Ben Laden is Alive — And Playing Klezmer
Bin Laden is dead, but Ben Laden lives on. I caught up with one, Benjamin “Ben” Laden, Pennsylvanian, bandleader, and all around good guy, to talk about the ten years he spent sharing a name with the world’s most reviled terrorist. In our first email correspondence, Ben Laden said it’s been, “an interesting ride since 9/11,” but he imagines this will be the, “last hurrah.” Laden has taken the coincidence in good humor, but in many ways these have been trying years filled with absurd, disturbing, and Kafka-esque difficulties for a man whose only crime is to have been born with an unlucky name. -Adam Wilson
Do you go by Benjamin, or Ben Laden? Benny Laden? Did you ever consider changing your name?
When I was little I was called Jamey, taken from the last few letters of Benjamin. In 2nd grade my parents told me they wanted to call me Jamey when I was a baby but now that I was a ‘big boy’ I could try changing to a more grownup-sounding variation of the name. They suggested ‘Benji’. That sounded as childish as Jamey to me. So I went with Ben.
You seem to have taken this bizarre coincidence with good humor. Has that been hard to come by? Have there been some difficult moments?
In 2001, I was working at a job that had me on airplanes almost every week. I was shocked that during the period when there were armed soldiers in the terminals, I was not stopped a single time going through security. It was almost to the point where I wanted to go up to them and say, “Do you realize who you just let through security?”
I took my family on a trip to Disneyworld in December 2001. We had to catch a very early flight and arrived at the airport with what is usually the normal amount of time required to get through security. This time I got stopped when I tried to get our boarding passes. There was a security block on my ticket. Nobody at the airport knew what to do about it. I was with my four kids, my wife. We were going to miss the flight. They took my identification and disappeared with it for about 20 minutes. Nobody would tell me what was happening. We did catch the flight in the nick of time.
Right after 911 I received many crank calls to my home. Most were obviously people fooling around, and I fooled around right back at them. I’d say stuff like, “Do you really think it is wise to make crank calls to a terrorist?” But there were several calls that were scary and threatening, including one threatening to fire bomb my house at a certain day and time. I called the police and told them what was happening. They would not take me seriously. I pleaded for them to have a cruiser in front of my house at the specified time. They laughed me off. No police ever came. I kept my family in the back of the house away from the windows in that night.
At that time the FBI had solicited anyone getting harassed over having an Arab-sounding name to contact them. I called the FBI office in Philly to tell them about the threats I was receiving. I could not get the guy on the phone to believe that I wasn’t another FBI agent pulling a practical joke. He just would not take my call seriously fearing some other agents were just waiting to laugh at him. That was pretty frustrating.
What was your first reaction after 9/11, when you found out that the mastermind terrorist shared a variation of your name? What was your initial emotional response? Has that changed over the past ten years?
I knew about Bin Laden before most Americans. When I did the rather vain act of putting my name in an Internet search engine, a bunch of stuff about a music festival I organized and my bands came up at the top of the list. About halfway down the page were some links about Bin Laden who at that point was called an International Weapons Dealer. When 9/11 happened, that all changed. Now if you Google “Ben Laden” you won’t find my information because it’s all Osama. However I did wonder if Osama ever Googled his name and saw all the stuff about my music. If so, he never called to book us for a gig.
During the first weeks many reporters as well as Rumsfeld were calling him Ben Laden, pronounced exactly as I pronounce my name with a long “A” in Laden, not Bin Laden with a short “A,” which became the standard pronunciation of his name a little later on. It was very weird to hear all these people saying my name, in such a negative connotation. I knew it wasn’t gonna be good. I wondered how many Adolph Hitlers there must have been who went through a similar experience. I recalled an old colleague whose last name was “Hettler”and realized they probably changed it from Hitler.
Were your parents concerned? Was it awkward making dinner reservations?
Everyone in my family got some razzing for having the last name “Laden.” But they all easily deflected it by saying, ‘You think that’s bad, you should meet my son, his name is friggin’ Ben Laden.’
