The story of how George Packer’s play Betrayed was produced would be a dream if it weren’t borne of a reality that’s so maddening and so tragic.
Based on Packer’s New Yorker article of the same name, Betrayed took a total of eight months to create, from inception to production, at the Culture Project, where it runs through April 13. It was a developmental sprint that most plays and playwrights can only dream about.
Packer had never written a play before he attended a performance of Lawrence Wright’s My Trip to Al-Qaeda at the Culture Project in March 2007. But Packer is a novelist, memoirist and, most recently, staff writer for the New Yorker, and in 2007 he’d written the first piece he thought had “dramatic possibilities,” a 16,000-word article about the United States’ reprehensible treatment of its Iraqi interpreters.
“The scope of the New Yorker article is too large for a play, but the intensity of the stories is perfect,” he says. “I guess these Iraqis had gotten into my system. Their voices were in my head, and I wanted to do them more justice than I could even in a 16,000-word magazine article.”
After seeing Wright’s performance, he talked to the Culture Project about potentially turning his article into a play. They brought in playwright, director and dramaturg Pippin Parker, and a collaboration was born. Importantly, the two saw eye-to-eye on how to adapt Packer’s hundreds of pages of interviews with dozens of Iraqis and Americans from Iraq, Kurdistan, Jordan, Syria and even Sweden.
“George really did not want to write a play that was, you know, an American or white man’s navigation through some foreign, difficult situation,” Parker says, “which is how these stories often end up being.”
In keeping with the collaborators’ intentions, the biggest change to the script during development was the removal of an off-stage journalist character to whom the Iraqis told their story.
“[This] was a good thing,” Packer says, “because it meant that the Iraqis’ relationship could move even closer to the surface.”
With Packer writing the drafts and Parker offering comments and helping with casting and organizing readings, Betrayed’s play version came into shape by November. Rehearsals started in December, and the show opened in February.
But the deeper story behind Betrayed is the Iraq War, and, more specifically, Packer’s outrage at how America has treated its Iraqi friends who risked everything to help us help Iraq after we defeated Saddam Hussein and occupied the country.
Betrayed tells how two Iraqis, Adnan and Laith—one Sunni, one Shiite—put their lives on the line not only to work as translators for Americans, but—by aiding the invaders—to help transform Iraq into the moderate, democratic state they think America is committed to making it. The translators’ belief in America’s good intentions is one of the most powerful elements of the play, and probably the primary reason Packer wanted to write their stories.
“They cover the entire experience—from high hope, great sacrifice and some illusions and naivete to disillusionment, danger and even death,” Packer says. “No other Iraqis have gone through such extremes. No other Iraqis have hoped as much and lost as much … One of my friends said the shame of the play is that they believed in this more than we did.”
Thanks to near-universal disillusionment with—if not outright hatred for—the American occupation, the translators’ position as go-betweens and assistants to the Americans makes them suspect to all Iraqis and puts their lives uniquely at risk in an already very-dangerous environment, Packer says.
“These guys are the most vulnerable and the most hated of all,” he says. “They don’t have an armed group on their side. They can’t call on their militia to get revenge if one of them gets killed because they don’t have a militia. We were supposed to have been their militia, but we haven’t defended them.”
But Betrayed isn’t satisfied with detailing the struggles of only Iraqi interpreters—Americans betray Iraqis, yes, but Iraqis betray Iraqis, Americans betray Americans. What emerges is a picture of an embassy (the U.S. embassy), city (Baghdad) and country caught in the violent web of distant policymakers and local militias who—each for reasons that have nothing to with the country’s welfare—refuse to let their guard down enough even to attempt to understand each other.
American frustration is most potent in the character of Prescott, a U.S. embassy press officer who truly wants to help Iraq stabilize and develop. He listens and responds to the translators’ pleas for measures that would make their very-dangerous lives more secure, but he’s dependent on the embassy’s regional security officer (RSO) to get anything done. The RSO is fueled by a fundamental mistrust and paranoia about anyone living in the Red Zone (the entire country of Iraq outside the seven-square-mile Green Zone, the fortress-like citadel of U.S. authority). For him, Iraqis are all potential terrorists or protecting someone who is, and none can truly be trusted. The result? The translators are on their own—if they’re scared for their lives, they can quit coming to work.
Prescott and the RSO stand as what will be probably viewed as opposite points on the continuum of American archetypes in stories about the Iraq War—the naïve, true-believer who bought the Bush administration’s sale of the war as a humanitarian mission and the in-over-his-head military man who turns violently on all Iraqis once the mission becomes an occupation in a country that’s out of control. Neither is a pretty picture of American prosecution of this war.
As for Packer, he doesn’t see the situation improving for Iraqi translators or average Iraqis anytime soon.
“It will never be safe for Iraqis to work with Americans,” he says, “because until there is rule of law – which is years or decades away—any Iraqi with a grudge or a cause can kill any other Iraqi and basically get away with it.”
But the play Packer wrote is—perhaps oddly—uncynical. On one hand, it’s the story of a group of people—Iraqis and Americans—making a dangerous journey into the ‘reality-based community’—violence, mistrust and incompetence have shattered their happiest dreams for Iraq. But they realize a final verdict has yet to be reached.
Americans and Iraqis are tired of a war that’s lasted far longer and cost much more in lives and money than many expected. Despite all the ‘milestones’ and superficial achievements, the war continues as a daily invitation to cynicism and despair about Iraq’s future (while I’m writing, it’s reported that six more Americans and more than 40 Iraqis were killed in Iraq in the past two days). But Betrayed points toward a way forward that still exists for those who can see it.
Adnan’s final statement in the play isn’t an anti-Bush or anti-American screed, or even an accusation against the injustices he’s suffered at our hands or at the hands of fellow Iraqis. Instead, he speaks for many Iraqis and Americans alike about what we’ve lost in the naivete, dashed hopes and betrayals of the Iraq War, and what we may still regain:
"Until this moment,” he says. “I dream about America.”
Betrayed runs through April 13 at the Culture Project, 55 Mercer St. in Soho. Please visit www.cultureproject.org for more information.
Justin Boyd is a playwright, screenwriter and co-editor of the Theater section of the Rail.