Like many journalists, Lawrence Wright is an omnivore, but the thread that connects much of his work is belief and religious culture. His Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 book, The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, considered the history of Al Qaeda; 2013’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief investigated Scientology, and Saints & Sinners, published in 1993, profiled a set of controversial religious leaders, including an influential atheist and the founder of the Church of Satan.
Over the last few decades, Wright has also written scripts for films and theater—always connected to real subjects—and he approaches these projects like a reporter. He interviews. He amasses historical documents. He organizes information with notecards that fill roomfuls of drawers.
Several years ago, Wright was approached by Gerald Rafshoon, who had spent his career as an aide to former President Jimmy Carter and later became an award-winning producer. Rafshoon believed that the 1978 meeting between Carter, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat would make for a compelling piece of theater. Wright, who had lived in Egypt and Israel, as well as Georgia when Carter was governor, took on the project.
The resulting play, Camp David, premiered in Washington, DC, in March 2014, and this month Wright’s book version, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, will be published by Knopf. The book differs from many of Wright’s previous interview-based works in that two of the most important figures involved have died, and the number of people with personal recollections of the Camp David meetings is relatively limited. Still, Wright traveled to Israel and Egypt to interview the remaining members of the official delegations. He spoke at length with Jimmy Carter and obtained access to his wife Rosalynn’s diaries from the period. If there was a common criticism of the play voiced by reviewers, it was that it was too committed to the facts.
As a narrative account of three world leaders negotiating in fits and spurts, Thirteen Days in September is strictly chronological. Each chapter represents a day of the negotiations. But at key moments Wright dips back into the history of the modern Middle East, including the rise of Zionism, the foundation of Israel, and subsequent wars with Egypt. Wright also digs into the ancient religious texts that animate the conflict and provides the backdrop for how Sadat, Begin, and Carter developed as representatives of three distinct but related belief systems.
If there’s one figure at the center of the story, it’s Carter. He came to Camp David “seeing his role as that of a facilitator,” Wright explains, but this “illusion blew to pieces within minutes of the first meeting of the three men.” Sadat and Begin were too entrenched in their mistrust, and Carter couldn’t simply help each see the other’s perspective. “He had to free himself of his Christian-inspired conception of human nature and accept a more tragic, Old Testament view of behavior,” Wright maintains. “They needed him to be stronger than they were. He would have to force them to make the peace they both wanted but couldn’t achieve on their own.”
I met Wright on a July evening at his home office in Austin, Texas. David Remnick, editor of the The New Yorker, has referred to that room as “writer porn,” because of its dark, polished wood, bookshelves stocked with old bound volumes, and low, warm lighting. As we spoke, the current conflict in Gaza was unspooling into horror. Sadat, Begin, and Carter created durable peace between Israel and Egypt, but, says Wright, who has written both a magazine article and a one-man show about Gaza, the failure of the Camp David Accords—in particular to create a framework for Palestinian statehood—haunts today’s war.
—Maurice Chammah for Guernica
Guernica: Was there a difference in how you approached the reporting of Camp David, knowing that at first it would be a play rather than an article or book?
Lawrence Wright: I think when I write movies and plays and books and magazine articles, they’re all storytelling, and reality is the common denominator that binds them. So I went about this the same I would have gone about it had I started with a book. I went down to Plains, [Georgia], and talked with the Carters. I went to Israel and talked to surviving members of their delegation and made my notecards. The play was sequential in the same way that the book is. Although the days were not denominated, the progress of the negotiations follows what actually happened. Having written it as a drama, I could see the drama maybe a little more clearly when I wrote the book.
Guernica: Was it a struggle to take a series of days and events and people and turn that into a dramatic arc, or was it inherent in the material?
Lawrence Wright: The first tricky part is you have to decide who is on stage, and one of my frustrations was that I had to leave so many people out. That was one of the motivations for writing the book; there were so many interesting characters who were unaccounted for in the play. So you try to be economical in terms of the number of people that you put on the stage, and I knew I had three people: Carter, Begin, and Sadat.
Gerald Rafshoon was Carter’s media advisor. He took me down to Plains to introduce me to the Carters. He said, “Mr. President, Larry writes for The New Yorker. He wrote a story recently about Scientology.” Carter said, “Well, I read that.”
And Rosalynn [Carter’s wife] said, “Since when did you start reading The New Yorker!?”
Carter said, “I read it every week!”
And I knew I had my fourth character. I needed someone who knew how to talk to Jimmy Carter. Rosalynn Carter turned out to be a very important asset in both the play and the book because she left me her personal diary, and that was insightful in terms of the emotional piece of the story.
Guernica: Can you tell me a bit more about what role you saw her playing?
Lawrence Wright: Rosalynn was born in the house next door to Jimmy Carter, and he’s going to be ninety in October, so they’ve known each other almost a century. They know each other as well as any two people can. Everybody who ever worked with Carter knew she was his closest advisor, and that was true at Camp David. She’s the one who proposed it. There wouldn’t have been a summit at Camp David if Rosalynn hadn’t put it on the table. So she’s an unacknowledged piece of the peace process.
