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By George Packer
Faber and Faber, Inc.Copyright © 2008 George Packer
All rights reserved.
A dark, spare hotel room in Baghdad, furnished in the soulless style of the Baathist era. The lights come up on two Iraqi men of about thirty sitting in chairs facing an unseen interviewer situated ostensibly among the audience. ADNAN is soft-spoken, reflective, but quietly passionate; LAITH is more excitable and fidgety, with a hipper style. Next to LAITH is an old-fashioned Samsonite-type suitcase. On the table between them sits a small recorder with its LED light on.
ADNAN So you made it. We were starting to worry. Did you have a problem with hotel security?
LAITH They didn't even search us. "Are you carrying any weapons? Okay, go." I could have a bomb under my shirt! This place is no longer safe like when the Americans had a tank in front of the hotel.
ADNAN But it's safer than any other place in Baghdad.
LAITH Because the foreigners are gone and it is not worth attacking.
ADNAN I wanted to offer you food, but the restaurant is closed. This is something really shameful for an Iraqi.
LAITH I think we're the only guests here. The manager was so surprised to see us. At least there's hot water. I didn't take a hot shower for five weeks.
ADNAN Can you believe, my house is five kilometers away and it took me three days to get here? First there was fighting in Amiriya between the Americans and al Qaeda. They beheaded a teacher on my street. Then I got stuck at my sister's in Amel because the Mahdi Army was burning Sunni houses. My sister is married to a Shia man and he had to walk with me out to the road past the militia fighters to find a taxi. Without him they would have eaten me for breakfast. Do you know what is alaasa?
LAITH They are the informers who sit all day in the street and watch for people they consider the enemy. It means "the ones who chew."
ADNAN We have a new vocabulary.
LAITH (Slightly embarrassed) By the way, were you able to get the number? Ah, shokran, thank you so much. What is it? (He dials the number on his cell phone.)
ADNAN (After a pause, touching the recorder) Well ... you said you wanted to hear the whole story, from the beginning of the war. That seems like such a long time ago.
LAITH (Holding up his phone) No network. Of course.
ADNAN Okay, since we have no food to offer, we will give you our story. You are free to ask us anything.
LAITH From the horse's mouth. (He loves these American idioms.)
ADNAN Only don't use my real name.
LAITH Or mine. Call me Laith.
ADNAN Why don't you give a more Shia name?
LAITH Why should I give a Shia name? Why talk about Sunni and Shia? You bring it up so much these days! I think you are becoming sectarian.
ADNAN He knows I'm not sectarian, or I would hand him over to al Qaeda because they control my street. But these days the first thing everyone wants to know is "Are you Sunni or Shia?" And if you give the wrong answer — (He makes a slashing gesture across his throat.)
LAITH You didn't give a name yet.
ADNAN Well, let's say Adnan.
LAITH Not very Sunni! His real name is the most totally Sunni name.
ADNAN This is my problem. I have to carry a fake ID for different parts of Baghdad.
LAITH Sometimes I feel like we're standing in line for a ticket, waiting to die.
Outside, the call to evening prayer begins. ADNAN gets up and goes to look out the window, lights a cigarette, and smokes. LAITH is playing with his cell phone, nervously jiggling a leg. From time to time throughout the play he punches in the number again, with no luck.
LAITH You know, when the Americans came to Baghdad this hotel wasn't empty and dark like now. Every Iraqi who wanted a job was here. Journalists were here, soldiers were here, everyone mixing freely. It's sad to remember, with all the hopes that we had, and all the dreams, after the invasion —
ADNAN I was totally against the word "invasion." Wherever I went I was defending the Americans and strongly saying America was here to make a change. But now I have my doubts.
LAITH Me the same.
ADNAN smoking, beginning to remember.
ADNAN During the war with Iran, I was listening to American songs, and I watched a lot of American movies on television. I loved the English language because I believed that to learn English opens horizons for you. In Saddam's time, everything was banned. So to put your hand on an English book, it tells you things you don't read in Arabic books, especially the Arabic books that managed to get to the market in Baghdad. But an English book, they didn't understand, they were ignorant people at that time, so an English book would pass. I read mostly philosophy and adventure books. To be totally frank with you, even some porn books. And this helped a lot to improve my English, because it's an interesting subject so you really make an effort to understand.
LAITH Everyone thought he was a little weird. Even his own family.
ADNAN One of the authors I read — Colin Wilson, a British existentialist — he wrote about the "non-belonger." So I always thought of myself as I don't belong to the society. It was a painful kind of existence. After university I couldn't get a government job, I was selling cigarettes, selling spare parts, selling books on Mutanabi Street. But there was always, always this sound in the back of my head: the time will come, the time will come, the change will come. My time will come. It is not my destiny to live and die in Iraq like this. And when 2003 came, I couldn't believe how right I was.
