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Lawrence Wright: "They Envy Us, But Even More, They Are Disappointed In Us"

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Last Wednesday, Emily and I had the rare privilege of attending the second of two performances of Lawrence Wright’s My Trip to Al-Qaeda at Town Hall. I don’t know if any more performances are forthcoming, but I certainly hope so. Look out for it.

Directed by Gregory Mosher, My Trip to Al-Qaeda takes place in an approximation of Wright’s own office, complete with large, uncommented-upon Afghan rug. The few books whose covers we can glean from our seats seem well chosen, if the goal is not to project any particular “meaning.” Nicely played, Mosher. Wright, whose previous acting experience is (according to the program) limited to a high school production of Our Town, has a nice scholarly presence. He may have picked up a thing or two from Denzel Washington on the set of The Siege, a movie he wrote.

That’s right: Wright wrote the movie we all became intensely curious about after September 11, that movie that, according to Wright, became the top-rented movie after the hijacking attacks, giving him the grim distinction of becoming “the first profiteer in the war on terror.” Wright makes sure we understand the ways in which The Siege both was and was not prescient before beginning his narrative proper.

Over seven sections, Wright fills in his complex sketch of the Middle East as we now know it, as we now need to know it. The Middle East of Wright’s presentation is screwed up enough to elicit empathy, and if the United States doesn’t always come off looking so great either, does that make it an exercise in “root causes” or “blame America first”? To Wright’s credit, it never feels like the latter.

Difficult to summarize easily, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, which moves from Egypt to Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan, forces on the reviewer a strategy of revealing isolated points. Wright describes the formative experiences (torture) that turned Abu Musab al-Zarqawi “from a surgeon into a butcher”; the shockingly Pyongyang existence that is the everyday life of a woman or girl in the region; the importance of Naif in the story of Osama Bin Laden and his impressive uncle; the ego boost that destroying an empire (the U.S.S.R.) will provide to an angry band of Afghan guerrillas; and the charnel house that is the masculine side of the region’s psyche—although possibly for not all that much longer.

I won’t soon forget the minute or two of the Al-Qaeda training video that Wright shows.

No such story would be complete—not in 2007, anyway—without reference to witless harassment from the federal authorities soon after the author’s return, nor to chilling factoids emphasizing our current lack of preparedness. Since September 11, the number of Arabic speakers on staff at the CIA has decreased by two, to six.

This is effectively one of The New Yorker’s finest reportorial pieces in recent years come to life. Parts of the performance are gut-wrenching, parts are hair-raising, but overall, “thought-provoking” is the most apt term.

Afterward, David Remnick came out and asked a few thoughtful questions and led a brief Q. & A., during which Wright indulged his hopeful side, noting that foreign-born Muslims are treated far better in the United States than in Europe and that the Palestinians clearly are ready for a peace treaty with Israel, which might reduce the all-consuming resentment in the region.

Note: For a taste of My Trip to Al-Qaeda, check out this brief clip, obligingly provided by The New Yorker. (By the way, Wright is now “off-book.”)

—Martin Schneider

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