Lawrence Wright reflects on a decade spent exploring and explaining the Middle East in 'My Trip to Al-Qaeda'
I met Lawrence Wright in 2001, before 9/11. The day he called, I was the only lucky sucker in the intern cubicle at Texas Monthly, where I was whiling away my time sorting mail and trying not to get into any trouble, having recently witnessed another intern spill cherry soda on his keyboard. Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker, needed someone to transcribe some interviews, and $10 an hour sounded pretty good next to the big zero I was pulling in.
At the time, Wright was working on a story about the Mormon church's involvement in the upcoming Olympics, to be held in Utah the following winter. His interviews impressed me, not only in how he was able to coax lively and intimate details from his sources – a talent anyone might discern upon first meeting him, really – but in the depth of his curiosity. He didn't just interview traditional, white, conservative Mormons. He spoke to gay Mormons, Southern Mormons, black Mormons, famous Mormons, ex-Mormons, historian Mormons, and regular old Mormon Mormons. The resulting story was sweeping in scope: an examination of what the Olympics – and the global spotlight it would shine on the modern Mormon church, warts and all – might mean not only to the millions around the world who had never even met a Mormon but to the Mormon community itself. "Mormonism, which entered the twentieth century as the most persecuted creed in America," wrote Wright, "begins the twenty-first century as perhaps the country's most robust religion."
Of course, by the time the story – "Lives of the Saints" – was published, in January 2002, most of the world had a lot more on its mind than the Olympics, as did Wright. In fact, "Saints" was preceded a week earlier by another story Wright had written for The New Yorker in the meantime: "The Counter-Terrorist," about John O'Neill, at one time the FBI's "most committed tracker of Osama bin Laden," who had died in the 9/11 attacks. Elements of "The Counter-Terrorist" would eventually play a role in Wright's book The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11. In fact, director Alex Gibney, whose documentary about Wright, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, premieres on HBO Sept. 7, says that O'Neill's story is the part of Wright's book that has most "stuck" with him over the years. To me, though, looking back at that time, "Saints" more aptly foretells how Wright would spend the next decade of his life – traversing the globe, interviewing more than 600 people (among them mujahedeen, intelligence officials, Islamic scholars, and relatives of Osama bin Laden), basically trying to get to the heart of a misunderstood religion and the single event that threw a particularly harsh spotlight on the communities both within and without that religion's reach.
Wright's research would eventually attract FBI attention, and he'd become one of the untold number of Americans with a phone line wiretapped by the U.S. government – an unsettling fact he learned when an FBI agent showed up at his Tarrytown home asking suspicious questions about Wright's phone calls. He would also end up relearning Arabic, a language he'd first encountered three decades earlier as a teacher at the American University in Cairo. He would even spend three months mentoring young journalists at a newspaper in Saudi Arabia, one of a dozen countries to which he'd eventually travel seeking answers. Ultimately, Wright's work – after The Looming Tower was published in 2006 – would earn him a Pulitzer Prize. Still, perhaps the most surprising event in Wright's post-9/11 career would be his one-man play.
By the time he finished the book, Wright was "sick of writing about terrorists." In fact, he said at the time that he wanted to write a musical comedy. The idea didn't quite pan out. More accurately speaking, it morphed into something ostensibly even more unlikely: a one-man performance starring Wright as himself (which he says is very much "like when you're having your picture made and you're trying to look natural"). Inspired by Anna Deavere Smith's play Fires in the Mirror – in which she enacts the stories of real people involved in the 1991 Crown Heights tragedy in Brooklyn – Wright's play, too, would "take journalism and make it into a theatrical experience."
"I'm not a character in my book," says Wright. "But I had all these experiences, and people were always asking me how did I feel about them. I hadn't processed them myself." The play, says Wright, offered a way of "exploring" his own reactions as well as "explaining to people ... what it would be like to talk to Islamic radicals and understand where they're coming from and also address how we have changed." In 2006 and 2007, Wright performed for audiences in Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. That show, My Trip to Al-Qaeda, would inspire Gibney's documentary of the same name. Of course, in 2001, Wright knew none of this.
Toward the beginning of My Trip to Al-Qaeda – the play and the film – Wright recalls those weeks in the aftermath of the attacks, when events seemed to unfold eerily like the scenes in a movie he'd co-written, The Siege. Starring Annette Bening, Denzel Washington, and Bruce Willis, the movie imagined what might happen if terrorists bombed New York. "In the month following 9/11, it was the most rented movie in America," Wright says, "making me the first profiteer in the war on terror." Wright also recalls that before the movie's theatrical release in 1998, a radical Islamic group claimed credit for the bombing of a South African Planet Hollywood, killing two British tourists and maiming a little girl. They said they were protesting the trailers for the movie and had targeted the restaurant because of Willis' partial ownership of the chain. That bombing, he says, is partly responsible for his decision to write a book about al Qaeda: "I wanted to find out who these people really are and why they attacked America," he says. "Perhaps it also has something to do with the guilt I feel over that bombing in Cape Town, the one that everyone's forgotten. I'm not responsible for the terror – I know that. But people perished who would be alive if I had not written that movie; a little girl would be skipping down the sidewalk in Kensington. That bomb in Cape Town was really aimed at me, at my imagination, and I needed to know why."
