DATE November 13, 2001 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Christopher Dickey of Newsweek discusses the politics,
royalty and religion of Saudi Arabia
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Osama bin Laden grew up in Saudi Arabia. Fifteen of the 19 September 11th
suicide hijackers were Saudi dissidents, but the Saudi royal family is
America's most reliable long-term ally in the Arab world. We're going to take
a look at the complicated relationship between the US and Saudi Arabia and
examine some of the reasons why the royal family is facing opposition from
My guest Christopher Dickey co-wrote an article in the current issue of
Newsweek called "Saudi Game," which is subtitled a tale of money, oil,
personal ties and access. Dickey has been Newsweek's Middle East regional
editor since 1993 and is also the past bureau chief. His books include a
memoir about his father, the late James Dickey. This morning I asked
Christopher Dickey about the paradox of Saudi Arabia being our ally, but also
the home of terrorists who have attacked us.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER DICKEY (Newsweek): Well, I think the feelings are extremely
mixed in Saudi Arabia. Americans have been there since the 1930s. The United
States was instrumental or Americans were instrumental in the Saudis
discovering and developing the enormous oil wealth that they have. And
certainly people in the House of Saud, the ruling family, understand that
extremely well, but there are a lot of Saudis who have not benefited as much
as the House of Saud from that wealth, and who have also had--and I wouldn't
say the benefit of an education inside Saudi Arabia, but have been educated
inside Saudi Arabia to the norms that are--well, I think we'd describe them as
And there's a lot of resentment by them against the United States, and what
they see as very misguided foreign policy in the United States but also what
they see as a kind of rampant consumerism. They believe that all that the
United States really represents is the kinds of shopping malls that have been
built all over Saudi Arabia and the kind of consumerism that they see
constantly on American satellite television.
GROSS: How much is the Saudi government cooperating with the US investigation
Mr. DICKEY: It's cooperating very quietly but very extensively as far as we
can tell. When we started working on the piece for Newsweek, what we believed
was the case is that the Saudis had been stonewalling on a lot of the
investigation like they were alleged to have with the Khobar bombing in 1996.
But the more we looked at it, the more we talked to American officials,
including very senior people in the US side of the investigation, and the more
we were convinced that, in fact, the Saudis had cooperated very extensively.
GROSS: But you say very quietly as to not alienate the anti-American
constituency within the country.
Mr. DICKEY: Well, the great paradox that the Saudis face is--or the ruling
Saudis face is that they are great friends of the United States, but if they
are seen to be great friends of the United States, in some ways it
delegitimizes them in the eyes of their own people and of the rest of the Arab
world. So they prefer to be extremely discreet and there are even cases where
the United States government, presidents and politicians, have blamed the
Saudis for one or another failing that was absolutely not true and the Saudis
have just stayed silent rather than say, `No, but you see we really have been
very helpful.' They'd rather just keep it quiet.
GROSS: Now the United States needs Saudi Arab as a military base and for the
oil. How much oil do we get from Saudi Arabia?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, we don't get that much oil from Saudi Arabia. I forget
the precise numbers. It's certainly less than 10 percent, but that's not
really the point. One of the reasons I don't pay attention to the volume of
oil is that the question is not whether the US can live without Saudi oil
being imported to the United States. The question is: Can we live without
the Saudis controlling effectively the world price of oil? And that we cannot
do. The thing to remember is that Saudi Arabia is the only country that is
not producing oil to the limit of its capacity. Saudi Arabia can increase and
decrease the amount of oil it puts on the world market by millions of barrels
a day, and that gives them the power basically to decide quite independently
of OPEC or any other organization what the world price of oil will be. And
that is where they have worked to their own benefit but also to the benefit of
the United States for more than 25 years. And that's why we have a huge
crisis in the Middle East right now and oil prices are lower at the gas pump
than they have been for a long time.
GROSS: So the Saudis keep the price down?
Mr. DICKEY: They absolutely do. They keep it stable is the most important
thing. Saudi Arabia has about $600 billion invested outside Saudi Arabia, and
most of that is in the United States. They have every interest in seeing the
United States maintain a stable and prosperous economy, and they work toward
that end. And that's been the understanding now for more than two decades.
GROSS: And what's in it for the Saudis to maintain a strong alliance with the
Mr. DICKEY: Well, their security is guaranteed by the United States.
