Lawrence Wright’s research on Al Qaeda took place over five years and four continents, yet he believes our knowledge of what led to 9/11 has only breached the tip of the iceberg.
That can hardly be attributed to Wright not doing his part. After being denied repeated visa requests to work as a journalist, Wright first gained access to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a “mentor” for the English-language Saudi Gazette.
Six hundred interviews later, and Wright had written The Looming Tower, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and is widely regarded as the seminal work on the men who created Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri.
But whileThe Looming Tower suppressed the man for the journalist, My Trip to Al Qaeda allows the man to explain his unique impression on how America is perceived not only on the “Arab street,” but in Al Qaeda meeting rooms and training camps.
My Trip to Al Qaeda is more complement to The Looming Tower than replacement, understandable, given that the book is nearly 600 pages and the play is just under an hour and a half. Having experienced both, it is tough to figure what someone could get out of the production if they hadn’t read the book. Anyone who’s tried renting the movie instead of reading the book can appreciate the difference.
Among the lessons Wright absorbed from his travels, Al Qaeda’s ability to provide for the needs of young Arab men in the Middle East stood out above all. “Al Qaeda offered jihadis housing, health care, a decent monthly salary,” and one round-trip plane ticket each year, said Wright in the media kit for The Looming Tower. The jihad business was (is) a profitable one for poor Saudis in a nation with a virtually no economy, plenty of angst to burn, and plenty of frustrated young men to burn it.
“I want to open up a dialogue on these issues,” Wright insists, despite the format of his show, which by definition demands monologues, adding that he’ll “sometimes” do question-and-answer with the audience, “but usually I’m pretty wiped out by the end of a show.”
WRIGHT’S EXPERTISE ON Al Qaeda began with The Looming Tower. But Wright has studied the effects of “religion and how it motivates people” for the last 30 years. From the disconnected Amish to extremist Muslims, faith, and the moral high ground of feeling that they’re doing God’s Work is the tie that binds; what differs is the manner of expression.
Wright’s interest in the Middle East also predates 9/11. He wrote The Siege in 1998 and joining the Council on Foreign Relations in 2004. A box office flop its author now considers “premature” at the time of its November 1998 release, The Siege reflects an anxiety that America, under terrorist attack would descend into martial law. After a string of explosions, the military packs Arab- Americans into cages, and martial law rules the streets of New York. While Wright can concede that we’re a ways away from military rule, he does believe that, in our quest for security, we’ve lost a sense of our values.
In the wake of 9/11, The Siege became every bit as relevant as it was premature three years prior. Instantly, the one-time box office failure became the most rented movie in America.
My Trip to Al Qaeda, meanwhile, sets out to inspire a reappraisal of our values and whether we want the government knowing what books we check out of the library, or if America should use torture against suspected terrorists.
He cites a personal encounter with the FBI as an example of how far we’ve fallen — yet another example of Wright the man explaining the trials of Wright the journalist. After returning home to write The Looming Tower, FBI agents showed up at his door armed with questions about “suspicious” calls he had made to London. When one of his agents asked about Wright’s daughter, who had no role in her father’s book, Wright saw red.
“Had they been bugging my phone calls the entire time? How’d they know my daughter’s name? Who did these people think they were, to disturb my privacy and make me answer for it?”
Wright never saw the agents again.
Though some might find it odd that a journalist would try his hand at monologue theatre, Wright’s audiences never seemed to mind. Others may argue that Wright, who jokingly refers to himself as the first profiteer from 9/11 (due to the Siege‘s success), is trying to match that distinction on the back end. But as the author sees it, America is still walking that tightrope between liberty and security. 9/11 isn’t history, it’s current events.
Audiences agree. My Trip to Al Qaeda was brought back by popular demand for two extra nights during a recent run at the Kennedy Center (D.C.). Last year it had a six-week run during the New Yorker’s Culture Project and has been greeted by standing ovations and packed houses nationally.
But now that he’s had some success on stage, don’t expect Wright to abandon the craft that got him there.
Wright maintains: “There’s something really powerful about journalism when it’s done the way it’s supposed to be done.”