Arts & Events
"Ever since I was a schoolboy, I loved the English language. Even during the war with Iran, I listened to English songs...” So Adnan, portrayed by Bobak Cyrus Baktiari, recalls the romance with a foreign tongue, and what it meant to a young man growing up in the Iraq of Saddam Hussein—and what it came to mean, as he waits in the half-derelict Palestine Hotel for his comrade and former fellow translator for the American Embassy, Laith, played by Amir Sharafeh.
Laith, whose Shia background would seem to a spectator of Stateside media to put him at odds with his friend, Sunni Adnan, is in a jam, caught between vengeful sectarians who target Iraqis working with the occupying forces, and the obtuseness and indifference of the American military and diplomatic corps bureaucracy, not knowing where to turn to escape death threats, living day to day—just as Adnan is forced to exist in the contradiction of his double life, shuttling the perilous streets back and forth between his neighborhood and the job in the Green Zone. They rehearse the memories of recent history, of how they fell into this half-world.
This is the predicament, the double-bind, of the characters in George Packer’s play, Betrayed, onstage at the Aurora—distrusted, spurned even, by the Americans they’ve welcomed and wholeheartedly worked for, marked as traitors or spies by other Iraqis, forcing them to lie about or conceal who they are and what they know, whether inside the Green Zone, or the Red Zone outside, where they live. As Embassy worker and Adnan’s college friend Intisar, played by Denmo Ibrahim, asks the security officer (James Wagner) who tosses out the terms in a briefing, what he means by Red Zone, when he defines it as “what’s outside the Green Zone,” she replies “you mean Iraq?” Earlier, Laith is stultified when asked by the security officer whether he’s Sunni or Shia; puzzled he replies, “Can’t you tell by my name?”
All three Iraqi characters are ardently secular. Laith recalls what he wrote in Arabic and in English on his wall at home: “Be honest without the thought of Heaven or Hell.” Intisar, in her interview for the Embassy job, tells of how she’s dreamed of the day when she can ride through the streets on a bicycle, like her brothers. Asked if he regards the American presence as a Liberation, not an Occupation, Adnan replies, “I see it as a chance, only that.”
The three native Baghdadis also encounter the Ambassador (played by Keith Burkland, modeled on John Negroponte), who says “my door is always open” as he stalks out of a meeting, leaving the Iraqi employees’ security questions unanswered—and a fresh-faced, smiling diplomatic corpsman, Bill Prescott (Alex Moggridge), who begins by declaring, “I believe in American Exceptionalism, but within limits” and “the Middle East is my generation’s Europe,” but finally—after some sort of breakdown over the duplicitous Embassy policies on Iraqi workers and his return to the States—takes up the ignored plight of the Iraqi translators as his own mission, outside the foreign service.
In a number of ways, Prescott is the closest to a true character in the script. The Iraqi characters remain composites—which the excellent cast, four of them (including Khalid Shayota as various “Iraqi Citizens”) of Middle Eastern background, have breathed something of their own life into, perhaps including some sense of living in two worlds.
“You’re like me, another non-belonger,” Adnan addresses Intifar. There’s an unfulfilled Conrad-esque quality (as in Under Western Eyes or Heart of Darkness) lurking in Packer’s script, the situations and dialogue of which are cannibalized in great part from his celebrated New Yorker reportage of the same title, from March 26, 2007. It’s very much a first play, conveying the message, but remaining a melodrama, or melodramatic docu-drama, like a pretty good TV movie. Hints of the genius of colloquial Arabic seep through (“We’re blowing into a punctured bag,” Laith says to Adnan when the Ambassador abandons them in their plight to the suspicions of the security officer). It’s like a foreign twist on Horatio Alger story gone terribly wrong (Adnan ends his reminiscences to the audience, “To this moment, I dream about America”)—but not in the way Dreiser, another connoisseur of outsiders, could reveal the dysfunction of a whole society in the wreakage of that innocent dream. The people of Baghdad, of Iraq, remain shadowy figures in the background. The hapless translators become, like one of their own jokes, as recounted in the New Yorker, absurd double agents, “James Bond, without the nice lady or the famous gadgets.” A double life—one of the fundamental theatrical situations—in fact, that of the actor.
Still, Packer has fulfilled his purpose: to give voice to these discarded and endangered Iraqis who have fallen between two chairs, in a different fashion than in his journalism. The situations and the words are related from experience. The interrogation scenes prove vivid—and there’s one fine tragic image: the hijab Intisar starts to put over her head, then tosses over the office chair at her desk, where it remains after she leaves—and still hangs, when Bill Prescott comes in to tell Adnan and Laith what’s become of their colleague.
Aurora has put on a timely spectacle, one volatilized by its committed actors, cast by Jeanette Harrison and directed by Robin Stanton, reminiscent of a few other moments when something of the Middle Eastern situation found form on local stages: 9 Parts of Desire at Berkeley Rep a few years ago; the many shows Golden Thread (which Bakhtiari, Harrison and Ibrahim have worked with) has—and continues to—put on; that magnificent Iranian play The Death of Yazgird Darvag produced at Ashby Stage; Naomi Wallace’s soliloquy of a young pigeon-keeper in a Baghdad under sanctions the Eastenders produced in their “100 Years of Political Plays”—and the dramatic tradition of valorizing Otherness and those caught in between, from the Greek Tragedies through Marlowe and Racine to Genet’s The Screens ... those living presences onstage that enable the audience to crack the shell of cultural self-absorption.
8 p.m. Wednesday–Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays through March 1 at the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison St. $40-$42. 843-4822.