Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What the Bin Laden Family Taught Me About the Nature of Friendship

A few years ago I was discussing with a therapist why I felt so sad and abandoned by my friends. I used as an example a story from a book about the Bin Laden family by Steven Coll.

There are a number of things to learn from this book, which is very entertaining and worth reading (see link below) but perhaps the most compelling thing I learned was something about the true nature of friendship.

As background, before we get to the specific story, here are a few other things to know about the Bin Laden family. First, they are not Saudi Arabians, nor are they related to one of the important families from Saudi Arabia. They are Yemeni immigrants who went to Saudi Arabia and fit the stereotype of the classic Yemeni immigrant in Saudi Arabia: the hard-working, dirt-poor immigrant brothers who through pluck and hard work become millionaires. The next thing to know is that there are hundreds of Bin Ladens, they take many wives, divorce them, but keep them around, and marry new ones and have children by all of them. (1) The next thing to know is that of those hundreds of Bin Ladens, most of them seem to love America and spend a lot of time here. And finally, although the Bin Laden family was and is very wealthy, there was nothing like the wealth that would have permitted a 3rd generation Bin Laden such as Osama, who was not much involved in the family business, to have anything like the $180M in personal wealth that was reported in the American news media (in other words, our press got it wrong, again, not even close to accurate.)

Some of the Bin Laden Family in Europe probably in the 1970s.

Their are many colorful anecdotes, including the one about how after 911, the Bin Ladens chartered a jet and become one of the very few planes allowed to fly, as they picked up their various relatives at various parts of the country and flew them to Europe. Recall that air traffic was prohibited for three days after 911 with only a few exceptions. It seemed safest to the Bin Ladens, our State Department, and the Saudi Arabian government to just get the rest of the Bin Laden's out of the way for a while than to have them scattered all over the country and have to provide security for them (or fail to provide security for them as the case may be).

The specific story which is significant for this post and the cause of so much emotional unhappiness is the story of the time one of the Bin Laden's of the second generation was living in Florida and planning a party in Pakistan. Recall this is before 911, before the war in Afghanistan, and Pakistan was and may still be a favorite vacation place for people from Saudi Arabia, famous for its falcon hunting. Anyway, this Bin Laden was also a fan of ultralight airplanes and planned to charter a jet to fly to Pakistan taking with him many friends and ultralights for the event. Being a colorful and generous man, he also invited along many of his neighbors from Florida including his local ultralight dealer.

This is a typical ultralight without either a Bin Laden or a suitcase filled with cash.

Now we get to the signifcant part of this story. This is the part that really made me wonder what kind of friends I had and about the true nature of friendship.

You see, this Bin Laden, being a careful and generous host, also brought along a briefcase stuffed with cash in order to pay for any little extras along the way. Not a lot of money, just about $250K in various denominations, which is enough to buy a Range Rover or two, or hire a band at the last minute, or rent another floor of the hotel, take the gals shopping, whatever. The point is, he so trusted his friend with the ultralight dealership that he was given the briefcase and asked to carry it around.

Obviously, this is an indication that Bin Laden had both trust and confidence in the ultralight dealer. You can't just leave the briefcase with anyone, and you can't just put it in a safe, because you need it around if you need anything. So you appoint someone to keep it with them, someone you like and trust with the money.

 This photograph is for educational purposes only.

This really made me think. Whats the matter with me that I never get invited on the chartered jet to fly ultralights in a foreign country?  Why don't my friends let me carry the briefcase stuffed with cash? Why am I never invited to join the various Academy committees that have my friends and peers as members and who later win important awards because they served on those committees? Whats the matter with me that my friends treat me like shit?

The bottom line is that if they really liked me, they would let me carry the briefcase stuffed with cash from time to time, but they don't.

That's why this story makes me feel very sad and depressed.


The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century by Steven Coll

1.  There is a restriction in Islam that says you can only have four wives at a time and then only if you can afford them. However, there is no restriction on marrying, then divorcing, and keeping good relations with your ex-wives. In this way, one can with persistance and good financial means, extend the number of wives that you have in some long-term sense of the word indefinitely and the Bin Ladens seem to have in general used this technique.

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