What caused the Battle of Tora Bora
Osama bin Laden's son is a painter, America his muse
When Omar bin Laden feels down, he looks Merciless. In the western classic by and with Clint Eastwood, a former outlaw gives up the quiet of farm life to relive his violent past for the last time. Otherwise, Omar paints. Landscapes, especially deserts. In addition to the places of his childhood and youth, his motif is again and again the American Wild West: dead trees, cattle skulls and bare table mountains.
Omar is the fourth eldest son of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. He also has the distinctive nose and soft, dark eyes with penetrating eyebrows from him. But the artistic streak? Omar got it from his mother.
"Some of my mother's family are very artistically gifted," says Omar on WhatsApp. "My mother likes to paint, one of my sisters too. My uncle was also a very good artist. So the urge to draw and paint is in my blood."
'Arizona Desert' by Omar bin Laden
Over the past year, Omar has painted over a dozen pictures. His style is simple and characterized by vivid colors and flat, expressionist brushstrokes. One of his paintings shows the jagged ridges of Tora Bora, the cave complex in which his father hid after September 11, 2001. The peaks look like the teeth of a saw and glow angry red. Another, Omar's favorite picture, shows the Arizona desert at night. An illuminated hut stands next to a field of pale green cacti, the moon and stars shine in the sky.
All of Omar's pictures express a childlike simplicity, which is perhaps not surprising. When you talk to him, you quickly realize that his art is a way to regain some of the long-lost serenity of his early youth and go back to the beginning before all the violence and bloodshed began.
"I miss my good times: when I was too young to know, too innocent to understand the world around me," says Omar. "I miss the vast fields of dunes and the sound of the sea. I miss the peace of childhood."
'Deserted 3' by Omar bin Laden
The dunes and the sound of the sea from Omar's childhood are located in Jeddah, a port city on the west coast of Saudi Arabia. He spent his early youth alternating between the tiny apartment in the city center and the bin Laden family farm out in the country, where his father kept horses, goats and gazelles. Even as a child, Omar showed a weakness for painting.
Omar remembers that he was seven when he painted "beautiful pictures" of Osama's horses. Once one of his pictures was hung up in the classroom at school. He describes this as "the only happy moment" he can remember.
The idyll did not last long. Saddam Hussein soon invaded Kuwait, and Osama, convinced that he had to protect Saudi Arabia from the Iraqi troops, converted the family farm into a military base. Three years later, after falling out with the Saudis, the bin Ladens migrated to Sudan.
'Memory' by Omar bin Laden
In this geopolitical crossfire, Omar grew up. He spent his early teenage years in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, and later in the foothills and on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Omar was 15 when he was sent to al-Qaeda training camp near Tora Bora to prepare for battle against infidel armies from the west. At 16 he had to go to the front in the Afghan civil war.
Omar says - not without a touch of sadness - that he was never very close to his father. Osama was anything but an exemplary father. He was a strict patriarch who did not allow his sons to play toys, beat them regularly, and later tried to convince them to commit suicide bombings. His troops carried out poison gas tests on the pets of Osama's children. If Omar or his siblings complained of asthma symptoms, they should simply suck on a piece of honeycomb or an onion. The older Omar got, the more his once unwavering support for his father began to crumble.
He remembers an important turning point during the civil war. Snipers had caught Omar on an Afghan mountain trail. The skirmishes between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance had become chaotic and confusing. Both sides had already shot their own fighters several times because the soldiers could not distinguish between friend and foe. At one point a soldier friend told Omar over the radio that he would follow his orders without hesitation and kill him if he saw him on the disputed land. On this mountain trail, Omar saw the uselessness of war as the snipers' bullets struck the hills around him.
At 18, he finally decided to turn his back on the al-Qaida mission and travel to Syria with his mother. The last time he saw his father was in Afghanistan in 2001 in his home. When two passenger planes flew into the north and south towers of the World Trade Center, Omar was 20 and was back in Saudi Arabia. Shortly after the attacks, Osama fled to his military base in the caves of Tora Bora - the same rugged hills that his son painted on canvas in blood-red acrylic paint almost two decades later.
'Tora Bora (Untouchable)' by Omar bin Laden
The now 39-year-old Omar has repeatedly condemned the 9/11 attacks over the past few years. Over and over again, he has expressed his sympathy for the thousands of people who have lost their lives as a result. He denounced al-Qaeda for the shameless murder of innocent civilians. He rejects his father's brutal ideology. And although he was never ashamed of his family name, he has long tried to distance himself from the brutality that goes with it.
