“Iraqi interpreters who lived and died in service to the American military are treated as bureaucratic nuisance by American politicians!”

Are you ready for an air-lift of tens of thousands of Iraqis to the United States or perhaps one of its territories, such as Guam, to allow stream-lined immigrant visa processing for Iraqi translators who were employed by the American government following the fall of Saddam Hussein in the Iraq War?

Allow me to quote from an article in the New Yorker Magazine by “Reporter At Large, George Packer”, published on January 9th, 2009 in the New Yorker Magazine: “I know Iraqi refugees are somewhere around 87th on anyone’s agenda. I know I should be writing about Gaza or economic stimulus – another day. But today, let me call your attention to a new report, scheduled for release on Monday (1/12/09) by Natalie Ondiak and Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress (soon to be the Obama Administration’s Heritage or A.E. I.). It’s called “Operation Safe Haven – Iraq 2009” and is a detailed proposal for an airlift of tens of thousands of Iraqis who have worked with Americans there and whose lives are in danger, in perpetuum, as a result.”

What is all this about and why bring it up in a theatre column?

George Packer is also the author of a brilliantly irritating new play entitled “Betrayed” which just opened this past week at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley. “Brilliant” because it is an extremely well written play that fully engages the audience and “Irritating” because, there is no escaping the reality of the issues raised in this story based (we believe) on cold, hard fact. Our country’s inept and short-sighted initiation and engagement in the Iraq War and our responsibility to the Iraqis interpreters drawn into our service and subsequently abandoned by our state department, has cost hundreds of Iraqis and their families their lives and safety. They are considered “traitors” by the sectarian extremists for assisting the occupying forces and more specifically, the American military.

The play is based upon an article written by Packer in March of 2007, following an interview he obtained with two Iraqis interpreters in the Palestine Hotel in Bagdad earlier in that same year. Packer was in Iraq on his sixth trip to that country since the start of the war. He had been given the assignment to write about Iraqis who had gone to work for the Americans – as interpreters, drivers, office managers, secretaries – and who were being hunted down by insurgents and militias for the crime of being “spies”. In Packers own words, “I found that the U.S. Government was treating the peril in which these Iraqis found themselves as a bureaucratic nuisance.”

It is the story of two young men, one a Sunni and the other a Shia, who had a very strong personal bond, a relationship that shared a common desire, a desire that hoped for the arrival and intercession of the Americans. In addition, the story tells the tale of an Iraqi woman who in similar fashion worked as a secretary for the U.S. military.

A dream existed for many young Iraqi men and women who idealized American culture, movies and music, their fantasy flamed by a dream of an American intervention that would eventually assist them and their country in changing their lives and prospects for future freedom. These young people told themselves that they would seek work with the foreigners in any capacity they could, to begin the process of becoming Americanized.

“Betrayed” is a very disturbing story of great risks and sacrifices on the part of these brave and dedicated young people, who risked their lives on a daily basis; the promises made, promises not kept, and in the end, total betrayal for all but a few. The story as it evolves, demonstrates the trust, compassion, hopes and fears and realities of these Iraqis who served the American cause and suffered the curse of aiding the Americans. It was poignant and gut-wrenching for me to see, once again, how far afield a hopeful and well meaning American intent to remove a tyrant from power, could blunder and ultimately destroy so many lives.

Director Robin Stanton has selected a cast and crew that together have brought to audiences an exquisite and powerful work of art, education and entertainment. She has produced many plays around the Bay Area that I have reviewed and praised, but this accomplishment has to be the pinnacle of her local accomplishments.

The cast includes Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari as Adnan (the Sunni interpreter), Amir Sharafeh as his friend, Laith (a Shia citizen), Denmo Igrahim as Intisar (the female clerical assistant), Khalid Shayota as various Iraqi citizens (actually born in Bagdad), James Wagner (as an American soldier and Regional Security Officer), Alex Moggridge as Prescott (the informational point man to whom these people turn for assistance) and Keith Burkland as the American Ambassador (whose vision is purely political in depth). The acting is absolutely superlative by the entire cast, providing me with a compelling desire to get everyone I can to see this remarkable production.

The set design is by Eric E. Sikkonen, with lighting by Chris Guptill and costumes by Callie Floor. All of these elements bring together an experience that I will long remember.

This production continues Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sunday performances at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., now through March 1st. You may call (510) 843-4822 or visit their web site at http://www.auroratheatre.org/ for more information. Tickets range between $40 and $42 each, a very reasonable price to pay for this production. The Aurora Theatre is located at 2081 Addison Street in Berkeley, just a couple of doors east of the Berkeley Repertory Theatre.

The Aurora Theatre has once again provided our community with a richly rewarding experience and I highly recommend you take a friend to see this outstanding production! To read Packer’s full article in the New Yorker Magazine, follow this link on your computer. It consists of 16 pages. http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/03/26/070326fa_fact_packer Reading the article will not substitute for seeing the play, however!

(Images above were photographed by David Allen)
Image #1 shows translators Laith (Amir Sharafeh) and Adnan (Bobk Cyrus Bakhtiari) and image #2 shows the same men and secretary Intisar (Denmo Ibrahim) at first meeting.