Journalist and screenwriter Lawrence Wright delivers a powerful one-man show based on his best-selling The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.
The road to terror, as told by a fellow passenger
By Wickham Boyle
As I began to write this piece, I titled it My Trip to Al-Qaeda, then quickly retitled it Lawrence Wrights Trip. I had just seen Wrights theatrical piece at the Culture Project, which not only details the extensive time he spent in the Middle East living, reading and writing about the region, but also his fallout from the American government through his association with terrorists, even as purely scholarly pursuits. So after watching his alarming piece, I made the self-protective move of inserting his name into the title so that my computer wouldnt have a document called Al-Qaeda. Wow. Where do I live and how did it get like this?
These questions fill the air during Wrights 90-minute personal monologue. Wright is a journalist, screenwriter and staff writer for the New Yorker who received his M.A from the American University in Cairo in 1969 and then stayed on until 1971 teaching English. After moving back to the states, he returned to the Middle East on many and various assignments. Wright also penned the Bruce Willis / Denzel Washington thriller The Siege, which was banned for a while after 9/11 as it was eerily similar to the actual events. He knows his stuff.
His one-man show opens with a clip from The Siege played on a huge screen while the audience peers into a set that simulates Wrights study. The play allows us a look into Wrights scholarly, journalistic and personal hegiras. He goes to Mecca; he interviews Arabs both regular and radical. He travels to Afghanistan and sees the terrible beauty and devastation. And we travel with him. The experience is akin to being seated next to a wily, intelligent companion at a dinner party: You spend the evening listening.
Wright is a Southerner who still resides in Austin, Texas, the home into which the FBI burst in, wanting to know why he had names of Al-Qaeda operatives on a bulletin board in his study. This drop by also landed Wrights daughter on the FBI watch list.
Not a performer per se, Wright reads from his journal or acts while occasionally hemming and hawing the way regular humans do. He doesnt assume a persona or imbue his work with accents or vocal innuendo. His tone is somewhat laconic, tinged with Southerness, which for me, tends to slow down the pace and allow more of the horror and reality to seep in.
There is torture told with wild dogs, tales I fear will not leave my unconscious. Wright reminds the audience, who are most probably the converted, that our government was and is complicit in humiliating those who may or may not be terrorists. But what Wright reminds more saliently is this: The humiliated are entitled to hate. And hatred is the most narcotic of all emotions. We all know this from our small realities, so when faced with the gigantic prospect of a race, group, class or nation that has been humiliated for so long, we remember what this behavior engenders.
Wright details the destruction by the Taliban of precious museum artifacts centuries old. The mutilation of a bear in the Baghdad zoo for the crime of not having a beard that was zealously long. A grenade blinds a lion, children are crippled and starving. It goes on and on. Each side firing back, creating fear and an entrenched fever and fervor that supports an ongoing brand of violence.
In the end Wright tells of a Saudi friend who queries him, Can America today be trusted to preserve their own county? That question was the most frightening of all, and as Wright ends his piece he asks us to ponder this: If the fear of Al-Qaeda pushes us to eliminate freedoms and due process the pillars America was built on then Al-Qaeda doesnt need to terrorize America. We can and will do it to ourselves.