LAITH A week before the war, I saw Adnan in the barbershop. I was getting my haircut for the military. At that time I worked in a computer shop, and I was going to hide at home instead of going to fight. You know the string Iraqi barbers use to take off the small hairs of the beard? (He demonstrates.)
ADNAN I tied one string around his finger. (LAITH shows his ring finger with the string.) I told him, "You should remember me by this if I'm killed in the war."
LAITH But then it was over so fast. The Americans came and saved me. And at that time everyone was so happy.
ADNAN Imagine, overnight you can say anything you like about Saddam. The first day, on the ninth of April, that day I still remember it very clearly when I saw the first man who is in the middle of the street and cursing Saddam.
A CURSING MAN steps into the light, ill dressed and poor looking, waving a photo of Saddam.
CURSING MAN Saddam, you dog, you destroyed my life! You sent me to fight the Iranians and see what they did to me! (He holds up his shirt to show a wound.) For what? For you? Now I'm old, my life is finished. I spit on you, I step on your face! May the Americans catch you and cut you into a thousand pieces! May they destroy your sons and their sons forever! (He puts the photo on the ground and stamps on it over and over until the light goes out.)
ADNAN This is the new life that was revealing in front of us. At that time to see the Americans, whom we only saw in movies, in our streets (the sound of Humvees roaring by and American voices, "Salaam aleikum!" "Get out of the way!") — at that time you can speak freely about Saddam — at that time you discovered this hidden greed inside Iraqis when they started to loot their own country. (Crowd noises, a mob scene) Everything was shocking.
LAITH I saw Adnan and said, "Let's go to the Palestine Hotel. This is our chance!" To be frank with you, my reason was selfish. I was thinking of making a good salary and getting hired by an international technology company. But Adnan didn't want to go with me.
ADNAN This is my nature. I like to study a situation before I jump. At that time everything was still uncertain.
LAITH So I went by myself. But the marines here at the hotel told me to go to the Assassins' Gate in the Green Zone. At that time I didn't even know these words, Assassins' Gate, Green Zone. These were American words. I went there and it was really crazy.CHAPTER 2
The Assassins' Gate, an entry point into the Green Zone. Iraqis — a dazed-looking OLD MAN in a tattered jacket, a pushy WOMAN in a black abaya — are standing in line, crowding forward, waving pieces of paper, speaking in Arabic and trying to get the attention of an American SOLDIER, who is trying to control the chaos. The SOLDIER is hassled but not hostile. LAITH takes his place at the end of the line.
SOLDIER Hey, one at a time, one at a time!
WOMAN Mister, mister, please. (She thrusts a piece of paper into his hand and says something in Arabic.)
SOLDIER (Trying to read — he's holding it upside down and she turns it over for him.) What is this?
WOMAN Ambassador Braymer, Braymer.
SOLDIER What about him?
WOMAN Ambassador Braymer.
SOLDIER Do you have an appointment?
WOMAN Mister, please!
SOLDIER (Gently moving her aside and pointing to the OLD MAN) What are you here for?
The OLD MAN speaks for ten seconds in Arabic, also clutching a sheet of paper. In the middle of it he begins to cry.
English, dude, just give me a little English. Come on, don't cry.
OLD MAN No English.
SOLDIER I don't know what to tell you, man.
LAITH He wants to find out what happened to his four sons. They disappeared during Saddam's time. Their names are on this paper.
SOLDIER Dude! Where'd you learn how to talk like that?
LAITH Listening to American music. On VOA.
SOLDIER Cool. Like, what?
LAITH Mostly Metallica. "Draggin' me down, why you around?"
SOLDIER Get the fuck out of here! (Calling to someone offstage) Hey, Sergeant, this freaking Iraqi learned English from Metallica!
WOMAN Mister, please! Ambassador Braymer!
SOLDIER What does she want?
LAITH She has a petition for Bremer. She wants electricity, water, a job for her son, and she wants American soldiers to arrest the criminal gangs in her neighborhood.
SOLDIER Yeah, sure. Do I look like Superman?
LAITH No, the Incredible Hulk.
SOLDIER (Takes the piece of paper from the WOMAN, puts it in his pocket, and pats her on the shoulder. She recoils slightly.) Okay, calm down. I'll try to get this to Bremer. He's a busy guy.
WOMAN Thank you, mister.
SOLDIER Don't expect much.
LAITH speaks to the WOMAN, who clearly doesn't take it in as she leaves.
And I can't help this guy. Anything that happened during Saddam I got nothing to do with.
LAITH I know an organization that can help him. (He speaks to the OLD MAN in Arabic, touching him reassuringly. The OLD MAN drops his head, wipes his eyes, nods, and shuffles off, still in a daze.)
