As he worked on his book about al Qaeda, not only interviewing insane murderers but also sometimes even befriending them -- one night he found himself at a dinner table with a man who calmly explained that foreign-aid workers in Iraq should be kidnapped and beheaded -- Lawrence Wright was so buffeted by fury, paranoia and blood feuds that he sometimes lost sight of his mission and even himself.
``Am I just a reporter?'' he asked himself. ``Or am I an American citizen in the presence of my enemy?'' Wright even pondered what might happen if he got an interview with Osama bin Laden. Not so crazy as the suggestion might seem; bin Laden has occasionally talked with Western journalists, the better to broadcast his grotesque and grandiose threats. ``What should I do?'' wondered Wright, imagining the scene. ``Pull out my tape recorder? Or stab him with the bread knife?''
Blackly funny and bleakly grim, streaked with rage and suffused with insight, My Trip to Al-Qaeda is Wright's account of the five years he spent researching and writing a book on Islamic fundamentalism that that would win him a Pulitzer Prize and an FBI interrogation. It will make you heartsick, and it will make you want to scream. It will make you wonder how the hell we are ever going to extricate ourselves from this death match with Islamic jihad. And, mostly, it will transfix you.
Not the least of the complexities of My Trip to Al-Qaeda, which airs Tuesday on HBO, is pinning down exactly what the thing is: a documentary about a play about a book. Read my full review in Sunday's Miami Herald.
PS: As a nice companion piece, here's a story on the roots of U.S. Islamophobia by my Herald pal Jaweed Kaleem.