Washington sent people immediately when Kuwait was invaded because everybody
was concerned about Kuwait, but everybody was even more concerned that Saddam
Hussein would either occupy or simply intimidate Saudi Arabia to the extent
that he would have the power to dictate world oil prices. So the Saudis can
rely on Washington to guarantee their security, but I think that can be
overstated. If the presence of American troops on Saudi soil continues to
damage the credibility of the Saudis in the eyes of other Muslims--and that's
very possible--then I think the Saudis would want to rethink whether that
basing agreement really makes much sense, and I think the United States would
have to look at that and say, `Does it really pay off to have those planes
there?' Most of the reason that the United States is there is because there
are still planes flying Operation Southern Watch over southern Iraq. It's not
because they're there actively defending the Saudis.
GROSS: The leader of Saudi Arabia is different now than he was during the
Gulf War. King Fahd, who was leading the country during the Gulf War, had a
stroke in 1995, and he's too sick to rule. So Crown Prince Abdullah is the
person with the real power now. What are some of the political differences
and leadership differences between Prince Abdullah and King Fahd?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, in Saudi Arabia all politics are family politics. And one
of the central things to know about King Fahd is that he is one of seven
extremely powerful brothers who are all the sons of the same mother. All the
kings of Saudi Arabia after the founder, Abdulaziz Al-Saud, have been sons of
Abdulaziz Al-Saud. Every one of them has been a brother or half-brother of
his predecessors. And in the case of King Fahd, his brothers include the
present defense minister, the present interior minister and the present
governor of Riyadh (technical difficulties). So it's an incredibly powerful
cliche, but the crown prince, Abdullah, does not belong to that group of
brothers. He has no full brothers. And he has different alliances within the
And it's also important to remember that King Fahd and his brothers have a
long, long history of--Shall we say?--knowing the West, traveling in the West
and knowing people in the West, experiencing the pleasures of the West in ways
that everybody in Saudi Arabia knows about. And Abdullah has a different kind
of reputation. He is seen as someone who has been very much more involved
with and occupied by the concerns of the Arab and the Muslim world, not a man
to be spending a lot of time in the United States or Europe and rather more
austere than King Fahd and his brothers.
So there is an automatic difference in style. And it's believed that as the
crown prince continues to put his stamp on the government, there will also be
some significant changes in personnel. One of those was the removal rather
precipitously of the intelligence chief, Turki al-Faisal, just the week before
the September 11th events.
GROSS: Now one person who remains the same in the power structure is the
Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar. And just describe him.
You describe him very well in your article in Newsweek.
Mr. DICKEY: Well, what a guy. Bandar is, I think, one of the greatest
diplomats of his generation, probably. He has been the key go-between between
Washington and Saudi Arabia, between presidents and the kings for more than 20
years. He's been ambassador almost 20 years, but there were about eight years
before that where he was an active player on the ground in Washington with
different titles. He is the nemesis, in some cases, of the Israeli lobby
because the famous cases that he oversaw were the acquisition of AWACs and
sophisticated fighter aircraft for Saudi Arabia over the objections of Israel.
And he has gone on to be a great, close, personal friend of the Bushes, which
whom, of course, he spent a lot of time during the Gulf War. It's said that
they call him `Bandar Bush.' And he will do things like cook a pasta dinner
for one of Barbara Bush's birthdays. And when Dorothy Bush was left alone in
the White House in 1990 during Thanksgiving, Bandar's wife invited her out to
a country place to spend Thanksgiving with her. It's that kind of
relationship at the very highest levels that he exploits on a daily basis to
try and reduce misunderstandings and enhance the partnership between the House
of Saud and the presidents of the United States.
GROSS: You also credit Prince Bandar with helping Oliver North get funding
for the Contras, and helping to persuade King Fahd to allow the US to use
Saudi Arabia as a launching pad for troops during the Gulf War.
