Betrayed: A Play

From the start, the invasion-liberation-occupation of Iraq could best be summed up in a simple mantra: Mistakes Were Made, Trust Betrayed. As American soldiers rolled into Baghdad in early 2003, Iraqi citizens lined the streets with the kind of ecstasy not seen since the French were kissing U.S. GIs in 1944. In a matter of months, that grateful joy had turned to bitter resentment when the U.S. failed to control the looting and violence that filled the void left by Saddam Hussein. The gulf between Americans and the local population continued to widen and, despite genuine bonds between some soldiers and their Iraqi counterparts, it soon became a wary Us vs. Them relationship.

In his 2005 book, The Assassins’ Gate, journalist George Packer described how the Coalition Provisional Authority bungled the invasion’s aftermath from the get-go. In 2003, there was a brief window of opportunity when we as an occupying force had come to a crossroads: we could either turn right, or we could turn wrong. In his analysis, Packer always makes it clear which direction we chose.

Disbanding the Iraqi Army, purging the government of Ba’athists, and failing to immediately establish an interim Iraqi government were just the first steps in a journey which would lead to a situation that eventually became bizarrely familiar: regular reports from Iraq of beheadings, assassinations, kidnappings, and suicide bombings. In The Assassins’ Gate, a follower of Moqtada al-Sadr tells Packer: “Before this war, I was waiting for the Americans to come, and now I feel sort of cheated. All this talk about rebuilding Iraq, and all we see is a couple of light coats of paint. And they say they renovated Iraq.”

Packer has closely documented the progress (or lack thereof) in Iraq from the start and has talked to hundreds of Iraqis about their feelings toward Americans. Now he has distilled some of those conversations into a play about Iraqi-U.S. relations called Betrayed, which stemmed from an article by the same name he published in the March 26, 2007 issue of The New Yorker. After he wrote the story, Packer said he was still haunted by the voices of the Iraqis he’d interviewed: “They had the inadvertent bluntness and accidental poetry of a second language,” he writes. Shortly after the article appeared, someone suggested it would make for compelling theater, and Packer began toying with the idea of adapting it for the stage.

In early February, Betrayed opened at Manhattan’s Culture Project, the theater where Packer’s New Yorker colleague Lawrence Wright staged his play My Trip to Al-Qaeda last season. Faber and Faber has simultaneously published Betrayed in paperback in a show of confidence that the subject matter is important enough to be read beyond the context of the theater experience.

About half of the dialogue is taken directly from transcripts of interviews Packer conducted with 40 Iraqis who had worked for the U.S. since 2003 — “that tiny minority of mostly young men and women who had embraced the American project in Iraq so enthusiastically that they were willing to risk their lives for it,” he writes in the book’s introduction. These Iraqis, fueled on idealism they’d gleaned from American movies and pop culture, took jobs in the Green Zone as translators, drivers, and office assistants. At the time, they wholeheartedly believed the United States could indeed rebuild Iraq, not just do some interior decorating.

But, by working with the Americans, they largely became outcasts from their own society. Scorned by fellow Iraqis who had come to see the liberators as occupiers, they were forced to keep their jobs at the embassy secret even from their families and friends. They dared not speak English outside the walls of the Green Zone or be seen leaving the U.S. checkpoint for fear of retaliation. Many of them received death threats, which were often less “threat” and more “death.” In the last five years, there have been numerous cases of Iraqi citizens dumped by the side of the road, their throats slashed or shot in the head, simply because they carried an embassy badge in their pocket.

The risks of such ostracism and reprisal might have been offset if these Iraqis had been loved, embraced, and protected by their American employers. But, as Packer dramatizes in Betrayed, U.S. officials have often viewed their Iraqi employees with suspicion and outright hatred, despite the fact they’re providing valuable intelligence that leads to the capture of terrorists.

Packer has taken the experiences of dozens of Iraqis and “composited” them into a pair of main characters, Adnan and Laith, who sit in a hotel room and relate their stories to an unseen interviewer. The two young men tell how they eventually found work at the U.S. embassy, where even showing up for work and waiting in line at the security checkpoint was an occupational hazard. Laith, who previously worked as a translator with a U.S. military unit, says the Americans don’t fully understand the risks people like he and Adnan take on a daily basis:

They never gave me the good body armor when we went on a raid, just some cheap vest that doesn’t protect you against an AK. Or they took me out on patrol in my own neighborhood, even after I told them it was dangerous for me. I started wearing a bandanna over my face. We were losing our trust with the Americans and the Iraqis. The Iraqis stopped trusting you, and the Americans didn’t trust you from the beginning. You became a person in between.

When asked why he didn’t just quit working for the Americans, Adnan tells the interviewer, “It’s not very easy to give up hope. Never. Always I hold on to the hope of things will get better, things will get better. This is what made all Iraqis live under Saddam.”

While the play as a whole is political, Packer does his best to refrain from polemics, focusing instead on the particular trials and tribulations of these two Iraqis and the American they befriend, a State Department official named Prescott. It’s in this latter character that Packer encapsulates the American experience in Iraq. First appearing as a naive policy wonk who believes any problem can be solved with a bumper-sticker mentality, Prescott becomes increasingly frustrated by the bureaucratic red tape that stymies his efforts to help Laith and Adnan. By play’s end, Prescott is bitter and burned out by the futility of his mission, best summed up by an Iraqi proverb quoted by one of the characters: “We’re blowing in a punctured bag.”

Packer offers few solutions for the questions he raises, leaving policy to the policymakers; but his main objective here is to remind readers that there is another side of the story-the Iraqi perspective — and in that he succeeds.

At their first meeting, Adnan tells Prescott, “Military victory is easy. But what will be after? You must change yourself when you come to Iraq. And we too must change, to understand you, because we can’t have life without a common language between us.” Betrayed shows how we have groped toward that common language but have failed, at nearly every turn, to connect in any meaningful, productive way. It’s still Us vs. Them.