My Trip to Al-Qaeda, as a documentary, is based partly on Wright's show but also expands on it. Gibney, who is perhaps best known here in Texas for his documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, says he considers the film to be "the flip side" to his Taxi to the Dark Side. That documentary, which won an Academy Award in 2007, examines U.S. treatment of detainees and asks "whether or not we had violated our own fundamental principles in waging the war on terror," explains Gibney. "A lot of the film took place in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Guantánamo, in addition to the United States. But in a fundamental way it was about America, how we had transgressed our own values. Well, this [My Trip to Al-Qaeda], to me, was a companion piece to that. It was a way of looking out, more at the Middle East, and that was intriguing to me – you know, know your enemy."
Gibney's documentary follows Wright to Cairo – where he explains how the Egyptian prison system transformed young Islamists, such as Ayman al-Zawahiri (the subject of Wright's Sept. 16, 2002, article "The Man Behind Bin Laden"), into mujahedeen – and to London, where Wright takes a driving lesson from Yassir al-Sirri, a man convicted in Egypt for an attempt on the prime minister's life in 1993, killing a little girl. (Having gained political asylum in the United Kingdom, al-Sirri was making a living as a driving instructor when the documentary was being filmed.) The film also includes coverage of significant events that have happened since 2006, the year the book was published and the play was written – including the murder in 2007 of Jamal Khalifa, bin Laden's brother-in-law, believed by many to have been assassinated by the CIA. Khalifa had been a valuable source for Wright, and eventually a friend, though such things can be tricky for journalists, especially when the friend is a suspected terrorist. "I don't know who he was," says Wright. "I mean, he was bin Laden's best friend, and they had a falling out, and then he became a friend of mine, and it's not something that's easy to explain to people." Wright says that even intelligence officials liked Khalifa: "No one was immune. He was just a really charming, interesting guy and had a very lively spirit about him, and it made me see a side of bin Laden that I might not have been able to understand otherwise. That he would have such a friend told me a lot about his character."
I asked Wright what it was like to mourn someone with whom he'd had such a complicated relationship. "In some ways this whole project was about mourning – mourning all the people that died in 9/11, mourning things that had happened to our country as a result of it," he told me. "In the middle of so much grief, Jamal's loss is not really diminished, but there's nothing sweet in this story without a bitter side to it as well." At one point in his play, Wright wonders what might happen if he were granted an interview with bin Laden himself. Would he dutifully pull out his tape recorder – or stab him with a bread knife? "As a reporter, you turn off judgment when you're talking to somebody, because your object is to get information," Wright tells me. Still, he admits, "It was awfully hard to keep those feelings at bay. My own sense of grief and outrage – those feelings were so strong that ... well, I got into a lot of really angry confrontations during the research of the book, because people were mad at America, and I was mad at them." Confrontation, as it turned out, did prove useful, says Wright: "We would get down to more honest conversations sometimes when I would shout back at them."
It's hard to imagine Wright shouting at anyone. He has a gentle, professorial demeanor well-suited to lulling people into sharing information. But "professorial" is the opposite of the image Wright hoped to project onstage; he intended, rather, to act as an "emissary" from an unfamiliar place – a "vessel" for the stories of those, like Khalifa, who'd shared their experiences with him. But Gibney's documentary, like the play, focuses as much on those experiences as on Wright's – and not just what it felt like, say, to interview Mohammed Atta's little brother about the hijacker's aspirations of becoming a pilot. Gibney also focuses on Wright as a craftsman whose allure has as much to do with his approach to the trade as his adventurous spirit.
As Wright's assistant over the years while he worked on the book, I witnessed that approach firsthand. I typed onto index cards hundreds – eventually thousands – of passages from the documents Wright was reading, which I then catalogued, along with the notes from his interviews, according to an ever more intricate system of Wright's invention. Meticulously labeled boxes of cards and legal pads multiplied over the years, spreading throughout his office. (At one point, a friend studying at the University of Texas informed me that her class had taken a field trip to Wright's house for a tour of his filing system.) Those index cards, which so accurately reflect the depth of Wright's research and the machinations of a mind trying to keep up with it (and so often put me in the strange position of explaining to friends that I couldn't go out because I was busy typing note cards about al Qaeda), appear in both the play and the documentary. "I was so impressed with the cross-referencing and all the legal pads and all that," Gibney told me. "It's like, that's the first computer right there." In one scene in the film, Wright stands in his office looking at the boxes, and he grins. "I feel like a 1960s graduate student," he says.
As a documentary about a play about a book, My Trip to Al-Qaeda by necessity suffers from the law of diminishing returns. In no way can it accommodate all the details gleaned from those thousands of index cards, which chronicle time spent in 11 different countries, interviewing 600 people, and poring over countless documents on the events leading to an event that killed nearly 3,000 people. But it does add something important to the ongoing dialogue of a country still reeling from the events that September morning – it adds the voice of someone distinctly American yet uniquely able to make sense out of what to most Americans was an utterly senseless act.
As Gibney puts it, "Here's this guy from Oklahoma and Texas who's going to go out and see what al Qaeda's really like." Wright – or Larry, as I know him – is just a guy who lives in a house with his wife, a garden, a piano (because everyone in Austin is in a band, even Larry), and a kitchen perpetually filled with the smell of fresh olive oil sizzling in a pan. He's like you and me, with perhaps a better-smelling house and more worn-out passport. "'My Trip to Al-Qaeda' – it kind of sounds like 'my summer vacation,'" says Gibney. "Or maybe the kind of summer vacation that only Larry Wright would take."
My Trip to Al-Qaeda premieres on HBO on Sept. 7. Wright's band, Who Do, plays Aug. 31, 7:30pm, at Jovita's.