My Trip to Al-Qaeda
Lawrence Wright's first-hand account of his search for information about global terrorism is fascinating, but could be more theatrical.
Wright starts off with a primer on the history of Islamic radicalism, made simple enough for those who don't know why former Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated. This section also includes footage of Al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri incarcerated in an Egyptian prison, and reveals how the experience radicalized him. Prison guards subjected him to sensory depravation and attack dogs, in some ways identical to how American soldiers treated Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib. Wright shows how America's policy of torture is self-defeating, shocking, immoral, and plays into the hands of the people we're fighting.
When describing his travels, Wright compares observing Saudi culture to watching a hypnotized chicken because both sights are improbable, eye-catching, and extremely difficult to explain. He also theorizes how a society so ripe for a revolution stays in a constant state of cultural paralysis, by suggesting that the destruction in Iraq has made the idea of change seem too terrifying. Wright describes the powerlessness he feels when watching the mutawa (Saudi Arabia's brutal "vice squad") crack down on a woman who isn't wearing a veil. He wanted to offer her a seat in his car in order to escape, but an unmarried man and woman sharing the same space can be killed.
Ethical dilemmas like these pop up time and again during his research, when interviews with extreme radicals test his ability to write dispassionate journalism. At one point, he finds himself talking to a man who supports the killing of aide workers in Iraq, and Wright explodes at him, saying that the humanitarians being beheaded are helping the country while the man advocating their murder is doing nothing. It's the play's most dramatically forceful scene, but unfortunately, he never tells us that man's response. Instead, he dwells on the professional dilemma it represents.
Other adventures in journalism ethics go less smoothly. At one point, he asks if it would be right to kill Osama bin Laden if he were able to interview him. Questions like these are better suited for Hollywood thrillers than serious theater. Incidentally, Wright contributed to the screenplay for The Siege, which predicted a wave of terrorist attacks would send America on a downward spiral of eroding civil liberties and widespread torture. Prescient though that prediction was, it doesn't stop this hypothetical question from smacking of melodrama.
This false note may have tried to disguise the lack of dramatic conflict elsewhere in the show, which has been tautly directed by Gregory Mosher. Through most of My Trip to Al-Qaeda, Wright sits at a neat and orderly desk and tells his stories in a calm and measured tone of voice. These choices of presentation signify Wright's professional credentials, which are already firmly established in his impressive career, but it would be helpful if he was a more passionate and engaging speaker.