I don’t make reservations…I just show up and say, “Table for Ben Laden, please.” People scurry.
I assume it’s been difficult to get through airport security. What’s that experience been like? Any interesting anecdotes?
At the one year anniversary of 911 the TSA stepped up security and all of a sudden I was being stopped every time I needed to get on a plane. Once I knew what to expect I used it to my advantage. If there were long lines at the ticket counters, I just walked right up to the counter and said to whoever was working there, “I need to see a manager, I am Bin Laden” (Intentionally using the wrong pronunciation of my name). There’d be a flurry of activity, a manager would appear from the back office, I’d show my ID and tell them we would need to override the stop on my ticket. They had to call the FBI, who did some magical thing in the background that allowed me to get on the plane. And I didn’t wait in the line…Ha!
Could you talk us through the general experience of spending the last ten years as Ben Laden? Highs? Lows?
Until 2007, my job involved traveling all over to teach classes to adults. I had to introduce myself to a new group of students each week. I started using Benjamin instead of Ben more often. I stopped putting my name as a return address on mail and started using my initials instead. I went through the Internet and changed every reference to me that I could find from Ben Laden to Benjamin Laden.
A few weeks after 9/11, I got calls from several news stations. I was a Howard Stern fan and gave him the first interview. He asked “Are Arabs calling you and asking what they’re supposed to do next?” He suggested I should change my name. “No good can come from being named Ben Laden,” he said.
I did a phone interview for Fox News and asked them to send me a copy. When a video was sent to me I was dismayed to see that throughout the phone interview they showed footage of the real Osama. It was those jerks on the Fox News show in the morning. The one guy ended by saying something like, “Well I guess this is your 15 minutes of fame.” I responded, “Maybe, and hopefully one day you’ll get yours.” Touché!
I was called by someone from the David Letterman show about reading the top 10 list. I agreed to do it but they called a few days later saying they realized there was no ‘joke’ there. After the initial “Really? Your name is Ben Laden?”– there’s nowhere to go.
Has the name affected your career at all? You’re a pretty tough guy to Google, no?
I did try to think of a way to capitalize on this…maybe putting out a CD called ‘The Music of Ben Laden” or some such thing, but I never came up with a way this could lead to money in my pocket.
What was your reaction upon hearing that Bin Laden had been killed?
I was at home and was watching reruns of Sanford and Son and during a commercial flipped through the channels and saw they were speculating and that the President was due to speak. In all honesty, I felt a sadness when I heard he was killed. It is a sadness that I feel about our human condition where we have to live with and even accept violence. I knew his death would not lead to a safer world in the near term and really don’t know what it means in the long term. What he did was awful. But I can’t help but think of the parent who hits their child for hitting. Violence begets violence. I came up in a time where we thought we could change the world into a peaceful, just habitat for all living things. Accepting that it can’t be that way is not easy for me. I’ve also been dismayed at the chest thumping and cheering that took place. It is not something to cheer about, it isn’t like we won a ballgame.
You lead a Klezmer band. Do you feel that you’re balancing out the universe by spreading joyful music, sort of a yin to Bin Laden’s yang?
I play a lot of fun music. Besides Klezmer music, I’ve played in a Mardi Gras band called The Wild Bohemians for 27 years. I’ve played at many weddings and other fun-filled events. I like to make a fun time for others and in general reach peak moments of joy with the crowd I am entertaining. That said, I have a lot of Ying, in me….but I also know I have my own more private Yang moments as well. We can look at people like Osama and ask what is wrong with them…or we can ask what is wrong with our human condition that allows people to develop such horrifying beliefs? I believe we can only really progress when we stop asking what is wrong with them, and start asking what is wrong with us, the us that includes both them and us. Why do we humans act in a violent way towards one another? What is in each of us that can cause one of us to do this?
What’s next for Ben Laden? Do you feel a sense of closure?
I do sense that the Bin Laden name fiasco has probably seen its last flurry of news stories — that is, until we hear someone has spotted Osama in Vegas.
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