Mr. DICKEY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Bandar is a great facilitator and he
wants Washington to understand that the Saudis, the royal family, are great
facilitators. He, by the way, is--just a note on family politics. He is the
son of the defense minister; and, therefore, the full nephew, as it were, of
the king, King Fahd. He will--he coughed up $20 million for the Contras just
because Ollie North asked him. And he thought, `Well, great. We don't want
the US backing out of its commitment to the Contras. It would look bad
overseas. And it would look bad for its commitments elsewhere, including in
He does a lot of advance work for US diplomats and for US diplomacy. There
are times when, for instance, the secretary of State will be traveling in the
Middle East and if you trace Bandar's trajectory, you'll see that his
itinerary was exactly the same, only a day or so in advance of the secretary
of State. So he's a real player.
GROSS: So Prince Bandar is really chummy with American politicians and
America's leadership. Is he as close to Crown Prince Abdullah as he was to
Mr. DICKEY: Well, he's not as closely related to Crown Prince Abdullah as he
was to King Fahd--is to King Fahd. And, in fact, when Crown Prince Abdullah
succeeds to the throne, then Sultan, Bandar's father, will become the new
crown prince. At least that's what everybody expects. There is a lot of
competition there, and it's not clear whether Abdullah is really comfortable
with Bandar's style. All this biculturalism, all this ability to go--for
instance, go to a Dallas Cowboys football game and arrange to break his
Ramadan fast in the middle of it with a special room set aside; that gives you
an idea of how bicultural he can be. All of that is very appealing to
Americans and to his American friends and people in the oil industry, but it's
not clear that it's all that appealing to the relatively more austere Crown
GROSS: My guest is Christopher Dickey, Newsweek's Middle East regional
editor. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Dickey. He's the
Paris bureau chief and Middle East regional editor of Newsweek magazine. And
this week he writes about Saudi Arabia.
Let's talk about how the royal family is perceived by the people of Saudi
Arabia. There's a lot of talk about corruption within the royal family.
What kind of corruption?
Mr. DICKEY: Flamboyant corruption; corruption that is almost oblivious to
itself because the Saudi government or the Saudi regime, the Saudi royal
family gets so much money from so many sources; from oil, from arms deals,
from airplane deals, from construction contracts that it is not only beyond
the dreams of avarice, it's almost beyond imagining. And to some extent, the
Saudis were always willing and able to share that kind of wealth with the
general population, but as the population has grown and the costs of certain
adventures like the Gulf War have come home to roost, the government, as a
government, has been much less generous with the Saudi people. And so there
are a lot of Saudis who feel that they're being cut out of the action. And
they feel that the House of Saud, the royal princes, still live better than
royalty, while the people, themselves, have had to lower their expectations
and are much less pampered than they used to be and, in some cases, are poor.
There are Saudi dissidents who will tell you that there are between one and
two million Saudis who are living below the poverty line. I don't think
there are any real statistics to back that up, but there are certainly many
Saudis that you would define as poor.
GROSS: The Saudi royal family is part of the Wahabi sect of Islam, which is a
very strict sect, yet many members of the family, like Prince Bandar, are very
Westernized and party a lot. Are there members of the Saudi family who are
seen by many Muslims as being very hypocritical?
Mr. DICKEY: Oh, absolutely. And, in fact, the charge that is brought
against the Saudi ruling family all the time is that it is a family of
hypocrites. The term they use in Arabic is `mullah hakeem(ph).' And that is
an extremely pejorative charge in Islam. And you just hear it used all the
time by dissidents and opponents of the regime. That is exactly the kind of
charge that bin Laden and his supporters in Saudi Arabia were constantly
bringing against the House of Saud before bin Laden switched his target to the
United States. And, you know, whether--you know, how true is it? Are there
Saudis in influential positions and Saudi princes who drink alcohol, who
indulge themselves with prostitutes? Yeah, absolutely. It's just undeniable.
And sometimes it's very hard for them to maintain the image of austere
religiosity that is cultivated by people who subscribe to the teachings of the
But whether that is enough to alienate them from their own people and usher in
a new regime--usher in their downfall and a new regime--well, I'm not sure
that that's the case because, ultimately, people are going to look at the
government in Saudi Arabia and they're going to say, `This may be bad. This
may be corrupt, but can we really cleanse this regime? Can we really change
it and wind up with something that is different from the Taliban?' And
contrary to what you think, I don't think there's a lot of support in Saudi
Arabia for what you might call the `Talibanization' of Saudi Arabia.
