The Veiled Kingdom by Carmen bin Ladin

The wife who got away

By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

30 July 2004

The author is called Carmen and has great lips, a chiselled face, the elegance of a pale Parisian. Irresistible already. Add to this the demonic name of Bin Ladin (a repository of all Western nightmares), the long history of Orientalist fantasies, the provocation that is the state of Saudi Arabia, the style sheet of an unthinking women's magazine, and you have a perfect money-spinner.

Publishers have an insatiable appetite for titillating books that "lift the veil" on Muslim lives. Some have published brilliant books that do reveal the complexities of life in some Muslim states: for example, Masoud (Saqi), an extraordinary book by a transformed Iranian Mojahedin. But, mostly, the trade is drawn to tales put about by escaped princesses, formerly enslaved women, ex-wives of potentates, the more outlandish, the better. Who can check the facts?

A new scandal has just broken out over a bestseller by the Jordanian Norma Khouri, who wrote Forbidden Love, about the honour killing of a young friend. There are accusations - denied by Khouri - that the story is fraudulent. Previous "eyewitness" books have been similarly questioned by experts who feel that careful judgements too often get carried away by the thrill of another tale of Eastern barbarism.

An unwholesome fascination with the Orient is not new. But those old scholars and artists who fed the expansionist addiction during the period of European imperial pursuits were at least people of substance. Supremacist they were, yes, but not shallow. Many of them built up an intimacy with the East over time, and would never have presumed to comment before they had accumulated enough knowledge. Not now. A holiday romance, an extended vacation, three months in a burka: all can lead to books decoding the "secrets" of Islamic lives.

This book is different, of course. A marriage does give you insights into the minutiae of a culture and its values. The writer was married into the second richest clan in Saudi Arabia, which spawned the charismatic and now ruthlessly ascetic Osama. She lived in this society with the desires and eyes of an outsider: "I was at the crucial place, at the crucial time."

But Carmen, you feel, skim-reads her invaluable experiences, and understands nothing but her own complaints - too many of which are laughable in the scheme of things. "How to carpet the house, though? I could not be seen or spoken to by the male workers... The carpet had been laid at right angles to our big new windows so that every seam was clearly visible." There are six more paragraphs on this terrible difficulty.

How to describe the triteness of this book? Even when there are immensely sad moments, as when Carmen's husband challenges the paternity of his youngest daughter, the writing is relentlessly prosaic ("It was unspeakably low of him and utterly humiliating for me, and above all, to little Noor"). Such banality again fails to carry readers into the labyrinth of riveting relationships between women in the Bin Ladin family. The photographs are, if anything, even more bland and flat.

Yet at the very end, when she is talking about Osama and the geopolitical crisis, she writes with flair and intelligence. There are real insights here because Carmen has removed herself from the centre of the story. But crossing the previous 203 pages to get there is too much to ask.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's selected journalism, 'Some of my Best Friends...', is published by Politico's