The non-belongers: George Packer's Betrayed

“To this moment, I dream about America.”As the last line of “Betrayed,” George Packer’s acclaimed 2007 New Yorker article about Iraqis working for Americans in Iraq, that sentence was moving and near-elegiac. But as Waleed Zulaiter speaks that line on the stage of the Culture Project, ending Packer’s play BETRAYED, the pain in his voice reaches an audience already in tears.

I’d hoped to bring Captain Montalvan with me to the preview on Sunday, since like Packer he carries memories of Iraqi allies that he feels were betrayed by incompetence and greed. When he told me he was ill, I felt as though I were bearing witness for both of us.

And most of the play was fantastic. I loved all the composite characters: Adnan, a slim bearded Sunni at first galvanized by the overthrow of Saddam, who quotes a British existentialist as he calls himself “a non-belonger,” and Laith, a Kurdish Shiite who learned English by listening to American TV, is played by Sevan Greene with humor, pathos and constant motion — beginning with his entrance, when he arrives at Adnan’s apartment glad that he hasn’t been killed by the militias pursuing him. And I cried at the death of Aadya Bedi’s Intisar, a slender young woman who refuses to wear a hijab (Muslim headscarf) despite militia threats. Before then, she’d stolen my heart by telling her newly-in-Iraq supervisor, Foreign Service officer Bill Prescott (played by Mike Doyle) that one of her goals in life is to bicycle down the streets of Baghdad. “And perhaps someday I will!”

Director Pippin Parker, using very simple sets, clearly evokes the few places he needs: Adnan’s living room, Baghdad checkpoints and side streets, and most of all the simple table and chairs that establish the Green Zone and the U.S. embassy, where the three are hired as translators. Told by one of the two American protagonists, a security officer played by Jeremy Beck, that “anyone coming from the Red Zone must be considered suspect,” Intisar responds simply. “You mean Iraq.”

For the next two hours, we see all three working steadily, living increasingly double lives as Iraq grows ever more sectarian and violent and neither the embassy or the U. S. military (embodied by Beck in two different characters, each a combination of boisterous energy and explosive anger) seem interested in protecting them. We also watch Prescott’s transformation from naïf to grieving parent, limned masterfully by Doyle — from someone who can say with a smirk, “You can’t say everyone’s against you, our poll numbers say 45 percent still favor the occupation!” to a rebel against what he calls the “mental blast-walls” surrounding American conceptions of Iraq. When the play’s narrative returns the moment of the opening, with Laith fearing for his life and asking Adnan for the ultimate sacrifice, the audience can only pray that the latter’s cell phone will ring, with long-distance news that his friend will be spared.

The play is as unflinching as all good journalism, describing hard realities and charging that officials’ reluctance to be seen as “losing” a war has left many good people stranded, dead, imperiled. And as theatre, as a glimpse of interior life during wartime, it works better, perhaps, than it has a right to.
“It all looks very familiar,” said one audience member beside me, a native of Lebanon.

I do wonder, though, at one of the script changes that happened as Packer’s 20,000-word article was being turned (as he wrote last week) “from journalism to theatre.” Now, all characters use the term “Al-Qaeda” when referring to Sunni militias. While it may have helped simplify the narrative, especially when competing names of Shiite militias are already crowding the dialogue with unfamiliarity, that very simplicity felt more political than narrative, given that most observers have attributed only a minor percentage of crimes in Iraq even to Al Qaeda’s homegrown Iraqi offshoot, Al Qaeda in Mesopatamia. Did they do it to blunt charges that the play (which takes no actual stand on the war itself) is anti-patriotic? Haven’t we moved, as a country, past the point where such charge hold any water?

A few reading this may already have noticed that I took this post down Monday, at the producers’ request, until opening night. Now the Times review is in, just as a print version of my own (less personal than the one here) hits the streets.

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