GROSS: What is the royal family's relationship been over the years with the
Mr. DICKEY: Well, the relationship has been complicated because the royal
family, although its relationship with the Wahabi clerics goes back hundreds
of years, the founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdulaziz bin Al-Saud, was a very
practical man and a real political animal. There's a well-known anecdote, for
instance, when St. John Philby(ph), who was the British emissary to Abdulaziz,
was sitting around during Ramadan once talking to him. And it was a
summertime Ramadan and very hot and the fasting was really arduous. And he
asked the question, `What would you do if you had to fast at the North Pole
where the sun never sets, because you have to fast from sunup to sundown?
What would you do?' And the king was a little bit surprised to hear that the
sun never set at the North Pole, but then he thought about it and he said,
`Well, we would just declare 12 hours to be day and 12 hours to be night and
we'd get on with our business.' And that is the attitude of the House of Saud
and the leaders of the House of Saud.
The clerics have never really accepted that, so you had anomalies as recently
as within the last 20 years. You've had the leader of the Saudi clerics still
declaring that the Earth was flat and that the Koran told them that. And you
had just last year a fatwa issued against Pokemon cards. This is--these are
steps that make the clerics seem largely out of touch with reality. And,
often, they are, but the Saudis don't want to--the Saudi government doesn't
want to push the issue too far because, again, it not only has to keep the
deeply zealous part of the population on its side, it always has to try and
shore up its legitimacy. Ultimately, religion is more important than
realpolitik or religion is realpolitik for the House of Saud.
GROSS: And that's, in part, because the House of Saud are the protectors of
holy shrines of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.
Mr. DICKEY: That is it. That's the beginning and the end of the game. They
are not there because they were democratically elected. And they are not even
there because they are incredibly rich. The beginning and the end is that
they are there and their legitimacy depends on their ability to assure the
protection of and access to, for Muslims--for a billion Muslims around the
world, access to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
GROSS: Christopher Dickey is Newsweek's Middle East regional editor and Paris
bureau chief. He writes about Saudi Arabia in the current issue. We'll talk
more in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Christopher Dickey,
Newsweek's Middle East regional editor and Paris bureau chief. In the current
issue, Dickey writes about the relationship between Saudi Arabia and the
President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have worked in the oil business.
Do their oil connections connect them in a special way to Saudi Arabia and the
Mr. DICKEY: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I don't know that there's necessarily a
dollars and cents connection or at least not a direct one, but oil men built
Saudi Arabia, and the rapport that exists between the House of Saud and the
great oil companies that used to be represented in a Ramco is enormous.
Texans and Saudis are famously compatible.
GROSS: Now do you think that--this might be a kind of subjective question,
but do you think that the oil interests and America's larger political
interests are ever at odds?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, if you have an idealized notion of American interests
overseas, if you think that the United States should be fostering democracy
and looking to the greater good of the masses in various countries around the
world, all of which would be a laudable policy, then, yeah, there's absolutely
a conflict. But the United States history in the Middle East is absolutely
dominated by two issues: what's good for oil and what's good for Israel? And
neither of those issues is particularly popular with the great masses of Arabs
and Muslims. So, you know, where are the interests of the United States
served? If we want to continue driving very large cars very long distances
with very cheap gas, then our first priority is going to be our alliance with
the House of Saud.
If we want to spread democracy and pluralism, then we'd have to look askance
at the way Saudi Arabia is run. But the Saudis, they know this very well, and
they will tell you, off the record or in background, they'll look you right
eye-to-eye and they'll say, `Do not wish for democracy in the Arab world, much
less in Saudi Arabia, because if you have democracy, every country in the Arab
world will be against you.' And basically, American policy has been conducted
on that basis, and that's why we are so supportive of a dictator like Hosni
Mubarak in Egypt or kings like King Hussein and his son, King Abdullah, in
Jordan and the House of Saud.
GROSS: In other words, democracies would have more of an Islamist bent and be
Mr. DICKEY: Well, they would certainly have more of an Islamist bent
initially. Every time that the system has been really opened up to elections
in almost any of these countries, the result has been the rise of Islamist
parties. The most obvious case was Algeria in the early '90s where the
electoral system was opened up. There was supposed to be this great reform
and the result was an overwhelming victory for the Islamists and followed
immediately by a military coup and a civil war. So one has to go gently on
the question of pluralism.
