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Online Cultural Briefings, no. 3, 2008/2009
By Al Jadid Staff
Compiled by Al Jadid Magazine Staff
Arab Americans On and Off the Big Screen
A recent article published in the Los Angeles Times by Raja Abdulrahim highlighted an old dilemma facing Arab-American filmmakers — the difficulty of receiving funding for their films. This topic caught the attention of one of the nation’s major newspapers, because it coincided with the opening of the 13th Annual Arab Film Festival in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Berkeley, and San Jose.
Most ethnic minorities have their share of under-representation and stereotypical representation in Hollywood. It happens to Mexican Americans, commonly seen on the screen in roles as janitors or maids; jive-talking, street-smart African Americans, who are typically contrasted with an uncool middle-aged white male; and Asian Americans, who are often old, wise, and prone to spouting nonsensical adages fit for fortune cookies to an unwitting (and often white) protagonist. The same is true for Arab Americans, who have faced a more negative portrayal than most: that of terrorists or criminals, often equipped with a cigarette, just in case their evil intent was not made clear enough by their hijacking a plane.
Increasingly aware that correcting decades, if not centuries-old misrepresentations of Arab Americans and Muslims in Western literature and arts required immediate attention, a generation of Arab-American filmmakers decided to take the task into their own hands. However, for two contemporary Arab-American filmmakers, finding funding for their movies has proved difficult for reasons that are political rather than artistic. Cherien Dabis, director of “Amreeka,” and Ahmad Zahra, producer of “Three Veils,” experienced resistance on political grounds from both their own community and the independent film world when trying to secure investment for their films.
Social, cultural, and religious politics are often reasons for denial of funding given by investors within the Arab community, who are typically hesitant to fund films that depict sexual or violent content. Abdulrahim noted that when Zahra approached wealthy Arabs in Los Angeles to fund his film “Three Veils,” he was routinely turned down on the ironic grounds that the subject matter was either too conservative or too liberal — this because the film depicts an arranged marriage and a character struggling with her homosexual desire.
In the same article in the Los Angeles Times, filmmaker Musa Syeed said that “There’s a kind of PR mentality amongst those engaging in the arts in our communities — the only goal is to fix our image.” This places Arab American filmmakers, often graduates of major American universities, in the tedious role of merely attempting damage control, which many are reluctant to accept.
Rather, filmmakers like Zahra would like to create a realistic portrayal of Arab- American life, one that, if at times gritty or unpolished, is at least true, and therefore more effective in showing that the Arab community is just like any other, warts and all. However, since there is such a dearth of Arab characters in the popular arts and media, positive or negative, Arab investors are much more selective about the ones they choose to fund.
While social politics are often the reason for denial of funding by Arab investors, international politics are often the grounds for denial of funding from independent investors in the United States. Films depicting the lives of Arab Americans are often seen as politically charged, even when the narratives concern Arab-American families and are not ostensibly political. As reported by Andrew Gumbel in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, when Dabis approached investors for her movie, they often balked, stating that times were too politically sensitive. This despite the fact that “Amreeka” is not a political film, but instead a story about a Palestinian family immigrating to a small town in Illinois. However, “Amreeka” also depicts many scenes in the West Bank, and because of this an element of controversy is introduced into the film. Dabis said of the experience of gaining funding: “There was also this fear that an Arab American making a film about Arab Americans would be inherently biased. They said it would be better if it were put in the hands of a non-Arab American.”
The question was asked in the daily online Jewish magazine the Tablet by Marissa Brostoff in the article “Is a film about Palestinians inherently political?” In that article, Christina Piovesan, co-producer of “Amreeka,” said that the film is not political. “If the perspective is that of a woman who’s trying to help her son, and the very fact that she’s living in the West Bank is controversial, I don’t know what to say about that.”
Brostoff comes to the conclusion that paradoxically in “Amreeka,” “from some political perspectives, both left and right, it’s quite possible to say that the very fact of Muna’s [the main character of “Amreeka”] living in the West Bank is controversial.”
It’s a hurdle that Dabis’s peers at Columbia University probably don’t have to face, since the equivalent depiction of a Chinese-American or Mexican-American experience is not typically charged with being political.
In the end, Dabis turned to Abu Dhabi-based film studio Imagenation, a film studio and subsidiary of the Abu Dhabi Media Company. As reported in The National, also owned by the Abu Dhabi Media Company, “Imagenation has pledged US$1 billion for production of feature films and digital content over the next five years. Its aim is to make award winning, commercially successful films, with a target of six to eight films per year.”
The question remains: may there be strings attached to investments from the Middle East? Although no censorship to Dabis’s material was reported, it does not seem unlikely that political or religious resistance to certain subject matters may yet arise from investors in the Middle East.
A Syrian-American Navigates New Orleans
By Al Jadid Staff
The stereotyping and mistrusting of Arabs has existed before Sept. 11, but even more so after 2001. And no where can we find greater examples of this prejudice than in the depictions of Arabs in mainstream cultural mediums. So it comes as some surprise that a recent departure from this long-standing stereotype comes from mainstream American author Dave Eggers’s new novel “Zeitoun,” which documents the lives of a Syrian-American family and the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. In the book, Abdulrahman Zeitoun emerges as a man of dignity and heroism, effecting a quiet repudiation of the stereotypical characterization of Arabs while also giving American literature a new hero.
Opening on the Zeitoun family in Uptown New Orleans, the novel depicts the tragedies that befell the patriarch of the Zeitouns, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, who finds himself victim to both Hurricane Katrina, and an unlawful arrest following the hurricane on suspicions that he is a terrorist.
