Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Why was Bin Laden's house so tacky?

Amid all the huffing and puffing in the aftermath of the SEAL team 6 raid that killed Bin Laden (Go SEALs!) there were several comments about the relative scuzziness of the compound that supposedly cost $1,000,000 to build.

Obviously the commentators had never spent any time in the Arab or eastern Asian countries or they'd know more about this.

I worked over two years in Saudi Arabia back in the late '80s and saw some very expensive houses that had pretty much the same appearance that Bin Laden's house did. The stucco over the concrete block was patched or peeling, there was no grass or landscaping in the yards and the overall appearance was of dilapidation and disrepair. Quite simply, that's very normal in those places.

The Saudis didn't do much for external appearances anywhere that I could see. Part of that was the climate and the difficulty of keeping plants watered and thriving in that desert environment. But a lot of it was cultural. The Saudis and Pakistanis and their brethren simply don't have the same aesthetic sensibilities about their living quarters that Westerners do. That sounds pretty xenophobic or racist, but it's true. I saw homes that had to have cost hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars, that were pretty ragged on the outside and very poorly maintained on the inside. I also spoke with Americans who had worked inside the big palaces of the royal family in Saudi Arabia who told me about finding towels that were gray and grungy, not washed properly at all, and of a general level of slovenliness in the homes. The elderly members of the royals who'd never spent time in the West were especially unconcerned with the condition of their personal spaces, unless it was something that the hired domestic help was taking care of for them.

What to blame for this? Could it be that it hasn't been long enough since these tribes moved into what we could consider 'modern' housing from the tents and rude huts that are still the norm in large parts of their countries? That's my guess. They just haven't developed the same sense of housecleaning and appearance that most Americans take for granted.

So I have no doubt that the Bin Laden compound was very expensive to build, and was then allowed to fall apart like so many of the other homes that I saw when I worked in Riyadh. As anyone who's watched American TV can tell you, having money doesn't give you good taste, and it's the same in the Middle East with their homes.

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