"Many people think that Arabs - especially the bin Laden and especially Osama's sons - are all terrorists," Omar said in 2008 Associated Press. "That is simply not true."
He wanted to become an "ambassador of peace," he added. He wants to try to make up for his father's "big mistake". A colossal task, no question about it. Even if he will probably never shake off Osama bin Laden's bloody legacy completely, Omar says that he has finally made some kind of peace with himself.
A peace that he also owes to painting.
'West Water' by Omar bin Laden
"I want the world to see that I've grown; that I feel comfortable with myself for the first time in my life. The past is behind us and you have to learn to live with what has passed," he says . "You have to forgive, if not forget, so that you can find peace."
With his wife Zaina Mohamed Al-Sabah and a couple of horses, Omar has been living in Normandy in northern France for several years.
Zaina also has a passion for art. Omar recalls that shortly after meeting in 2006, the two of them spent hours drawing and playing around with Photoshop together. But when other things became more important in her life, the hobby disappeared more and more from her everyday life. With the beginning of the corona pandemic and the lockdown, Zaina, like so many other people, returned to her creative side to fight boredom. She started drawing buildings and houses. Soon she suggested that Omar give painting a try.
'The Nile' by Omar bin Laden
Omar bin Laden draws his artistic inspiration from what surrounds him: his wife and friends; the peace of mind that he feels when he rides or watches the river flow past his home. His work clearly shows his appreciation for nature. But while the pastoral landscape scenes remind him of "the beautiful place" he now lives in, others are far less welcoming.
When asked about the melancholy that speaks in some of his pictures, Omar says: "I'm sad how the world has changed since I was a child. I see sadness in the eyes of others. I feel the pain they feel. I see them Loneliness and the misery caused by hunger and war. I see and feel the pain caused by violence. "
This is the double function of Omar's art: For him it is a method to crystallize the security of his childhood in Saudi Arabia and his new life in France, while at the same time dealing with the trauma from the years in between. This struggle often shows itself conspicuously against the background of a classic American western landscape. It's ironic, of course, considering how bitter his father was about this particular part of the world.
'Wild West' by Omar bin Laden
Omar has never been to the US. Growing up, his image of this far-flung land was shaped by his father, who described America as "the worst civilization mankind has ever seen". But Omar's pictures show that other things also influenced his view of North America. The romantic singing of country and western music that he first heard on the radio as a teenager in Afghanistan. The imagery of his favorite Hollywood films also influenced him.
"I like old westerns," says Omar. "I respect cowboys. I love cowboys' dignity."
The myth of the cowboy is deeply American, and yet it seems to have addressed the son of Osama bin Laden directly: the story of the supposedly noble bandit who takes what he wants and uses violence to achieve his goals. There is no better archetype for that than Omar's beloved Clint Eastwood. It is Merciless, one of his favorite wests, a reckoning with this myth. The film questions cowboy honor - and with it the stories we tell each other about violence and war.
'American dream' by Omar bin Laden
As film critic Brian Eggert writes: "Everything about the plot of Merciless turns the image of classic western characters upside down. Die-hard gunslingers are exposed as cowards, weaklings and liars. The film suggests that a western hero is not necessarily the good one, just the one who survived. "
The same could be said of Omar: the one who survived. The horse-loving cowboy who fights against the course of history to become the good one. The gunslinger - in this case an al-Qaida fighter - who has retired, who keeps returning to the wild west of his imagination, where men have dignity and are masters of their own fate.
Omar will always be his father's son. The past is the past, as he puts it, and one must learn to live with it. Art helped him with this. Painting, he says, helps him to find his inner peace and transports him into "a world of fantasy and dreams". Not only does it offer refuge in the innocence of his childhood or the American prairie, but it is also part of a healing process.
'Dream' by Omar bin Laden
His picture "The Light" shows a black highway leading into an illuminated horizon. The eye is almost drawn to this horizon, over the hill, where the road disappears and a white light shines from an unknown source. It is probably Omar's darkest work, but it is particularly symbolic.
"I think I'm trying to find a light at the end of this dark street," he says. "I hope painting will bring the light back into my life."
'The Light' by Omar bin Laden
'Jinn' by Omar bin Laden
'Deserted' by Omar bin Laden
'Death and Birds' by Omar bin Laden
'Safe Village' by Omar bin Laden
'American Day' by Omar bin Laden
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