Bin Laden: The One Man Show

  • This piece was written over a year ago. It may no longer accurately reflect my views now, or may be factually outdated.

Western media have made no consistent effort to publish Bin Laden’s statements, thereby failing to give their audience the words that put his thoughts and actions in cultural and historical context.

Michael Scheuer, Messages to the World: The Statements of Osama bin Laden

Bin Laden began by offering us tea and biscuits. It was not what I expected. As the last few audience members—about 35–40 of us, all told—trickled in I wondered if this was just what happened at the theatre. I didn’t even realise it was bin Laden at first, dressed as he was in white button-up shirt and black trousers, blonde, shaven—and white. This is part of the work’s genius—it must have been tempting to try and make the actor resemble bin Laden, but by not doing so they invite the audience to forget who they are listening to. They invite the audience to assess the man before them by what he says, not by what all present know he will do, four decades on from where we are seeing him here.

Who cares about the world?, he asked. The audience claimed to. Who thinks the world could be a better place? Who is completely satisfied with their government? A chorus of yeses, and then nos. Ladies and gentlemen, said bin Laden. Tonight I’m going to show you how to change the world. This was the beginning of Bin Laden: The One Man Show, a currently-touring performance by Kna├»ve Theatre which had come to Lancaster for the night. If it’s playing near you, book yourself a ticket and stop reading this. Otherwise, onwards.

The stage was set up like some sort of radical Islamist TED talk, with only bin Laden, a flip chart and the table of aforementioned tea and biscuits present. He began detailing his early life, including his courtship and marriage of Najwa Ghanhem (set, brilliantly, to When You Say Nothing At All) and the birth of his first child. He asked if there were any fathers in, and asked them about their wishes for the world their children would inherit. This theme of inviting audience participation in order to make us all accomplices was repeated throughout, with some audience members being pressed into service playing various characters.

Using the flip chart, the performance was structured along the lines of an inspirational self-help seminar. First, find your motivation, which led to a whistlestop tour of formative events in the young bin Laden’s life, such as the Iranian Revolution and his university tutelage under Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, building up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He asked us if we would join a resistance movement were Russia to invade Scotland, and the response was mixed, but the point of the question was clear.

Next was taking action, detailing the ways in which bin Laden set about gaining loyal friends and followers, resources and powerful allies in order to fend off the Soviets. The depictions of the Battle of Tora Bora and the subsequent Afghan Civil War battle of Jalalabad were no less thrilling for the fact that the only shots fired were the biscuits thrown at the table, sending up showers of crumbs in place of shrapnel. The Civil War transitioned us to the third section: learning to cope with defeat. With Azzam’s assassination in 1989, bin Laden decided to fight once more—…not with bullets, but with words. He raised a floppy disk, announcing that this is al-Qaeda, and detailed the network of contacts that formed the movement.

In the fourth section—wanting it—bin Laden celebrated his successes in the Battle of Mogadishu. Though he had had little part in the downing of the Blackhawks, it showed that people could resist America. They needed a figurehead to use as a boogeyman, and bin Laden provided a perfect example—the same suggestion as in The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, and no less plausible. In the section called risk big, win big, bin Laden acknowledged that standing up for change can be dangerous, citing numerous assassination attempts against him. He was ejected from Sudan and Saudi Arabia, his family shunned him and Najwa left him. He returned to Afghanistan a man of few means.

Then, saving the day. To do so, you become a legend. You can become a Batman or William Wallace. Building up in intensity, and changing finally into more familiar white-robed attire, bin Laden ended with two tall rectangles drawn on the flip chart, and then an empty sheet. The audience sat in silence; we had made those four decades in such a short space of time, and we were all reminded again who and what it was we had just been cheering for.

The resultant Q&A was well-covered by the reporter for SCAN: Student Comment and News, but suffice it to say that the show richly deserves the accolades thrown at it.

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