One of the sort of depressing things about developments over the last couple
of decades is the element that's disappeared is the secular democratic element
in Arab society particularly. You just don't hear the voices of humanists, of
secularists, saying, `Let's have real democracy,' partly because they've been
crushed by the regimes, but also because they are very much afraid of the
mosques, and that if they start pushing for democracy, it will only be
exploited by Islamists who really don't have much faith in an actual
GROSS: My guest is Christopher Dickey, Newsweek's Middle East regional
editor. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Christopher Dickey is my guest. He's the Paris bureau chief for
Newsweek and Middle East regional editor.
Osama bin Laden has adopted the Palestinian cause as one of (technical
difficulties) causes. How long has the Palestinian cause been something
(technical difficulties) he has endorsed (technical difficulties)?
Mr. DICKEY: Beyond very cursory lip service, this is an extremely (technical
difficulties) development. In fact, if you know the history of Osama, you see
that he's been directly detrimental to the Palestinian cause in many, many
ways for a very, very long time, including the cause of those people who are
militant violent opponents of Israel. The Arab Afghans--I think everybody
understands now, has at least a cursory idea that Osama bin Laden was involved
with the so-called Arab Afghans, the people who went to fight the jihad
against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Well, the guy who organized
all that was a man named Abdullah Azam, who was a Palestinian from Hebron.
And when the war was winding down against the Soviets, he wanted to take his
Arab Afghans back to the occupied territories and fight the Israelis on the
ground there. Osama bin Laden was adamantly opposed to that. In fact, he
organized his followers in a completely different way and said, `No, no, let's
fight the regimes in Egypt. Let's fight the regimes in Algeria. Let's fight
anywhere except Palestine.'
And then over the years, in the 1990s, he never raised the issue of Palestine
as a major issue. He talked about Iraq a lot. He talked about American
troops on Saudi soil. He might pay very quick lip service to the issue of
Palestine, but it was nothing that he actively pursued. That's one of the
reasons that when he came out with these pronouncements, the Palestinians, the
Palestinian leadership was absolutely furious. He had done nothing for them,
nothing in terms of moral support, nothing in terms of money, nothing in terms
of military or violent support. And all of a sudden, he commits the greatest
atrocity in the history of terrorism and he embraces their cause. So they
were extremely upset.
And then to add to all that, what the Palestinians knew and the public didn't
know is that Bandar and the Saudis had been working extremely closely with the
Bush administration in late August and early September to push through what
was going to be the most progressive position on Palestinian statehood and a
shared Jerusalem that the United States government had ever taken, and when
September 11th happened, all that came to a grinding halt.
GROSS: Yeah. What was the message that the Saudi royal family delivered to
the Bush administration in August?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, I think the message was--what had happened was that the
Bush administration kept saying, `We're not going to get involved on the
ground. We're not going to get ourselves stuck in the Middle East peace
process the way the Clinton people did.' And every time they would reiterate
that, at least in the perception of Crown Prince Abdullah, Ariel Sharon,
Prime Minister Sharon in Israel would up the ante. He would put more pressure
on Arafat, more military pressure in the territories. Finally, at one point
in August, Abdullah sort of looked at that situation and said, `Look,
precisely because we are your closest friends in the Arab world and are so
closely identified with Washington, if you don't do something to make this
situation better, if you don't take the initiative and get involved and
effectively rein in Sharon, we are going to be in an untenable position and we
are going to have to reconsider the basis of our relationship.'
We've checked this out as much as we could. I don't think there were any
explicit threats, but the Bush administration knows what that means. It means
that the Saudis might start rethinking their incredible support for stable and
low oil prices, and they might start rethinking the basing of US troops on
Saudi soil. And none of that is something the Bush administration wants to
see rethought anytime soon. So that galvanized the State Department and
galvanized the White House, and Bush sent back what the Saudis regarded as a
very promising letter in which he talked about Palestinian statehood, you
know, Jerusalem as a city for all religions and staked out a lot of positions
that are actually official US policy but not US politics. For instance, the
US is officially opposed to all the settlements in the West Bank and in Gaza,
but you wouldn't know that from the way the United States conducts its policy.
