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Q & A with the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright. | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Q & A with the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright.

Q & A with the New Yorker's Lawrence Wright.

Q & A with the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright.

London, Asharq Al-Awsat-Lawrence Wright, Author, screenwriter and Award winning journalist for the New Yorker Magazine Talks to Asharq Al-Awsat about his upcoming book on Al-Qaeda “the Looming Tower’, his controversial movie “The Siege”, and the State of the media in the Middle East:

Q: How did you start your career in journalism?

A: I didn’t intend on becoming a journalist. I thought I would become a novelist or a poet. But, it was difficult making ends meet as a writer. When I graduated from college, I was as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam war, I refused to join the army. I had to do two years of alternative service so I traveled to Cairo and taught at the American University for two years. When I returned to the U.S. , I joined the Race Relations Reporter in Nashville where I covered the end of the civil rights movement. This is how I became a journalist.

Q: What about your involvement with the movie industry, where did it all begin?

A: I’ve always loved films. I wrote a script with a friend years ago, based on two articles I’d written about the twelve men who walked the moon and new women astronauts. We decided the film would tell the story of one of the men who fell in love with a woman astronaut, because the research existed already. The famous director Sydney Pollack who had just directed a very popular film, Tootsie, bought the rights. The film was never made. But this is how I became a screenwriter.

Q: Do you fear that your times with the film industry might jeopardize your integrity as a journalist?

A: At times, this has been the case. I find that both fields help one another. For instance, in Hollywood , not many people understand how the rest of the world really works. For example, if I wanted to write a screenplay about Saudi Arabia , only a handful of people would have visited the Middle East , let alone Saudi Arabia . My experience as journalist on the ground is very important when I am trying to write a story set in a real environment. It is an asset for me as a screenwriter. On the other hand, learning to write a film, in which you create scenes and construct characters to tell a story is important; everyone writer should learn this. I found that I my writing improved after learning how to tell a story cinematically.

Q: What sparked you interest in the Middle East , both in your screenwriting and journalistic activities?

A: When I traveled to Cairo to teach in 1969, I did not intend to leave for Egypt . Initially, I hoped to get a job with the United Nations. There was nothing available in New York . I was given a list of American institutions abroad, one of which was located across the street. I visited the American University of Cairo ’s offices and was hired on the spot. I few to Cairo the next day and I taught my class the following morning. I loved my time there. I studied Arabic whilst in Egypt but I was not an expert in the Arab world.

In 1998, I wrote the screenplay for “The Siege”, a film based on my own research on the FBI and CIA struggle to control anti-terrorism operations in the U.S. The movie thrust me into the world of counter-terrorism which, at the time, was not of great interest to most Americans. Then, September 11 happened and many people said the attacks resembled a movie. I said they looked a lot like my own movie. It was startling to see that I had imagined Arabs would be rounded up and civil liberties denied before they even happened. Because of these two experiences, I felt it was important I research what exactly had happened and so I began writing articles about September 11, which I am now expanding into a book on the history of al Qaeda.

Q: In “The Siege”, the viewer discovers in the end that the Arabs were not guilty. Were you surprised at the hostile reaction to the film by a number of Arab organizations?

A: It was very disappointing. Several Arab American groups were tired of seeing Arabs stereotyped as terrorists in films. I agree with this. The film was not one of them. Ironically, some individuals who were part of the campaign against the film had been hired as consultants. At the time, a bombing took place in South Africa in protest against the film. Two people died which I never got over. As a result, the movie flopped. But after September 11, it became the most popular rental film in the U.S.

Q: You wrote what some consider a groundbreaking article for the New York , entitles “The Man Behind Bin Laden”, about Ayman al Zawahiri. It traced al Qaeda’s ideology back to extremist elements in Egypt , at a time when people were still debating its origin. Do you feel you have added an insight to the al Qaeda puzzle?

A: I knew enough about Egypt and the history of the Muslim Brotherhood to realize there was much to learn. The story of Ayman al Zawahiri creating a cell to overthrow the government after it had executed Sayyid Qutb, when he was still 15, showed he was Bin Laden’s theorist and propagandist. At the time, this was considered a new insight.

Q: In 2004, you wrote about your experience as editor of the English-language Saudi Gazette. Do you see a change in Saudi journalism today compared to back then?

A: you remember that after 9/11 there was a general denial that any Saudis were involved, but Things have changed. I think Saudi journalists are now able to write about matters that were previously off limits. This is largely because of satellite news channels. I think people were unaware of the extremist elements in their society because of restrictions in the press.

Q: Did you experience any backlash after your article was published?

A: Officials at the Saudi Gazette were upset and felt betrayed. On the other hand, some reporters there were jubilant. The young people I was teaching there did push the limits while I was there. In my final lesson, I told them to write about each other. Until a reporter has experience putting his trust in the hands of a colleague, he would never know how that feels. The experience can be terrifying for some.

Q: Your articles for the New Yorker usually require months of research and writing.

A: It has taken me a long time to join an organization such as the New Yorker where I enjoy the freedom of working on long term projects. I like to delve into matters in-depth because it gives me the opportunity to provide readers with a context. For the Zawahiri article, I went to Cairo in February 2002. I spent three months talking to his classmates, family, historian and other journalists. I interviewed several hundred people and had hours of taped interviews and stacks of paper. I went home and tried to construct a story. I made a rough outline to decide where the story begins and ends. In this case, I started from the end, with Zawahiri riding away from Tora Bora. I worked my way backwards and explained how he became “The Man behind Bin Laden”. In total, the project took five months.

Q: What is your opinion about Arab satellite news channels nowadays?

A: These news channels are paradoxical. On the one hand, they opened the window for the flow of information into the Arab world. But I am troubled by the political agenda of some of these channels. Their operational costs are in the billions of dollars, yet they earn hundreds of millions only. It is obvious they are being supported at a considerable deficit. There must be a political agenda behind the ongoing support of loss-making companies like Aljazeera.

After the war began in Iraq , I was in Saudi Arabia . I remember watching Fox News and Aljazeera. There was an interesting parallel to draw between their coverage. On Fox, the theory behind the war was America ’s liberation of the enslaved Iraqi people while on Aljazeera, it was America ’s war against the Iraqi children. Both channels had politically-driven agendas. The day Saddam’s statue was toppled, I was interested how Aljazeera was covering the event. They showed a Documentary on Hiroshima followed by one on the Klu Klux Klan. I wish there was more neutral reporting in the Arab media and not the promotion of conspiracies. I would like to see more self-examination in the Arab media. News channels are a good place to start.

Q: Can you tell us about your upcoming book?

A: Ever since September 11, this book has become my life. It is entitled “The Looming Tower” and refers to a Sura [Qoranic verse] that Bin Laden quotes repeatedly. “Death will find you even in the looming tower.” It was also found on the computer of one of the members of the Hamburg cell and it seems to be a code used by the hijackers. It is also the fate met by one of my characters, John O’Neal who was head of counter-terrorism at the FBI and the head of security at the World Trade Center . He died in the attacks. The book should be available in August, in time for the 5 th anniversary of September 11.

Q & A with the New Yorker's Lawrence Wright.

Q & A with the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright.