February 15, 2008

Betrayed, reviewed

For those of you not inclined to read the Arts section of major NYC print publications (and Charlie's guessing that's about, hmm, all of you), let her be the first to tell you that George Packer's play is amazing. Vivid. And shattering.

Dexter Filkins writes:

The fatigue of the double life lies at the core of “Betrayed,” a drama inspired by the all-too-real struggles of the thousands of Iraqis who work for the Americans there. Iraqis like Intisar and her two friends in the play, Adnan and Laith, believed in the American project in Iraq: believed it could work and, just as important, believed the Americans would protect them if it did not. Intisar, Laith and Adnan pay dearly for their idealism, not least because the America they love so much could scarcely be bothered to save them. “Betrayed” would not be as tragic if it were not also true.

The dialog is mostly taken from interviews with Iraqis themselves, and the Iraqi characters are chillingly real. But Charlie was particularly struck by the quiet/ugly American, Bill Prescott who works in the political section of the Embassy and recruits the aforementioned Iraqis (his is the only character with a real story arc). At one point he's introduced as being from Springfield, MO with a (recent) degree from Wash U in St. Louis. She knows that kid. Hell, she probably is that kid. That's the kid she thought we wanted in the Foreign Service: young and bright and still optimistic. It's not his fault; he just doesn't know any better. But as the play unfolds, you just want to take him by the shoulders and shake him. His good intentions aren't enough (they never are), and he doesn't realize until too late how much danger he's put his translators in.

Packer captures this tragedy, but he is not paralyzed by it. One scene layers voice over voice to read the hundreds of emails Bill Prescott receives once he has returned to the States and has fully realized the plight of his Iraqi friends. Those emails are real; they were sent to George . And he has been a persuasive advocate ever since. So far, Australia (pop. 21m) has accepted more asylum seeks than has the US; Sweden is hosting 20k refugees. The US has admitted a fraction of the 12,000 visas it has allocated to our Iraqi allies. WTF is wrong with us? This is truly a national disgrace of the first order.

Charlie is most comfortable behind her well-developed veil of wry detachment. Her Gen-X blood trades irony for sincerity whenever possible. Neither Packer, nor his writing, suffers from such character flaws, and he doesn't allow you to be wrapped in yours for long either.

The title of Mr. Packer’s play suggests a polemical view of the events being depicted. Mr. Packer clearly believes the American government has not lived up to its ethical responsibility to safeguard the lives of its Iraqi employees. But it is impossible to convict him of irrational bias; the facts are what they are. Of being compassionate, outraged and possessed by a desire to expose injustice, however, he is unquestionably guilty.

Those interested in what they might do to help, should visit The List Project, an effort by USAID worker Kirk Johnson (first profiled in Packer's New Yorker article).