REVISITING AL-QAEDA

Lawrence Wright discusses the inspiration for "My Trip to al-Qaeda", a new documentary based on his one-man show ...

From THE ECONOMIST online

Lawrence Wright spent five years conducting hundreds of interviews in at least ten countries in order to write “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11”. The book, a best-selling history about Islamic fundamentalism (reviewed here), weaves the stories of terrorists, intelligence officers and government officials in a remarkable narrative that helps to explain both the cult of Osama bin Laden and the flaws in American intelligence that let him get away with murder. “When I finished my book,” Mr Wright said in an interview with Prospero, “I had countless people asking me ‘What were they like?’ and ‘How did it affect you?’” He ultimately answered these questions in his one-man play, “My Trip to al-Qaeda” (reviewed here), a gripping personal account of the people he met and what it all felt like. On September 7th HBO will premiere Alex Gibney’s elegant screen adaptation, which mixes theatrical footage with more photographs and videos to help tell Mr Wright’s story about the lure of radicalism in the Islamic world.
 
“My Trip to al-Qaeda” is a powerful film, in part because Mr Wright is such a natural raconteur. His storytelling is impressionistic, ranging from the insidious power of Egyptian prisons, where men often enter as Islamists and exit as jihadists, to his time working at a newspaper in Saudi Arabia, where women reporters were quarantined in a small office under the stairs. “You can’t tell a story linearly if you want people to understand,” he explains on screen.
 
Over the phone, he marveled at the controversy over the Ground Zero Mosque. “I had nothing to do with stirring this up in order to promote this film,” he joked. “But it certainly underscores its message—that 9/11 was a trauma for our country. It’s changed us as a people and we’re still trying to recover from that. I’m trying to help people understand where this movement of radical Islam came from, why it’s focused on America, and how it’s changed us as a people. In this heated moment, I would like for people to take the time to consider both sides of this controversy." Here Mr Wright talks about his experiences in the Muslim world and why he believes theatre and journalism work well together.

Prospero: Did you have any concerns about transferring the piece from stage to screen?

Lawrence Wright: I wasn’t really thinking of a film. But Alex Gibney [the Oscar-winning director of "Taxi to the Dark Side" and "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"] came to see me perform the play at the Kennedy Centre in Washington. We met after the performance and he had some ideas about how to make it into a documentary. I would have had more concern if it had been someone other than Alex. I have great respect for his work and I really trusted his judgment. The question I had mainly was would it work as a film. I didn’t want it to be stagey and I didn’t want it to feel confined.
 
P: What can you achieve with theatre or a film that you can’t achieve with more conventional journalism?
 
LW: This is an odd form, this marriage of theatre and journalism. But when I’m actually just standing on the stage performing it, it feels like the way journalism must’ve started. You know, people sitting around a campfire and someone went over the hill to see what’s on the other side and then came back and made a report. So it doesn’t seem like it’s all that different from the kind of journalism that I do, except that it’s more immediate and I actually get to see the people who are receiving the news. It’s very gratifying, in a way.
 
P: You’ve talked a bit about the intimacy of theatre, how it’s a good place for a dialogue about something that isn’t as cut and dried as a reported piece might suggest.
 
LW: When you’re dealing with an audience in a theatre, it’s a small group compared to the readership of the New Yorker or the distribution of a book. But I think that the connection goes deeper than it can in almost any other medium. There’s something about that intimacy that’s really comfortable. That’s the goal in keeping a lot of the theatrical footage in the film, because when I’m talking directly to people they understand that this is my experience I’m trying to share. I’m not a character in my book. There’s no place for me there. But I did want to explain to people what it was like for a person like me, for a member of the community, to go out and meet these people, find out who they were and what was driving them, and come back and explain all that.
 
P: As a journalist you’re meant to be outside of the frame, but here you’re a main character, full of feelings and internal conflicts. Did you have any concerns about making this shift?
 
LW: When I was trained as a journalist, as a race-relations reporter in Nashville covering the end of the civil-rights movement, we were strictly forbidden to use the first-person pronoun. There was kind of an electric charge around it. To come out from hiding and use the word “I” carried a lot of fright for me. Yet there is something that you can only say in reference to your own experience. When I finished my book, I had countless people asking me, “What were they like?” and “How did it affect you?” I decided that I had to process those things myself. The play was to some extent a way of sorting out those experiences for me.
 
P: What do you feel is gained by your revealing these experiences? Most people like to believe (naively, perhaps) that journalists are cold reporters of fact, not flawed and warm-blooded, with biases, feelings and needs.
 