I think it’s important for us to realize this conflict is built on a legend. It has no scientific support.
Guernica: A lot of the Israeli and Egyptian delegation members come from very varied backgrounds. You write that Sadat’s advisor Hassan El Tohamy, a Sufi mystic, was “constantly reporting prophetic dreams or conversations he had just had with angels.” How did someone like that come to attain such a high-level position?
Lawrence Wright: I’ve speculated that Sadat was sort of a secret Sufi. Tohamy was a Sufi, and he clearly cast a spell over Sadat. Nobody could account for him—everybody around him thought he was crazy. And the evidence is that he was, but for whatever reason Sadat put so much faith in him. They came out of the revolution together. They were in the Free Officers conspiracy [to topple the Egyptian monarchy in 1952] together. There was some tie forged there that no one else could break apart.
Guernica: As with your other works, belief plays an important role in Thirteen Days. In the book, you weave individual life stories with recent Middle East history and the religious history that undergirds it. How did you come to that approach?
Lawrence Wright: When I set out to write the book, my goal was a little different than with the play. I don’t think you can understand the conflict that’s going on right now without looking at what was happening at Camp David and then the pre-history, and then below that these scriptural conjunctions that are still moving modern events. The challenge I had was to figure out a way to tell the whole story in the context of thirteen days and to show the continuing influence of the different chronologies.
Chronology can be dangerous. You can get so linear that it becomes robotic for the reader. In this case, I thought the material was too complex to do anything other than a very strict chronology, so that every day there are lines that drop down to past conflicts. So if we’re talking about Sinai, we can’t understand it without the 1967 and 1973 wars, and you can’t understand it without the biblical story of Moses leading his people through the wilderness. These are essential elements in the modern conversation about what’s going on in the Middle East that seem to have been lost.
Guernica: I noticed that you often explain a scriptural story and then give the archaeological refutation of that narrative.
Lawrence Wright: We hear a lot about theological justifications for the conflicts, but very little about the scientific evidence, which in no way supports them. The time period in which Moses was leading his people out of Egypt, into the Promised Land, the Promised Land was Egypt. We know that. Archaeological records are very clear. The Egyptians were avid bureaucrats even in those days and kept very scrupulous records. I think it’s important for us to realize this conflict is built on a legend. It has no scientific support. Moreover, when you look at the science and the genetic studies that have been done on Palestinians and Jews, you find that there is a unity. They’re both descended from the Canaanites. They’re essentially the same people. And I think if that message can get out, it might not make a difference, but it would affect some of the arguments.
These are 10 million people, the population of LA County, and look at all the trouble that has spilled out to the rest of the world because they can’t get their act together.
Guernica: You go through this process with reporting where you’re doing all the question-asking, and then the book or play comes out and you’re the one talking. I wonder what that switch is like, especially when the book is coming out at a time when people are turning to you for comments on what’s going on in Israel and Gaza.
Lawrence Wright: Well, it’s easy enough to predict that there will be conflict, but you place yourself in a maelstrom when you offer a view about the conflict, and I don’t have an investment in one side or the other; I feel compassion for both sides. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in Gaza and Israel, done a lot of reporting and lived over there, and the tragedy is sometimes overwhelming. At the same time, America does have an investment in what happens.
I did a one-man show called The Human Scale, and it was about Israel and Gaza, apropos of Gilad Shalit [the Israeli soldier kidnapped and held by Hamas]. I performed it in New York and then in Tel Aviv. We had talkbacks afterward, with settlers and remnants of the peace movement, a cross section of Israel. And one night the moderator said, Why is it that you, in America, take an interest in our problems? I said, Your problems? We’ve got a hole in Manhattan that wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for the tensions spilling out of this region. We’ve spent more than a trillion dollars in Iraq, and almost that amount of money in Afghanistan, dealing with tensions that are aggravated by this conflict. Moreover, we’ve been sending billions and billions of dollars to Israel and Egypt for decades to keep the peace. So as an American taxpayer, I have an interest in this. It’s galling to feel that as an American I have a higher stake, a higher interest in peace than you do.
I am the same age as Israel. I’m sixty-six. I grew up in the American South, the segregated South. Now we have a black man who is president. It was an age of apartheid, and now that’s over. It was an age of two superpowers frozen in a cold war, and now that’s resolved. So history marches on, except for this conflict, which seems to have a claim on being eternal. And it doesn’t merit that. These are 10 million people, the population of LA County, and look at all the trouble that has spilled out to the rest of the world because they can’t get their act together. I do have a feeling of urgency, and to some extent, desperation, that this problem is steering into a place where it could make what’s happened so far look benign.
Guernica: How did your personal feelings affect the way you described and treated Jimmy Carter in the book? In many ways what you just said sounds like something I could imagine him saying.
Lawrence Wright: Jimmy Carter is not loved in Israel, and yet no American president gave them a greater gift than Jimmy Carter gave them with peace with Egypt, and the opportunity to make peace with the Palestinians. I know the book probably reads as a defense of him, but I looked at the evidence. Look at what he did. Look at the risks he took for a country that wasn’t his. Israel has benefited unbelievably from that. To fail to give him credit seems unfair. The reason I wrote this book was there really wasn’t one. William Quandt did a really fine account, but it’s a technical study and not meant for the average reader. Also, I wanted something more tied to the pulse of the moment.
