Much of our understanding of Iraq, five years on, is gotten in drive-by glimpses. John McCain swoons into Baghdad for a 48-hour stopover full of photo-ops. American personnel dart out of the Green Zone for quickie missions, rarely sharing tea with the people they are paid to protect. The evening news barely gives coverage to bombings. Five years on, it seems Iraqis and Americans are in this awkward dance but, like distant cousins at a wedding, we still don't really know -- or want to know -- each other.
For an off-Broadway glimpse of Iraq, take in the Culture Project's production, Betrayed. Written by New Yorker scribe George Packer, author of The Assassin's Gate, the play details the ordeals of Iraqis who risked their lives to assist Americans in the Green Zone as interpreters and "fixers." Many of them were denied visas to leave Iraq, even in the face of threats by insurgents who accused them of being stooges of the U.S. occupation. In the early aftermath of the war, these Iraqi interpreters, or "terps," we learn, were enthralled by America -- its culture, its customs, its people, its pornography. But shortly after they, like many Iraqis, turned hardened, their hopes dashed by a lack of security and basic services like electricity and potable water and the general surliness of American soldiers.
The Iraqis come to life on stage because many of their voices are cribbed from real Iraqis profiled in a March 2007 New Yorker article by Packer. The Americans in the play, while a little more superficially portrayed, are nonetheless pretty spot-on. The diplomat is too busy to be bothered, the DOD guy too macho to be swayed by these Iraqis' plight, and the State Department staffer too idealistic and naïve to do any real good for his newfound Iraqi friends. Each is a caricature of their respective turfs in Washington.
For those unschooled with the jumble of Pentagon jargon (RSO, DOS, MOI) or Iraqi names (JAM, Ansar al-Sunna, Sadrists), Betrayed can come off as confusing at times. But its overall theme -- that we have betrayed the Iraqis who risked their lives to help us -- is one that resonates and should have caused a larger stir than it has. Five years after the fall of Saddam, Iraqis cannot escape the inferno of violence in their own country, largely because of Washington's unwillingness to help them (offering them asylum is tantamount to admitting the whole war was a big mistake). If that is not a betrayal, I don't know what is.