Lawrence Wright's 'Trip to Al-Qaeda' My Trip to Al-Qaeda, a one-man play in New York, is an emotional journey for the audience and the writer, who plays himself on stage. It documents Lawrence Wright's quest to understand the rage at the roots of the terrorist group.
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Lawrence Wright's 'Trip to Al-Qaeda'

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Lawrence Wright's 'Trip to Al-Qaeda'

Lawrence Wright's 'Trip to Al-Qaeda'

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

In a New York City theater, a single man steps on stage. It's a one-man play. The one man is the writer Lawrence Wright and the play he has written is called "My Trip to Al-Qaeda." Even if you're never in New York to see it, you can listen to the journey that Lawrence Wright has taken in real life.

NPR's Deborah Amos reports from New York.

Mr. LAWRENCE WRIGHT (Author, "My Trip to Al-Qaeda"): We're ready. Standby.

DEBORAH AMOS: A few hours before the performance, Lawrence Wright runs through his lines.

Mr. WRIGHT: Going back to the 1960s, we have stories of prisoners in...

AMOS: The play is a more personal form of his journalism, a passion to understand the rage at the roots of al-Qaida. For Wright, it began on 9/11 and what he felt was an odd personal connection.

Mr. WRIGHT: I had a sickening feeling on September 11th that, you know, everyone was saying it looks like a movie, and I was saying it looks like my movie.

AMOS: He had written a screenplay for "The Siege", the 1998 film that depicts a terrorist attack in New York - tanks in the streets, the curtailing of civil liberties.

Mr. WRIGHT: As time was passing, I was kind of praying that the plot wouldn't play out exactly as it had in the movie, but unfortunately, step by step, the script unfolded.

AMOS: By then, Wright was already researching his book, interviewing more than 600 people including former al-Qaida members. He lived for a time in Saudi Arabia. He traveled to Pakistan, Afghanistan. It's all packed into this play.

One of his themes is the state of the American intelligence community, in worse shape than on 9/11, he says. Only 25 FBI agents speak fluent Arabic by the agency's own count, says Wright. How can we fight an enemy we don't understand, he asks.

Mr. WRIGHT: Until they learn how to pronounce the names of al-Qaida suspects, until they learn, you know, what the principles are of Islam that are in dispute, they're always going to have a failure of imagination and inability to connect the dots.

AMOS: His own encounter with the FBI, a first-hand experience with new wiretapping rules. Agents showed up at his house after what they said were suspicious phone calls. Now he tells them what he knows from the stage.

Mr. WRIGHT: The FBI agents have been coming repeatedly to the show, and actually they are some of the biggest fans of the show. They understand very acutely the constitutional crisis that this country is in and the awkward place that they've been placed. It's a real moral dilemma.

AMOS: Some in the audience have been here before, not surprising in a city filled with personal experiences of 9/11. Herb Hadad(ph) was in New York that day. He works at the Justice Department, has read Wright's book. Hadad says he wants to learn everything he can about al-Qaida.

Mr. HERB HADAD: Well, I'm fascinated by it and the outstanding indictment against Osama bin Laden is with my office here in New York. So he's ours if we ever get him.

AMOS: When the lights go down, Wright appears holding a notebook. He illustrates his experiences with personal slides. In one scene, he recounts a trip to Pakistan in a hotel lobby with a continuous loop of a Carpenters song. Wright ponders the significance of facial hair.

(Soundbite of play "My Trip to Al-Qaeda")

Mr. WRIGHT: I'm growing a beard, thinking I would blend in. But here, the beards are something supernatural.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WRIGHT: Bristling, erect, harmful looking in some vastly intimidating manner.

AMOS: There are stories from Saudi Arabia, torture in an Egyptian jail, the despair in a generation of Arabs growing up in stunted economies under repressive regimes. Wright digs deep into al-Qaida's rise and its empty promises.

(Soundbite of play "My Trip to Al-Qaeda")

Mr. WRIGHT: If you sat down and asked bin Laden, how are going to deal with joblessness? What kind of economic model do you follow? Are you a Keynesian, a free marketer? What's your agriculture policy, environment? He's never thought of any of those things. Al-Qaida doesn't believe in politics because it doesn't believe in the future. It has no vision. It's not a political movement. It's a reaction, an instinct.

AMOS: The performance is more like a seminar than a play. A master class that raises fundamental questions: What is Islam and what is America? At the end of the play there is a long silence before the applause.

Mr. WRIGHT: Some nights, when the stage goes black, it's just dead quiet and they don't applaud. And I'm feeling very anxious about how their reaction but they seem to be so stunned. People come up to me crying oftentimes.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. WRIGHT: They've been hungry for this kind of frankness, for somebody to tell them where these ideas are coming from, where the radicalism springs from, and then also what happened to our country as a result?

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

AMOS: After the play, Wright makes one last appearance. In the lobby, he answers questions, shakes hands, signs books. His energy to talk about al-Qaida, Islam and the loss of civil liberties in America seems endless.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, New York.

INSKEEP: Lawrence Wright continues talking about anger in the Islamic world at

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