So there was this sort of sense that there was a big breakthrough coming, and
the timing for it was supposed to be in late September at the UN General
Assembly. And according to the Saudis, they had spent that week of September
3rd nailing down the details, and everything was pretty much in place by
September 10th, and there was a lot of optimism in the air, and then the next
day, of course, was September 11th.
GROSS: So in that sense, bin Laden blew it for the people who he...
Mr. DICKEY: Totally.
GROSS: ...is officially endorsing, the Palestinians.
Mr. DICKEY: Totally, totally, totally. This is why the Palestinian
leadership hates him so much. He totally blew it. He destroyed the chances
of getting the Bush administration on board in an, from an Arab point of view,
extremely positive way. And he's never done anything to support the armed
Mr. DICKEY: And he's implicated the Palestinians in the worst terrorist
atrocity in history.
GROSS: What are you looking for in the near future in Saudi Arabia? What do
have your eyes on? What signs are you looking for?
Mr. DICKEY: Well, I think the big question there is the extent to which bin
Laden and his followers and other dissidents will be able to turn popular
emotions about the war in Afghanistan, the situation in Israel and Palestine,
whether they will be able to turn that directly against the Saudi government
and the House of Saud. And there are several occasions coming up when that
potential exists. We're about to enter Ramadan. And that has been overstated
as a question of fighting during Ramadan, not fighting during Ramadan. But
there are other problems that come with that.
One is that it is a time of minor, but very large pilgrimages to Mecca and
Medina, called the Umra(ph). It's a holier time to make that pilgrimage, and
so lots of people often, more than a million people, go to Mecca at the end of
Ramadan, which will be about a little over a month from now. And how do you
manage those people with emotions running the way they are running in the Arab
world and the Muslim world? How do you decide who you let in and who you
don't let in? Do you have a massive police and military presence everywhere
that people turn in Mecca? Does that in itself provoke confrontations?
And then a couple of months later, after the end of Ramadan, you have the
Haaj, where you have millions and millions of people going to Mecca and Medina
to make the pilgrimage that they are obligated by their god to make once in
their lifetime. It's the holiest thing that they can do. And it has also
been the occasion in the past of potentially disastrous violence. In 1979,
people, radical fundamentalists, took over--Saudi fundamentalists took over
the Grand Mosque and occupied the building for a long time. And in 1987,
there were clashes between Iranians, followers of Khomeini, and the Saudis,
that cost hundreds of lives and greatly increased tensions and violence in the
Middle East. So I think we have to worry about these pilgrimages that are
coming up, and I think the Saudis are very concerned.
GROSS: Christopher Dickey, thank you so much. And I wish you safe travels.
Mr. DICKEY: Thank you very much.
GROSS: Christopher Dickey is Newsweek's Middle East regional editor and Paris
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Richard Price discusses raising children in New York
after the terrorist attacks of September 11th
TERRY GROSS, host:
Richard Price is one of the writers who described life in New York after
September 11th in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine. We invited him to
read an excerpt and talk with us. Price is the author of such novels as
"Freedomland," "Clockers" and "The Wanderers." He wrote the screenplays for
"Sea of Love" and "The Color of Money" and co-wrote last year's movie,
"Shaft." Price, his wife and their two daughters live in Manhattan.
This reading recounts a conversation he had in October with his younger
daughter, who's 14 1/2.
Mr. RICHARD PRICE (Author): (Reading) `Dad, can I tell you something?' his
daughter said, `You promise not to get mad at me?' `Not really.' `I dropped
my cell phone in the toilet,' she winced, `It's dead.' `Don't worry about
it,' he said, `take mine.' `Seriously?' Then with as much guilt as relief,
she added, `What are you going to use?' `Not your problem. It's just, you
know, with everything going on these days, it makes me breathe easier to know
I can reach you no matter what.' The kid's face went taut; not what he
`Look,' he said, touching her arm, `don't get me wrong. Right now in this
city you need to keep your eyes open, you know, use common sense or whatever,
but it's also very important that you live your life as normally as you can.'
That one opened up her floodgates. `What if they bomb us?' she said. `Who
bomb us? Nobody's going to bomb us. I don't even know who "they" are.'
`What if they hijack another plane?' she said. `Look, here's the deal. You
go to school. You work hard. No goofin' off. You do your homework. You
study for your tests. You go to your soccer practices. Game time rolls
around, not too many headers. Come the weekends, you hang with your friends.
