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Lawrence Wright retraces 'My Trip to Al-Qaeda'

Jody Seaborn
Wright calls Austin home. After he instantly found a producer and a director for his play, he came home to Austin to write it.

There was no place for Lawrence Wright in "The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11," the Austin author's 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the rise of Islamic terrorism.

But after several years of interviewing hundreds of people connected to terrorism — some very closely connected — and becoming in the process "a vessel for their stories," Wright needed a creative way to deal with the tensions and emotions he experienced but, as a journalist, couldn't express in "The Looming Tower."

Thus was born "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," a one-man, multimedia theatrical sidebar to "The Looming Tower." A film version of Wright's play, directed by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, airs at 8 tonight on HBO.

In 90 minutes that pass with powerful momentum, Wright pulls up the roots of Islamic terrorism, explores the origins of al Qaeda and offers clues as to why al Qaeda's top two leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, are who they are. He discusses his struggles to maintain his journalistic distance as he worked on his book and concludes with a disquieting critique of the U.S. response to 9/11 — a response that Wright, who co-wrote "The Siege," a 1998 film about a terror attack on New York that foreshadows the American reaction to 9/11, calls "all so predictable."

"My Trip to Al-Qaeda" is an excellent summary of the tangled history of Islamic terrorism, of what al Qaeda is, who its members are and why they attacked America. Wright might have limited skills as an actor, but his welcoming, quietly authoritative presence on stage pulls us along on his unwavering journey to understand the past nine years — a journey that is ours, too.

In an interview in his home office, Wright, a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, talked about the genesis and evolution of "My Trip to Al-Qaeda."

He says that in 2006, after he had spent five years researching and writing "The Looming Tower," he wanted to get as far away from the subject of terrorism as possible. Nothing would get him further away than to write a musical comedy, he thought. No, not "Al Qaeda: The Musical" or anything remotely approaching the "Springtime for Hitler" neighborhood. But a clean, sharp break from terrorism.

You might think that a journalist of Wright's reputation would keep this idea of writing a musical comedy to himself as a little personal joke. But Wright was serious, or at least serious enough to mention it to his colleague John Lahr, The New Yorker's drama critic. Lahr didn't laugh and put Wright in touch with Andre Bishop, the artistic director at the Lincoln Center Theater, who also didn't laugh but was, Wright says, "clearly uninterested in the musical idea."

But his conversation with Bishop led Wright to consider another idea he had been kicking around, about a one-man play that could unite his passion for journalism with his love for theater — a piece of "nonfiction theater" along the lines of Spalding Gray's "Swimming to Cambodia" or Anna Deavere Smith's "Fires in the Mirror."

Back at The New Yorker, Wright told Rhonda Sherman, the magazine's director of special events, about his meeting with Bishop. Snap, like that, Sherman said she'd produce his as-yet untitled, unwritten play, called on Tony Award winner Gregory Mosher to direct it and scheduled it for the next New Yorker Festival.

"So in the space of an hour," Wright says, "I had a director, a producer, a date and no script for a show I was supposed to put on in, like, three months. It was a real sporting challenge."

Wright returned home to Austin and began writing "My Trip to Al-Qaeda." "It actually flowed out of me really quickly," he says, "because it was all about these thoughts that had been churning inside me about what the writing of the book had meant to me and what it was like to spend all that time so far from home talking to people who are so alienated and angry at my country, and what I felt about the attacks myself and how it affected me as an American."

Wright performed a working version of the play at the LBJ Library, whose staff helped him gather the play's audio-visual material, before it premiered at The New Yorker Festival in October 2006. The next spring, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda" successfully played for six weeks at the Culture Project in New York, then for five sold-out performances at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Gibney — whose 2007 film "Taxi to the Dark Side," which examines the U.S. policy on torture, won the Oscar for Best Documentary — caught one of Wright's performances. He approached Wright about making "My Trip to Al-Qaeda" into a movie. They began the long process of raising money for the project and shooting additional footage to supplement a filmed stage performance.

A strong, personal moment in the film occurs when Wright talks about a visit he received from FBI agents asking about phone calls he had made to a British lawyer who represents suspected al Qaeda members. Clearly, Wright's phone calls had been monitored. More troubling to Wright, the agents wanted to know why his daughter, Caroline, was also talking to the British lawyer.

Only, she wasn't. Wright had no idea how the agents got his daughter's name; it wasn't on any of his phone accounts. And Caroline didn't even live at home; she was away at college. Yet, she had been placed on a government chart that now linked her to a lawyer in London who represents people with ties to al Qaeda.

"So she's two steps away from al Qaeda on the chart," Wright says. "It shows you the danger of allowing the government to acquire that kind of power, not just because you don't trust them to do the right thing, but because they can't be trusted to understand what they're seeing."

The American reaction to 9/11 worries Wright. It all follows, in many ways, "a script written by Osama bin Laden," he says. In a video clip in "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," bin Laden is shown saying that he doesn't have to terrorize Americans to destroy the United States. He only has to provoke us into terrorizing ourselves.

"Al Qaeda can't destroy America," Wright says in the film. Only we can.

As much as he enjoyed writing and performing "My Trip to Al-Qaeda," Wright didn't think he'd do another play. The theater, he says, is not his "primary creative outlet," and he found he couldn't write during the play's run.

Yet, intrigued by theater's possibilities, Wright is back with a new one-man play, "The Human Scale," based on his reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza. It is scheduled to run Oct. 2-31 at the 3-Legged Dog theater in Lower Manhattan.

"Then," Wright says, "we'll see."

jseaborn@statesman.com; 445-1702