Guernica: In what way?
Lawrence Wright: Well, the problems that were left on the table at Camp David are the problems that still bedevil us right now. The solution was lined up. The second part of the Camp David Accords outlines the most workable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dilemma.
Guernica: Going back to Jimmy Carter—he is hated here by the community of more hawkish Israel partisans, and I’m curious about what you make of his later decisions to put a word like “apartheid” in his 2006 book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, knowing that would create a fallout.
Lawrence Wright: I think you give him too much credit to think he knew what was going to happen when he used the word “apartheid.” It’s provocative, but it was like a nuclear bomb in Israel. And yet that word is used all the time in the Israeli press. There’s a double standard there. He probably picked it up in Israel, as it’s commonly discussed. I’d be a little surprised if he understood how it was going to be used against him. He doesn’t have a highly developed emotional detector. As a politician, that was a weakness. But I think he’s been unfairly battered for weighing in on a subject that he cares passionately about and to which he has contributed as much as any living individual.
I know everybody who picks this book up already has a decided opinion. But my goal is to open the reader’s mind a little bit to alternative narratives.
Guernica: In the book, there are moments where you describe from a more philosophical plane what you make of everything. How do you decide how much to incorporate your own perspective on what you’re seeing, as opposed to straight storytelling?
Lawrence Wright: In my last couple of books, including Going Clear, the book about Scientology, I thought it seemed appropriate at the end of the book to help the reader frame things. Because we’ve gone through the history, and there’s likely conflictual feelings in the reader’s mind. The reader may not agree with me, but I don’t try to influence the reader’s judgment. I know everybody who picks this book up already has a decided opinion. But my goal is to open the reader’s mind a little bit to alternative narratives.
It’s the hardening of these narratives that makes peace so difficult. If each side can see the narrative, the claims that the other has, then there is a much more likely possibility of making a resolution. But what I see is the opposite. There is a total disclaiming of the validity of the other side, and talk that I find really unsettling, the kind of chatter you get from ultra-right Israelis and Hamas is of annihilation. In that kind of dialogue, there’s no way to move toward peace.
I’m not addressing my book to those two parties, because they’re not going to read it, but their partisans here and in other places in the Middle East can look at it a little more objectively. I think that might be able to influence the thinking of some of them.
Guernica: Do you see Begin and Sadat as having put aside the hardening of those narratives, or did they make purely strategic decisions?
Lawrence Wright: It took a long time—it’s still taking time for those two countries to reach an emotional peace. The fact that this peace was such a cold peace, but at the same time a durable peace, demonstrates how hard it was to make peace in the first place and the emotional sacrifices that both leaders had to make to come to an agreement that would actually work. Now you see an interesting development. I can’t think of a time in which Egypt and Israel have such common desires, and the groundwork for that was laid at Camp David.
Begin’s party was very disappointed. Many of the people who voted against the accords were members of Begin’s own party. The people who killed Sadat were Islamists, whom we thought would be on his side. So in both cases, the leader’s own followers felt betrayed, but they had to accomplish that in order to give their nations something that was more valuable.
Guernica: Looking at this project in the scope of the rest of your work, it seems like there’s been a trend toward writing about leaders, often charismatic leaders.
Lawrence Wright: I don’t consciously seek out huge figures. When I’m writing about complicated subjects, it usually involves a world. It could be the world of Scientology or the world of Al Qaeda, or the world of counterterrorism, or in this case the world of peacemaking. I look for emblematic beasts of burden—what I call “donkeys”—who can carry the reader through this world. They serve a different purpose than the kind of person who would be the subject of a magazine profile, a person who is fascinating or is a celebrity. Donkeys are not especially interesting or likeable, but they are serviceable. They will take you into this world. They’re complicated. And it helps if they’re in trouble. But the distinction I’m trying to make is: It’s not about them. It’s about the world.
What was great about Camp David is that these three men represented three religions and three countries. They’re all coming together to try to accomplish something that has practically never been done. And there were other characters, like Moshe Dayan [an Israeli military leader], who represent a history and a tradition, and because they’re present, I feel like I can use them to take the reader through the history and how they understand it.
Guernica: In so much of your reporting, the principals are living, and here, two of them, Sadat and Begin, are dead. How do you think the way you characterized them differed because they weren’t around to be interviewed?
Lawrence Wright: I wish I had been able to talk to them. It was such a frustration. It’s funny how sometimes historians sneer at journalists, yet they depend on us in the future for the material that they mine. This book operates on the divide between history and journalism. I’d never written strict history before, and this is a history, but at the same time there were a number of people with whom I could employ my journalistic skills. Osama El-Baz, a member of Sadat’s delegation, was still alive, but he was not really able to talk, and he died shortly after. You realize that some of their stories wouldn’t have been told if you hadn’t gotten to them. There is that sense of capturing a moment that was just about to go over the horizon.
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