What if Iraq had gone well? was the question many good-hearted liberals asked after reading George Packer's 2007 New Yorker article Betrayed. Suddenly everything that seemed to be true about our then-foundering effort was not only wrong but also naively beside the point. The article told the story of the Iraqi men and women who had celebrated when the Americans arrived in 2003. They were Anglophiles, secularists, intellectuals, and liberals who went to work as translators for the occupying coalition, and theirs were among the most dangerous jobs in the country. As the neighborhoods of Baghdad fell under the control of militants and political extremists, the translators were forced to lead uneasy double lives, keeping the appearance of devout Sunni or Shiia Muslims in the Red Zone while avoiding all suspicion of such allegiances in the Green Zone. Only a fierce belief in freedom and democracy kept these people trudging to work each day.
But their idealism failed them. When they began to seek help, they were ignored, abused, and thrown to the wolves by their incurious "liberators," who believed the translators' knowledge of local militants, customs, and sentiment represented not an asset but a threat.
When I read Betrayed, I thought, This is the real story! Why hasn't anyone told me? Packer must have felt the same way. Earlier this year, he turned Betrayed into a play, and it is the highest compliment I can give to say he has nearly done his subjects justice.
Betrayed: By George Packer. Directed by Joe Adler. With John Manzelli, Antonio Amadeo, Ceci Fernandez, Todd Allen Durkin, Ricky Waugh, Scott Genn, and Bill Schwartz. Through September 14. GableStage, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables 305-445-1119; www.gablestage.com
Packer's play, like his article, begins in the crumbling Palestine Hotel. The Palestine was a busy place in the immediate wake of the American invasion, full of journalists, pilgrims, and would-be businessmen of all races and denominations. Now it is almost abandoned, and its sad story neatly mirrors that of the men sitting in one of its dirty rooms. They are Laith and Adnan, two secular Iraqis (Laith is a Shiia, Adnan a Sunni). They're disillusioned and skittish almost to the point of paranoia, and most of Betrayed consists of a series of flashbacks showing how they came to be that way.
Packer's sense of pace throughout these flashbacks is more than admirable, and he's abetted by actors who seem as convinced as the writer that their work is worthwhile. Betrayed moves fast, and there is little backstory for any of its many characters — all we know of Laith and Adnan (played by John Manzelli and Antonio Amadeo), or of the lady translator who comes to work with them (Intisar, played by Ceci Fernandez), is that, in their own ways, they'd waited all their lives for 2003. And this is enough. Under a totalitarian regime, waiting is the central fact of life. The scant character details we do get — such as Intisar's love of Emily Brontë or Laith's deep appreciation for English-language porn — are small, human, and seem to stand in for a patience and longing so deep that the translators couldn't express it in English. In the early scenes, Manzelli, Amadeo, and Fernandez look and sound like people coming alive for the first time.
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It is odd to witness joy against a backdrop such as Lyle Baskin's dark, metallic set, which is all ugly walls, chainlink fences, plastic chairs, and cheap tables. But for a while, the Iraqis' excitement overpowers their surroundings. That's before they come to know the real soul of the Green Zone, which has nothing to do with joy, or even democracy. You could complain that the Americans in Packers' play are one-dimensional; save for a sympathetic pencil-neck named Prescott (Ricky Waugh), they are. But anyone who might conceivably read this article has come face-to-face with mindless bureaucracy of some kind — men and women who follow their procedures, who don't listen to reason, and who cannot put you in touch with their supervisors (they wouldn't care, and anyway, even a supervisor has a supervisor). This is a common mentality stateside, and if Packer and his sources are to be believed, it was the defining characteristic of the early American presence in Iraq. When the translators ask for upgraded security clearance so they can avoid the long lines outside the Green Zone, in which they are easy targets for snipers, they are nastily rebuffed.
Later, when one of the translators is getting a polygraph test from an angry security officer (Todd Allen Durkin, in his most intense performance since Thom Pain), he is treated like an enemy combatant, and his earlier request for clearance is viewed with suspicion. "Who told you to ask?" the officer wants to know. "Have you been in touch with insurgents?" This is an impossible question to answer. There are insurgents on every block; the translator does his best to avoid them. "You are so full of shit!" screams the officer. "This machine does not like complicated answers!" The translator is fired. Nevertheless, he is doomed to be hounded forever by extremists who think he's a traitor, and will kill him if they find him.
This is only one of Betrayed's many examples of bureaucratic stupidity and failure, and it would be unbelievable if it weren't true. So would another translator's last words to the audience before the play ends. Even after five years of American betrayal, he tells us: "I still dream of America." In a work of fiction, such hard-headed idealism would make you cringe at the author's naiveté. Here it just makes you want to cry.
I wanted to cry not only because of the pathos in the translator's story, but also out of frustration at how completely the American political, military, and media establishments seem to have missed everything that is important and worth knowing about the country they set out to save. The left seems to have forgotten the once-obvious truth that those who love America most uncritically are not the people who wear flags, but those who fear to wear them. And the right cannot seem to answer this question: If those people are worth fighting for, why on Earth weren't they worth listening to?