'Betrayed,' or the death of an American dream
Posted March 11th, 2008
Packer's first play, "Betrayed," which opened in New York at the Culture Project in early February, is being praised for the same reasons; he extracts the risks taken by these Iraqis in assisting the U.S. war effort in order to show the sheer indifference of the U.S. towards their suffering.
Sharing the same name as Packer's 2007 article, "Betrayed" portrays three Iraqis, two men and one woman, who accepted these dangerous jobs with the Americans in order to achieve their own dreams in the process.
A staff writer for the New Yorker Magazine since 2003 and author of the book "The Assassins Gate: America in Iraq" (2006), Packer based his play on interviews he conducted in Iraq during what was his sixth visit there.
The real story unfolds after Packer's meeting with two men in January of 2007, one Sunni and one Shia.
In the play, both men have been working with the U.S. government in Iraq since the invasion. Adnan, one of the three main characters in the play, is a translator. He is disturbed by the fact that after his good faith efforts in working for the U.S. government, he is refused a U.S. visa and instead is offered a visa to Sweden through the help of a U.S. employee, a man named Bill Prescott.
At one point, Adnan describes feeling conflicted as an Iraqi. From an early age he says he was devoted to America and he professes a love of the English language, only to find himself rejected by his former employer.
"One of the authors I read – Colin Wilson, a British existentialist – wrote about the 'non belonger.' I always thought of myself as if I don't belong to this society. It was a painful kind of existence," he says.
Adnan adds, "We know each other a little now, Americans and Iraqis, even if it is a terrible situation. Sometimes we are talking, sometimes we are fighting, but at least this is a relationship. It is not something to throw away or burn. But America doesn't want me."
As it turns out, Adnan, the Sunni character in the play, has had a long-standing friendship with Laith, the second main character in Betrayed.
A scene from "Betrayed."
Laith is Shia, and is portrayed as sympathetic to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq – for the longest time he refuses to call the U.S. presence in Iraq an "occupation," preferring the U.S.-coined term "liberation."
The spectator observes how Laith's frustration builds up after U.S. officials show clear indifference to his complaints of receiving death threats over his mobile phone.
"Last week. I found something in the garden. And then, you will not believe it – the next day, there was a different threat," he tells his friend, Adnan.
These threats extend to both sexes, and Betrayed displays a sort of equal opportunity view that neither Iraqi men nor Iraqi women are exempt from the real threats of death if working for foreigners.
The third character in Betrayed, Intisar, is a young college-educated Iraqi woman working for the government. As she says, "Americans cannot have the feeling what it is to take these risks. They cannot understand."
All three characters in Betrayed beg the U.S. official, Prescott, to solve a security problem they all face with the badge system that is in place when entering the Green Zone.
"If you change our badge to green we can avoid the line and do the search inside the gate," Adnan tries to explain.
Outside the gate, the Iraqi employees are exposed to the threat of car bombs and insurgents seeking to identify them.
"But they are Iraqis," says the Regional Security Officer in response to the request.
"Last night there was some shooting in our street – we live in an insurgent area – and I woke up like: O.K., they're going to come, they're going to kill me and my family if they find the badges," says Intisar in one scene.
In the scene leading up to Itisar's death, she struggles through a decision of whether or not to put on a hijab after some American officials abandon her and her colleagues without a security badge.
In time, she forgets, or maybe she just leaves her hijab in her office; as a result she is left exposed and picked up by insurgents.
The insurgents ultimately shave her head and leave her bleeding as a result of this mistake.
Betrayed also focuses on the issue of trust – or in this case, mistrust – something Iraqis have had to cope with from the first days of the U.S. occupation.
The play illustrates the mistrust U.S. officials and military personnel have towards Iraqis, even towards their own Iraqi employees.
And culturally, Packer does a good job of showing that for Iraqis, it is important to be considered trustworthy in their work environment, especially for those who believed that overthrowing Saddam's government would bring good things to Iraq - a belief shared by all three characters in Betrayed.
Trust issues also go both ways, and the play shows that Iraqis working for the Americans also face allegations of being collaborators – a damned if you do and damned if you don't scenario that haunts Iraqis to this day.
Betrayed closes at the Culture Project in New York City on April 13.
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