LW: The fact that I wasn’t able to keep that journalist persona intact all the time was very upsetting to me. When I went to Egypt right after 9/11 I was very upset. I used to live in Egypt. I had a lot of friends there. I spent two years teaching there. I had very fond feelings for that part of the world, and the fact that a culture I liked so much had attacked my own culture was really very upsetting to me. There were moments when I simply lost it, and that had never happened to me as a reporter. I felt that I had to figure out what was going on and why I was sometimes unable to hang on to my emotions. I’m a fairly controlled person, so when I got mad, it was very disconcerting. I wasn’t sure it was at all productive, but I think I felt the need in this play and then the documentary to reveal how it had actually affected me.
 
P: In the film you reaffirm your earlier point that since 9/11 America has in many ways played into Osama bin Laden’s grand narrative of a war of cultures. You rightfully lament the turn America has taken when it comes to torture and attacks on civil liberties at home. But to what extent did we blunder into this narrative long before the war on terror?
 
LW: We’ve been deeply engaged in that part of the world in a way that many Americans didn’t realise before 9/11. I don’t hold America responsible for the largely oppressive governments in the 22 Arab countries. There are repressive Arab governments that are our allies and there are those that are our nominal enemies. It doesn’t make a whole lot of difference to what extent we’re involved in propping up those governments. But we do have a responsibility to the region. Our support for Israel and our dependency on oil has placed us in a part of the world that we understand very poorly. Our engagement there has been until now a little unconscious. The task that we have in front of us is straightening out just exactly what our interests are there.
 
P: But we still don’t have many intelligence officers who speak Arabic. It seems that not only are we not learning from our mistakes, but we’re actually making things worse.
 
LW: Our intelligence community was extremely poorly prepared before 9/11. Since then it hasn’t done a good job of hiring the kind of people who speak and understand the languages and cultures of that region. One of the heroes of my book and my film, Ali Soufan, the FBI agent who came closer than anyone at stopping 9/11, was one of eight Arabic-speaking agents at the FBI on 9/11. Now there are nine. The really woeful thing about it is that if Ali Soufan tried to work in the FBI now, he probably couldn’t get security clearance. I talked to the guy who’s the head of the army translation corp, and he said that after 9/11 many Muslims and Arab-Americans came forward and offered their services to American intelligence and were spurned. The army picked up a number of them and they went to Iraq to become interpreters, which is the most dangerous imaginable assignment. He said after four years of serving their country they still can’t get a job in American intelligence because they can’t get past the security clearance. Well what other declaration of loyalty do you need to make?
 
P: You explain that there is a great deal of despair in the Muslim world, and that radicalisation is in many ways a natural outlet for all of these jobless young men with no future. But you also say that many Muslims are radicalised on Western soil. Can you explain this?
 
LW: The despair that I talk about in the Muslim world comes from many different sources—poverty, depression, gender apartheid—all of those things are factors. In the West, it’s a very different phenomenon. The number-one name for a child born in Belgium is Mohammed. Mohammed is the most popular name in the whole world right now, so it’s not that unusual. But if you happen to be of Flemish ancestry, you might think “Where is this going? What is happening in my country, my culture?” And if you’re Mohammed you’re probably thinking, “These people don’t want me, I’ll never be one of them.” It’s very likely that Mohammed doesn’t speak Arabic, and he may never have been to wherever his roots are. He’s a person who doesn’t really have a home. So it’s not surprising that he goes to a mosque and meets up with other angry alienated displaced people just like him. That is a search for an identity. In the US, we’re not talking about a clash of cultures so much as a clash of identities.
 
P: You ask in your film if there can be a new beginning. You include segments of President Obama’s speech in Cairo, which now feels very far away. What options do we have for a new beginning?
 
LW: In terms of improving America’s image in the Muslim world, there are two things. I think the election we had, the way that we modelled non-violent social change, is very profound. It really affected a lot of Muslims that I know. The other thing that we have to show off—and it’s hard to believe it now, with all this controversy about the mosque in Manhattan—is that the American Muslim community is the richest and most successful Muslim community in the world, including Saudi Arabia. By a long shot. The most educated, most professional, highest achieving group in the whole world, because they are in a country where they are allowed to be free, practice their religion and advance themselves under the rule of law. That’s the model of America that we should try to get out. That is the best thing we have to show to the Muslim world.
 
I think it’s also important for Americans to be more engaged. I will give credit to Americans, for instance before 9/11 there were only eight or nine students in the entire US that were majoring in Arabic language, and now it’s very common even in junior colleges across the country for Arabic to be offered. There has been movement inside the country to try to understand that region of the world. But there’s very little actual physical exchange of people. When I was working on my book I often felt like the only Westerner in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, places like that. People were either not there or in hiding. Our official diplomats were buried in these embassies around the world that look like prisons. They rarely get out into the society that they’re representing our culture to. It means we’ve kind of withdrawn and suppressed our narrative. We can’t get our story across.
 
"My Trip to al-Qaeda" will premiere on HBO on September 7th. Lawrence Wright also has a new play, “The Human Scale”, based on his reporting in Gaza, which he will perform at the 3-Legged Dog theatre in New York from October 2nd to 31st.