to learn a wealth of additional characteristics about Sultan’s culture, such as wedding rituals, pilgrimages, and about the draconian segregation of the sexes and enforced inferiority of the females.
The Second Book of the Week is “The Bin Ladens, An Arabian Family in the American Century” by Steve Coll, published in 2008.
This large volume described the culture of what Americans would consider to be a huge family of Middle Easterners with the last name Bin Laden, whose households ranged from the strictly Muslim to the very Westernized, over a few generations and branches of its family tree.
Born around the dawn of the twentieth century, one of the family’s major patriarchs was the entrepreneurial Mohamed, a construction contractor who played well with others, and joined the Hadhrami community in Yemen. He kissed up to the Saudi Arabian government in order to build his business.
In the mid-1930’s, King Abdulaziz ibn Saud began to reap riches from oil. This led to various developments in terms of the evolution of the country’s infrastructure and acquisition of Western aid.
During WWII, Great Britain and the United States lavished copious monetary assistance on Saudi Arabia to keep it away from Communist temptations. The Saudis opted to pave roads instead of building railway lines, as automobiles would allow them to prosper by selling oil. Aramco, the jointly owned American and Saudi oil company, did business with Mohamed, too.
Strictly Muslim, Mohamed– a polygamist, was a typical man for his time and place. Of his 54 children, his oldest son, Salem, was born in the mid-1940’s. As such, Salem grew up to become chair of several multi-national corporations his father eventually grew, that built mosques, dams and reservoirs, and renovated the buildings and grounds of pilgrimage regions and military installations.
At the dawn of the 1950’s, the Bin Ladens’ companies were awarded business by the Saudi government partly because American contractors couldn’t deal with the Saudis, as the Saudis were too corrupt. Even so, the Saudi government’s officials, who were big spenders living high on the hog, went deep into debt, and turned out to be bad payers.
About a decade later, Mohamed’s businesses, which were developing structurally complicated kinds of shell companies– acquired a reputation for inexperienced laborers, doing shoddy work and missing deadlines.
President John F. Kennedy initially supported Egypt’s leader Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1962, but the latter sent guerrilla soldiers to Yemen to agitate for a new government there, and exchanged hostile words with Saudi Arabia’s government. In 1963, the United States changed its mind, probably for various secret geopolitical reasons.
In order to protect Saudi Arabia’s southern frontier from Nasser’s imperialist aspirations, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers cooperated with Great Britain to provide the Saudis with missiles and military infrastructure there. Mohamed’s contribution was to build roads.
Osama was one of Mohamed’s biological sons, born in January 1958, when his mother was about fifteen years old. His parents divorced in his early childhood. His mother remarried. Mohamed died when he was nine years old. During (what would be equivalent to) junior high school, he joined an after-school Islamic study group. He was later recruited into the Muslim Brotherhood; an anti-Nasser, Koran-purist group approved of by Saudi Arabia’s king in the early 1970’s.
That was a time of foreign-policy contradictions for the Saudis and the West. In 1973, the former imposed an oil embargo meant to harm the Americans (for helping the Israelis), Egyptians and Syrians. At the same time, the Saudis accepted financial aid from the Americans, as the former supplied oil to the latter’s troops in Vietnam. The Saudis also purchased vast quantities of U.S. Treasury Bonds.
Salem became the leader of a few of the most Westernized branches of the family (his younger siblings), encouraging the education of females. He purchased properties in the United States, and began to collect private jets. His relatives had identity crises, caught between two cultures.
At seventeen years old, Osama married a fourteen-year old. She bore him a son, and pursuant to the Koran, he obeyed a laundry list of prohibitions: didn’t covet his neighbor’s wife, and banned photography, music, gambling and alcohol from his life. He did, however, teach his children hunting and shooting, and seemed to have no problem with violating certain religious laws. He quit college and entered the family business.
In early 1985, Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd and Salem met with American president Ronald Reagan. The king secretly funneled money to a Cayman Islands account to fund the Contras (of the infamous Iran-Contra affair).
Read the book to learn how numerous other historical events shaped the activities of Salem and Osama and vice versa through the second half of the twentieth century into the new millennium.
ENDNOTE: Even with all the information the author was able to glean– the story was like Swiss cheese. The United States has suffered the usual in terms of intelligence-gathering in recent decades: incompetence, hubris and inter-agency rivalry, not to mention political and economic inter-dependence between the Arabs and the United States. Other wrenches in the works include the complex web of Bin Laden business dealings and entities, many of which are offshore. Enough said.