Saturday morning, Sunday morning, you have a contest with your sister to see
who can sleep the latest, OK? You live your life, OK?' `OK,' she said, her
face brightening, a light peck and a dash for the door.
`Where are you going?' he called out. `I'm going to hang out with Cole.'
`Hey, do me a favor,' stopping her with one foot in the street. `Don't go
into any big stores tonight, OK?' `What?' a little stutter in her step.
`Why?' `Just,' he faltered, `humor me. It's nothing.' `OK,' she said. `And
stay out of Washington Square.' `What's wrong with Washington Square?'
`Well, I never liked you hanging out at Washington Square.' `What's wrong
with Washington Square?' she said. `Absolutely, probably nothing. I'm just
not too crazy about crowds right now, OK?' `OK, OK,' the tightness coming
back into her face. But what could you do? `And, oh,' he winced
pre-emptively, `the subway--you never heard of the subway; it doesn't exist
for you, OK?' He then added, `Sorry.' By the time the kid hit the street,
she looked as if someone had strapped a boulder onto her back; her father
wondering if it was more dangerous for her inside the house than out.
GROSS: Yeah, I really like that a lot. And it made me think about how, you
know, difficult it is to try to protect your kids without scaring the heck out
of them by your attempt to be protective because they know something's wrong.
Mr. PRICE: Well, you know, the line in here, once I saw it in print, that
has been driving me insane is `use common sense,' but what does that mean?
Mr. PRICE: You know, what does it mean for a kid or an adult or anybody
walking down the street? If you see a Taliban guy with a Kalashnikov hanging
out in front of Barnes & Noble's, don't go up and talk to him? I mean, what
does that mean, use common sense? But that's what you wind up saying, because
you don't know what else to say.
GROSS: Well, it kind of puts you in the position that a lot of us feel the
president has put us in, you know, when the president says, `Well, there's an
alert, but go about your regular business.'
Mr. PRICE: Yeah, I don't get that one. I mean, I'm sure there's a reason
that they're doing that that way, but it eludes me, for one. I think it
eludes everybody. I don't know what the point is.
GROSS: But you don't you kind of feel that way as a parent almost; that
you're saying, `Well, go about your business, but use common sense, but don't
do things that you otherwise ordinarily would do'?
Mr. PRICE: Well, it's a general helplessness. Plus, you know, kids--you
know, you might have kids that are very alive to the information that's going
around. And, you know, you might have kids that are basically kids, and it's
not like it doesn't register, but, you know, it's not like this adrenaline
starburst that goes off in their head and stomach. But the anxiety is there
all the time. It's like, you know, being in a house with divorcing parents or
something. I mean, just because you're quiet in front of the kids, that
doesn't mean the tension is not there, that doesn't mean the kids aren't
feeling it. And just because you're not, you know, doing drills where
everybody's trying to put on their gas masks and inject each other with, you
know, some Cipro drug, that doesn't mean that the kids don't pick up what's in
the air; you know, some more pronounced than others. And there's nothing you
can do about it.
GROSS: Do you feel any different about living and raising children in
Manhattan now than you did before September 11th?
Mr. PRICE: I do. I mean, in some ways, you know, you kind of feel like a
sitting duck. On the other hand, I feel like, `Well, what's the alternative?'
I'm not going to throw everything in a covered wagon and move to Wichita.
Forget it. You know, this is where we live, this is who we are, you know?
And it's almost a cliche, because everybody's saying it now. This whole thing
about you live your life, you know, go about your own business. But it's
true, because the alternative--I mean, there is no alternative.
GROSS: My guest is novelist and screenwriter Richard Price. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is novelist and screenwriter Richard Price, author of the
novels "Freedomland," "Clockers" and "The Wanderers." He lives in Manhattan,
and many of his books and movies are set there.
Have you been writing since the 11th?
