Esam Pasha thought he had left Iraq behind. After the US invasion in the spring of 2003, the painter worked for a time as an interpreter for the US military. But the gig quickly went sour. Before long, he began receiving death threats from insurgents as they ramped up their resistance to the US occupation.
Pasha realized that his life was in grave danger -- so he left, finding shelter with a family in Connecticut in 2006. He is still waiting to be granted political refugee status.
On a recent weekend in New York, Pasha, 32, was sitting in a darkened off-Broadway theater in the SoHo neighborhood -- and suddenly all those bitter memories of fear come flooding back. Memories of the terror caused by suicide bombs. Of the tenuous double life he lived stuck between the US "occupiers" and the Iraqis. Of the kidnapped, tortured, and murdered friends. And finally, of the bitter disappointment and burning outrage he felt when the Americans, for whom he had risked his life, denied him their help.
"Unbelievable," Pasha says of the play afterwards, his long, wild mane tied into a pony-tail. "They spoke with my words."
Out of the Public Spotlight
The new play, for which Pasha made the long trip to Manhattan, is "Betrayed" by George Packer, a staff writer for the New Yorker. It is based on a 15,000-word piece Packer wrote for the magazine last March, in which he described the anguish and terror experienced by Iraqi translators and interpreters caught between the front lines: exploited and then forgotten by the Americans -- hunted by Iraqi insurgents for being "traitors."
"Betrayed," produced by the Culture Project, a popular venue for political drama, condenses the suffering of the translators into a play which is fiction only on paper. It reveals a real-life humanitarian drama, which continues to simmer outside of the public spotlight even five years after the invasion.
It is a story that begins full of hope. Thousands of Iraqis, hoping to help their country to a new, brighter future, offered themselves as go-betweens to US soldiers and diplomats. to help them commmunicate with the locals. Instead of playing a role in the rebuilding of their country, however, dozens -- if not hundreds -- of them have been abducted, maimed, and murdered by insurgents.
Packer shows how Iraqi employees of both the US Embassy and the military were facing life-threatening dangers outside Baghdad's Green Zone even as they were working for the Americans. Still, they were denied protection and help in Iraq, and were not granted political asylum when their survival was threatened. Of the almost three million refugees that have left Iraq since 2003, only a fraction made it to the US. In 2007, Washington allowed only 1,600 refugees into the country. Sweden, with a population of just 3 percent of that in the US, has accepted around 20,000.
"'Betrayed' would not be as tragic," wrote Dexter Filkins, a former Baghdad reporter of the New York Times, "if it were not also true."
The play, almost two powerful, gut-wrenching hours long, is a parable of a war in which "good" and "bad" have long lost any meaning. It tells the story of Intisar, Laith and Adnan, three friends who join the Americans, brimming with idealism -- and end up paying a terrible price for it. The main characters are composites of real people Packer met in Iraq. Even some of the dialogue is taken verbatim from the story.
Disillusionment and Heartbreak
Yet "Betrayed" doesn't portray the Americans as monsters. Sure, there is the stone-cold ambassador, most likely based on Paul Bremer, George W. Bush's emissary to Iraq until 2004. But there's also the jovial yet clueless GI and the young diplomat who despairs over the official rules and regulations.
Framed by a final encounter at the Hotel Palestine as Baghdad sinks into chaos outside, the disillusionment and heartbreak of the Iraqis is played out in flashbacks. They start full of hope that the arrival of the Americans will make everything better. For Adnan, especially, it can't be soon enough; he's always loved US movies and pop music.
"There was always this sound in the back of my head," he says. "The time will come, the change will come, my time will come."
Adnan (a Sunni) and his friend Laith (a Shiite) start working as translators at the US embassy. They meet the young Intisar, who can recite Emily Brontë by heart and refuses to cover her hair. "I don't want to do anything that someone obliges me to do," she proclaims. "That's pretty brave of you, Intisar," one of the US diplomats says. Her reply carries with it decades of Iraqi suffering. "It's not because I'm brave," she responds. "It's because I am tired."
Initially, the three of them are overjoyed to be allowed to participate in the liberation of their country. But the mistrust and suspicion between the Americans and the Iraqis never disappears completely. It is a chasm that becomes irreconcilable when Baghdad descends into chaos and the neighborhoods where Adnan, Laith and Intisar live become engulfed in sectarian violence.
The Americans consider their employees a security risk and refuse protection. The Iraqi insurgents outside the Green Zone consider them accomplices of the enemy. "Sometimes, I feel like we're standing in line for a ticket, waiting to die," says Laith resigned. It's another real line from the original story.
It all ends in despair, blood, torture, displacement, and death. "I fell in between heaven and hell," says Adnan. "The Americans didn't want me, and the Iraqis didn't want me. Where will I go? I am, how do you say it, hung out to dry."
It's a fate shared by many Iraqis in real life. Thousands fear for their lives, yet escape remains beyond their reach. "For the US to give asylum to an Iraqi," says Adnan in "Betrayed," "means they have failed in Iraq."
'I Dream about America'
But there are others, too. Kirk Johnson, a 24-year-old Embassy officer in Baghdad, brought a list with more of 100 names back to Washington -- names of Iraqis, most of the translators and other employees of the US, asking for political asylum. He managed to get many of those out -- to other countries.
Packer, who initially supported the invasion, doesn't see "Betrayed" as a political indictment. "I wanted to show the experiences of the Iraqis," the unimposing Brooklynite, who took questions from the audience after the show, said. "I wanted to show them as humans, in complicated, heartbreaking situations. Loyalty, hope, betrayal, all these are universal themes."
"Betrayed" was only supposed to have a two-week run in the beginning of February. After the enthusiastic reception it received, including glowing reviews, it was extended until mid-April.
For the rest of the public, however, the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world will probably remain unseen, five years after the march on Baghdad.
"I don't expect a lot from people," Adnan says at the end. "Not betrayed, no, not disappointed. I can never blame the Americans alone. It's the Iraqis who destroyed their country, with the help of the Americans, under the American eye."
He pauses, his eyes gazing out into the audience, where Esam Pasha is sitting in the dark. And then he says: "To this moment, I dream about America."