Feb 26, 2008


Saw George Packer's Betrayed last week, and though I think it has flaws and oversights, it remains a stirringly theatrical--which is to say, emotional as well as intellectual--consideration of some of the thornier dilemmas of the Iraq debacle. Though I'd read the play and the original article that inspired it, and have been an admiring reader of Packer's work in the New Yorker, I was struck anew by how much the theatrical presence of actors in conflict and/or confluence can disarm one's prejudices and generate ambivalences within ambiguities.

In following the declining fortunes of a trio of Iraqi translators who work in the Green Zone, Betrayed finds a spectrum of meanings within its title alone. It refers not only to the obvious betrayal of those Iraqis who have worked for the U.S. occupation and who have been scandalously denied basic help and protection for their efforts, to the perception that these Iraqi translators and diplomats have betrayed their own people, that those Americans who stick their necks out on these Iraqis' behalf are traitors to the U.S. mission, and that Iraqis left out to dry might reasonably feel ready to turn on the U.S. occupation.

But one thing struck me even more immediately: Waleed F. Zuaiter, who plays Adnan, a sensitive America-phile whose monologues open and close the show. Not only is his an extraordinarily nuanced performance, but his final monologue is surprising and heartbreaking--and oddly reminiscent of something I'd heard before.
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.

An argument for staying the course? But here's what stuck out. It's almost the last line of the show:
I can never blame the Americans alone. It's the Iraqis who destroyed their country, with the help of the Americans, under the American eye.

That's a stunning and arguable sentiment, laid like a landmine at the end of a play that has essentially been building a devastating case against the hamhanded execution of the U.S. invasion and occupation, and by extension (a tenuous extension, it can be argued, but not insubstantial) against the entire Iraq war project, execution aside. Leaving this argument for a moment, what struck me is that nearly two years ago, the same actor closed another Iraq-themed docu-play, David Hare's Stuff Happens, with this speech from a fictional Iraqi exile:
Basically it's a story of a nation that failed in only one thing. But it's a big sin. It failed to take charge of itself. And that meant the worst person in the country took charge. Until this nation takes charge of itself, it will continue to suffer.

I mean, Iraqis say to me, "Look, tell America." I tell them: "You are putting your faith in the wrong person. Don't expect America or anybody will do it for you.

"If you don't do it yourself, this is what you get."

That's an even more tendentious, stick-in-your-craw closer for a play's that is arguably even more stridently critical of the entire Iraq venture. What's going on here, I wonder? And what is it about Zuiater, a Palestinian raised partly in Kuwait who fled the region during the first Gulf War, that makes him the go-to guy for self-flagellating speeches about Iraq's responsibility for its own predicament? I ask sincerely because I find this oddly significant and compelling, and because I haven't seen it talked about elsewhere. Have you?

(Photo by James Nachtwey.)

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