Sir, do you think I could get a job in the palace?
SOLDIER The palace is for pussies and bureaucrats, dude. Come work with my unit, Alpha Company, the Assassins. It'd be awesome. We do patrols, raids, checkpoints. We definitely could use some interpreters. What's your name?
SOLDIER Whoa! Way too hard. Okay if I call you Al?
LAITH Sure. What's your name?
LAITH Okay if I call you Jassim?
They laugh and, after a moment, shake hands. It's a first for both of them and they realize it.
Just for your information, in Iraq it is considered rude to touch a woman who is not your relative.
SOLDIER No shit. This is going to be a lot of fun.
LAITH We do every bad thing just like you, but in secret. I'm sure it's different where you come from.
SOLDIER Actually, Muncie, Indiana, ain't a whole lot of fun either. Guess that's why I'm here. Ever visited America — (He stops himself.)
LAITH Never left Iraq.
SOLDIER Saddam was a motherfucker, wasn't he? (Calling offstage again) Hey, Sergeant, I think I just hired us a new terp. He's the shit! Name is Al and he's into metal!
LAITH turns to the interviewer.
LAITH So I became a terp with Alpha Company — the Assassins. To be honest, I sort of enjoyed it. I translated documents, I interpreted during interrogations, I went with them on raids. They treated me like a friend. But they didn't listen. That was a problem. I gave them information about insurgents, places where they kept weapons. I gave them an idea to buy back AKs and RPGs. But they never listened. I didn't know why.
Even before it got dangerous, I decided to keep my job a secret. I told my family and Adnan — that's it. This wasn't what I imagined before the war. I wanted to work for Apple or Microsoft or something. But it was a job. I got to improve my English. And I learned some things about Americans.
The Assassins' Gate. Night: a spotlight casts long shadows across the stage. From time to time there is the noise of Humvees and distant gunfire. LAITH is leaning against a wall with the SOLDIER, shooting the shit.
SOLDIER So, like, you guys never do it before you get married?
LAITH Didn't they give you some information before you came here, sir?
SOLDIER Nobody told us a goddamn thing. I should have been back in Muncie by now.
LAITH In our tradition we are supposed to be virgins when we marry. Naturally, some Iraqis do not qualify. Me, for example.
SOLDIER Dirty bastard — so why won't you introduce me to your sister?
LAITH Of course there must be a double standard.
SOLDIER What happens to a girl if she messes up?
LAITH You mean (he is wisecracking) if she "brings shame to her family"? And her brothers find out? (He draws his finger across his throat.) She gets whacked. The shame must be "washed," and then rinsed and dried.
LAITH There is a popular medical specialty in Iraq devoted to examining girls. This is where reconstructive surgery can be very useful.
SOLDIER Not to mention oral sex.
LAITH Exactly. You know Ayatollah Sistani? Go to his website, sistani.org. He has a fatwa there about other kinds of pleasure for unmarried Muslims. He is very broad-minded. And then the Shia have zawaj mutea, temporary marriage.
LAITH Not really. An imam can arrange a marriage between two people for a certain period of time. It can be as short as an hour. There is a contract, a dowry, everything.
SOLDIER Like going to a hooker. So the imam is sort of a pimp.
LAITH Well, it's a kind of mercy. The Shia don't want to have forbidden sex, so they have zawaj mutea. It makes it easier to live.
SOLDIER Hey, I'm glad you guys are a bunch of hypocrites. I want every Iraqi having sex all the time, man. These dudes planting IEDs and taking shots at us, what they need is a good fuck. I'm serious, man, your culture's dangerous.
An Iraqi MAN in a dishdasha approaches, angry looking. The SOLDIER takes his rifle off his shoulder and holds it at the "low ready" position, pointed toward the DISHDASHA MAN's feet. The DISHDASHA MAN glares at him and speaks to LAITH in Arabic in harsh tones.
LAITH His brother was arrested by Americans last week, sir. He went to all the prisons, even Abu Ghraib, but he can't find him. He says his brother didn't do anything, he's just an importer of bananas.
SOLDIER (Crowding the DISHDASHA MAN so that they're practically eyeball to eyeball) Bananas. That's just beautiful. So your brother didn't shoot that RPG at my patrol last week? Didn't try to blow up Captain Prior's vehicle? He didn't kill Specialist Hunter? (The DISHDASHA MAN says something disrespectful in Arabic.) Hey, asshole, Hunter was my buddy in Basic. (The DISHDASHA MAN answers again in kind. The SOLDIER turns to LAITH.) Ask him if he knows anything about it.
Excerpted from Betrayed by George Packer. Copyright © 2008 George Packer. Excerpted by permission of Faber and Faber, Inc..
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