When wife one, Najwa, married Osama in 1974, she had just turned 16 and he was still forging a reputation as a demon soccer player at his university and for driving fast cars recklessly. Her father and Osama’s mother, Allia, were brother and sister, and she had been charmed by the doe-eyed shyness of her cousin, who was the 17th son of Saudi Arabia’s richest man, although he had grown up as a single child after his father divorced his mother when he was still small.
Eventually finding herself in Kandahar, Najwa had clung to the vestiges of her old life, filling her shelves with foreign cosmetics, curling and colouring her long black hair, and donning a jogging suit after dark to run around the inner courtyard, singing to herself.
Wife number two, Khairiah, Osama’s favourite, had married him in 1985 when he was already well along the path to jihad, a vision she shared. Seven years older than Osama and a child psychologist by profession, she had been introduced by Najwa, who had met her after seeking out help for her disabled sons at a medical clinic in Jeddah.
Plain, dour, and humourless, Khairiah had presumed she would spend her life as a spinster until Najwa suggested she join the family. Osama had already taken a second wife who Najwa did not get along with and who he would later divorce. He now wanted another, telling Najwa he needed to have as many children as possible “for Islam.”
Determined to have a say in who shared her house and husband, Najwa suggested that ironclad Khairiah could help with their sons’ education. Osama judged that she was doubly perfect as the Prophet had decreed that men should wed “unmarriable” women to enable them to share the joy of motherhood. Although it took her many years to conceive, Khairiah eventually bore him one child, who inherited his parents’ fervour.
Although Khairiah’s physical relationship with her husband had long since ceased, a clean shalwar kameez still hung for him on the back of her bedroom door and a bottle of his favorite aoud oil perfume sat in the bathroom. A force of nature who Najwa had come to rely on to care for her disabled sons and otherwise deal with their husband, Khairiah had evolved into the extended family’s emira (matriarch)—and it was in her room in Kandahar that everyone had gathered to resolve disputes and discuss impending changes, or to lobby for an extra sack of rice, basic medicine, or schoolbooks.
Osama’s attitude toward his family’s medical needs was negligent. He advanced a spoonful of honey as a desert wonder cure for everything, but honey had not worked for Najwa’s oldest two sons. Her oldest, born in 1977, had become ill and dehydrated after Osama banned his wife from using a baby bottle. The next baby had suffered serious developmental problems when his hydrocephaly went untreated on his father’s orders. The wives of Osama’s brothers had tried to intervene to no avail.
Wife number three had arrived two years after Khairiah, in 1987. Another uber-religious Saudi woman, Seham claimed to be directly descended from the Prophet Mohammed and her brother was one of Osama’s Saudi fighters in Afghanistan. She held a Ph.D. from Medina University and had worked as a teacher before marriage, at which point she dedicated herself to Islam and Osama, in equal measures, setting herself the task of having as many children for the jihad as she could.
After four children, Seham had shut the bedroom door and gone back to her role as a teacher, turning her hut in Kandahar into a classroom, complete with slates, chalk, and a few secondhand matriculation papers purchased at the bazaar. Osama sometimes interrupted, conducting impromptu math and English tests, with his children lined up in order of size as his own father had done with him.
The only other time they spent together was on infrequent day trips into the desert, when he and his bodyguard would drive ahead in a pickup, and they would trail in his dusty wake in a rickety bus. For a few hours they would sit together in the hot sand to listen to his stories about great battles against the Soviets, before he took off in the Hilux and they made the lurching journey home.
But the arrival of wife number four, eighteen-year-old Amal, had upended this unconventional but otherwise calm domestic scene.
Osama bin Laden’s decision to marry a Yemeni teenager was as much an attempt to deal with an existential question as it was about his libido. Yemen, the land of Osama’s forefathers, a skeletal state and the poorest country in the Arab world, was an obvious choice as a potential sanctuary, should he ever need to escape. Marrying into the right tribe would provide a ready-made constituency to absorb the move and provide protection.
The bad news was that the girl was only 17, had dropped out of school, and sported a mop of short, unveiled black hair that made her look like an ingénue and not a minor wife. But Osama was in a hurry.
Excerpted with permission from Bloomsbury. Photo credit: Amber Clay / Pixabay (representational images). First published in eShe September 2017 issue.