Mr. PRICE: You know, I mean, I've heard other writers and artists and sort
of, you know, people that sort of have to go inside their own heads to make
what they make, talk about this, and I feel the same way. Your first reaction
is everything feels what you're doing is so trivial and so inconsequential
that--I mean, you don't want to kill one more tree to publish one more page of
this stuff. Yet after a while the trivial stuff is so important, because the
trivial stuff is the stuff of life. It's the stuff of life that we valued
before September 11th, and we cannot stop valuing it because something
happened, you know? And so it's very important to get back to what you were
For me, you know, I'm finishing a novel. And I had an ironic situation,
because the main character lives in a place like Jersey City and has a terrace
where he's looking out on the New York skyline in the whole damn book. And,
you know--and it's now, `Do you acknowledge that? Do you integrate it? Is it
exploitative now?' It's a little bit--you know, if you write--when I wrote
"Ladies' Man" in 1979, it was very--a large part of it was, you know, about,
you know, gay male sexuality, and it was pre-AIDS. And in the midst of
writing it, AIDS came to the forefront. What do you do? I mean, do you
acknowledge you're writing in the moment? Or do you place this in BC as
opposed to AD?
GROSS: So what are you doing with the new novel that you're finishing off?
Mr. PRICE: I'm integrating it, because it's--I can't ignore it. I can't
stand the novel on its head. You know, I just can't ignore it, and the
struggle is to find the balance.
GROSS: Do you resent having to go back and rewrite so much of it?
Mr. PRICE: No. No, I don't. I mean, because, you know, my characters are
allegedly human beings and human beings respond, like I responded to that.
I'm different than I was before September 11th, and these characters are my
characters. And even as I'm talking about this now, the whole thing sounds so
stupid to talk about your dumb book, and, you know, like, `Well, are you going
to use the World Trade Center or not, you know?' But, you know, if they're
going to come out of my consciousness, then I guess I'm going to use it.
GROSS: So when you sit down to write, I guess you're actually writing about
September 11th now, so perhaps it comes easier because of that.
Mr. PRICE: Well, what's happening with me in terms of writing about it is I'm
not writing about `the day' and I'm not writing about, you know, people that
were in the maelstrom. I'm writing about people on the peripheries. And I've
always been more interested in taking a slice off the periphery and, you know,
to me it's like DNA; it's going to replicate and represent the whole at some
point. So I'm more concerned about what it's like for, say, like a--you know,
sort of a shy, 15-year-old kid who's been commandeered by his police officer
mother into walking the two Puerto Rican kids who just moved into the
neighborhood who are little, and everybody assumes they're Arabic because of
their looks, and these kids need bodyguards to get to school and back. And
this kid doesn't want to do it because he's scared and his mother's making him
because she's a cop and she'd fed up with this kid, you know, being a chicken.
And how over the course of the week how the kid sort of grows into the role of
what--and these kids aren't even Arab. But that's where I would go with
something like this.
GROSS: How honest are you with your children about the news and about your
own actual feelings?
Mr. PRICE: OK. Well, see, this is important, because this goes back to what
I was saying, there are some kids that, you know, are very on top of it and
some kids that are--you know, it's just, you know, they're not at the age yet,
you know, where they're reading newspapers.
To my youngest daughter, I feel like, you know, she knows what's going on--no
subways. She never takes the subway anyway, just tell her--you know, and that
stupid word--that phrase `common sense' comes up. There's really not much to
tell her. I don't want to make her any more anxious than she would normally
be. I mean, we live and we're living.
My other daughter was very, very alert to what's going on. In fact, her
school even has been evacuated for bomb threats since September 11th. And she
told me that she doesn't feel like she's a kid anymore. She said that there
are adults and the adults are those who know what's going on, and everybody
else is children. And she feels at the age of 16 that she knows as much as we
do, but she also realizes--and this is what's the scary and depressing
thing--that because she knows as much as we do, she cannot come to us for the
traditional comfort. You know, our role thing happens. You know, she know as
much about anthrax as we do, so she can't come to her mom and dad, you know,
and say, `Put me in bed and tell me not to worry,' because, you know, we don't
have any secret information or we don't have any secret strength. And this
has forced her to feel like she's become an adult under protest; I mean, sort
of an adult without adult experience. And she kind of is kind of in a state
of grieving for, you know, having blown off a good part of what it means to be
a teen-ager. My only hope is that it's temporary, and she's strong. But, you
know, it has to be acknowledged with what she said, because I think it rings a
bell with a lot of kids her age.
GROSS: Richard Price, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. PRICE: OK. You're welcome.
GROSS: Novelist and screenwriter Richard Price. His latest novel is
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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