By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 24, 2007
Count yourself among the fortunate if you've scored tickets to "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," Lawrence Wright's exquisitely observed travelogue into the dark, twisted heart of Middle East extremism.
Like that cool professor whose courses always fill up first, Wright is the kind of conveyer of wisdom who doesn't so much lecture as seduce. On the stage of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, he exudes the qualities of a lyrical cultural detective -- and just as important, a decent human being.
The matter of this elegantly produced 75-minute discourse comes from the material that Wright, a New Yorker writer, collected in researching his book "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction this year. What he seeks to explore here is something that has remained frustratingly elusive, and something our government has done little to help us with, despite the depth and terrible cost of our involvement: understand the mind-set that fuels fanatical Muslims' hatred of America.
Mainstream journalism has been taking it pretty hard on the chin lately. As a longtime member of this particular tribe, I have to say that watching Wright reminded me how vital journalism's finer practitioners truly are -- how a smart, gutsy guy armed with pen, curiosity and compassion can still be an extraordinarily useful go-between with the people and places that threaten us.
Wright does not by any means pretend to be Ian McKellen; the production, as directed by Gregory Mosher, grew out of a talk the writer gave at a symposium sponsored by his magazine. (He does have a link to show business, by virtue of the screenplay he co-wrote for "The Siege," a 1998 box office underachiever about, of all things, massive terrorist attacks in New York.) Despite slack acting muscles, though, there's something undeniably magnetic about him. Is it the serene authority that his deep engagement with the Middle East has conferred on him? Or is it simply the soothing way he talks? Speaking in a gentle Oklahoma drawl, he can verge at times on monotone.
On this occasion, however, a lack of conservatory polish does no harm at all. It is the quality of Wright's thought that counts.
The set is a reporter's office, with flat-screen computer, Persian rug and filing cabinets. The milieu is a reporter's notebook. (The show is like "Frontline" in 3-D.) Intermittently, photographs and film and video clips are projected onto a screen to illustrate and embroider: old footage of Osama bin Laden's No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, denouncing his police torture from an Egyptian jail cell; a panoramic view of countless faithful on the pilgrimage to Mecca, which Wright tells us is "the largest human gathering on the planet."
The characteristic scale of "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," however, is the personal, and in some of his insights you get a bit of the vinegar of Mark Twain. (His comparing Saudi Arabia to a hypnotized chicken is just one folksy example.) As a photo flashes on the screen of two women in a Saudi shopping mall covered by their black abayas, Wright relates a funny anecdote about being in a mall during the time he spent in 2003 as mentor to reporters at a Saudi newspaper, the Gazette. (It was the only way he could get a visa.) The story is about how the religious laws of the country separate men and women to such a wrenching degree that the merest glimpse of the opposite sex induces intense longing.
Strolling in the mall with his male charges, he and they catch sight of the covered women, whom the local men cheekily nickname BMOs (Black Moving Objects). Without an iota of irony, Wright says, one of the Saudi men leeringly exclaims: "Check 'em out!"
Indeed, what Wright conveys about the incongruities of Saudi society -- the prevalence of depression brought on by severe boredom ("nothing between the government and the mosque except shopping"); the penchant of ex-cons who have memorized the Koran in jail to become on the outside enforcers of religious law -- may give you a clearer, more visceral sense of that kingdom than any other encounter with it from afar.
This, of course, is Wright's intention. As he paints for us pictures of the people he met, the things he reported on, in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Afghanistan and Pakistan, he folds in aspects of history and even psychology to give some context to what the appeal of al-Qaeda might be. Although he clearly believes American policy has been a tragic bungle, and that like the Americans, the actions of Arab governments have served al-Qaeda's recruitment efforts, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda" is not a screed. No attempt is made to minimize the terrorists' depravity; his thesis is that we've given a repugnant cult of hatred and death-worship all the justification it needs.
In "My Trip," it should be noted, Wright allows the mask of the outsider to fall away occasionally -- and goes in powerfully for the gut. In the story of some little girls in an Iraqi family terrified at a search of their home by American forces, Wright wants us to feel for an instant what they felt. And so suddenly, he drops to his knees, his arms raised in utterly defenseless surrender. His monologue brings us all to a more intimate kinship with futility.
My Trip to Al-Qaeda, written and performed by Lawrence Wright. Directed by Gregory Mosher. Lighting, Duane Schuler; production stage manager, Geoffrey Lake. About 75 minutes. Tonight, Wednesday and Thursday at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit http://www.kennedy-center.org.