After ignoring a warning to evacuate, Zeitoun stays in his family’s New Orleans home while his family leaves. He suspects, like many New Orleanians did, that the damages incurred to his home would be limited to a few broken windows. Waking later to find his city submerged, Zeitoun utilizes a canoe he purchased some years in the past to navigate the newly flooded streets. Eggers relishes these scenes and does not hold back in describing all of the strange details of flooded New Orleans like a vision of the apocalypse, even furthering the comparison by opening the novel with an epigraph from Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road.”
Equipped with only his canoe, Zeitoun, referred to by his last name only in the book, travels through the city answering meek cries for help. With so many in need of help, and government organizations like FEMA so ill-equipped to respond, Zeitoun becomes a hero to a city that desperately needs one.
He rescues a 200-pound, 70-year old woman trapped in her house in one scene. He swims to her porch after hearing her soft cries for help. Once inside he finds her using her furniture as a make-shift floatation device, but barely able to carry on in that manner after nearly 24 hours. Realizing that he couldn’t possibly support her in the canoe, he leaves to find another boat to help. With reports that the city has turned anarchistic and violent, many are unwilling to help. A fan boat passes him by without so much as a glance, nearly toppling his canoe. But luckily a small fishing boat stops and he is able to use a ladder to get the old woman into the boat.
“The woman rolled into the bed of the boat. It was not a graceful landing, but she managed to sit up. […] Zeitoun shuddered to watch a woman of her age suffer like this. The situation had robbed her of her dignity, and it pained him to bear witness.”
In many ways “Zeitoun” is concerned with dignity, both robbed and gained. Despite his good efforts, Zeitoun is arrested and detained without charges by officers under suspicions that he is a terrorist. In prison he is subjected to humiliation and abject tortures in scenes reminiscent of Abu Ghraib prison. In these scenes the anger over the undignified treatment of Arabs since Sept. 11, becomes most apparent, but Zeitoun never loses dignity, and Eggers never loses his journalistic objectivity. Throughout the novel Zeitoun’s image is untarnished, and only the reputations of his torturers are damaged.
Eggers set out to “de-exoticize” the idea of a Muslim-American family in “Zeitoun.” He said in an interview with GOATMILK, an online blog, that in writing this story he “was seeking to just tell a story about an all-American family that happens to be Muslim.”
Based on a series of interviews Eggers conducted with the Zeitoun family, including the freed Abdulrahman Zeitoun, beginning in 2005, Eggers attempted to portray the events preceding and following the hurricane without inserting his own judgments or embellishing the story with too much style or sentimentality. His example was Norman Mailer’s “The Executioner’s Song,” which he found powerful for its lack of Mailer’s own voice. Rather, he let the events speak for themselves, which he believed would showcase the material’s power.
By choosing to tell a true story, Eggers has avoided the possibility of disbelief here. Also absent are any traces of stereotype and the usual notions about Arab characters to create a powerful and compelling story.
Critics agree. Timothy Egan wrote in a cover story for the New York Times Book Review: “my guess is, 50 years from now, when people want to know what happened to [New Orleans] during a shameful episode of our history, they will still be talking about a family named Zeitoun.”
Lebanon Takes Center Stage at Avignon Theater Festival
By Al Jadid Staff
The 63rd Avignon Festival was held from July 7-29 in Avignon, France. Founded by Jean Vilar in 1947, the annual theater festival is one of the oldest in France, and one of the most popular and historically significant. This year there was a special Lebanese presence. The Lebanese participants included-- besides the associated artist of the festival, the Lebanese-Canadian Wajdi Mouawad -- Lina Saneh, Rabih Mroue, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Zad Moultaka, Yalda Younes, Yasmine Hamdan, Daniel Arbid, and Ghassan Salhab.
Vincent Baudriller, artistic director of the Avignon Festival, emphasized this Lebanese special presence at this year’s festival in an interview conducted by Georgine Ayoub, who covered the festival for the Beirut and London-based Al Hayat newspaper. The associated artist Wajdi Mouawad, is a Lebanese-Canadian actor, director, translator, and playwright, born in Lebanon whose family fled the civil war and moved to France in 1977 and who finally immigrated to Montréal in 1983. Three of his plays, the poignantly poetic, 'Littoral', 'Incendies' and 'Forêts', were presented in the Palais des Papes' Cour d'honneur over 11 hours. Writing in French, Wajdi Mouawad, because of his multiple talents and history, has the ability to appeal to different generations and cultures. Profoundly influenced by the Lebanese civil war, his plays are stories about origins -- their mystery and burdens -- but also about childhood, family history, civil war, justice, solitude, and the reparation of trauma by breaking silence. The stage becomes the site of epic stories and narrations, and the audience shares the anxiety and bewilderment that accompany unexplained violence, dispossession, loss, and death.
As for the other Lebanese artists, Saneh, in an interview with Georgine Ayoub, described the special bond between her fellow Lebanese artists present at Avignon, a bond created by their shared experience of the 15-year long Lebanese Civil War and which she believes has given them a unique approach to theater. Saneh’s works appear in simple narratives to effectively showcase her ideas. She explained that the dominant voices in the Lebanese artworks attempt to shake the viewer’s conscience by describing the horrors of war as well as shaking the perception of the oppressor-victim duality, which she refuses to buy into. “We all consider ourselves as involved in the war. We are all responsible for it in one way or another, even if we didn’t kill anyone,” she told Ayoub,..
Saneh also feels that theater has a responsibility not to pander to the emotions of the audience. She explains, “We are cautious not to incite emotions. Certainly, the people might respond if we did, but this would only create more violence and polarization, and also allow leaders to control their people. I have the Lebanese audience in mind when I say this, and I don’t allow myself to manipulate that audience.” And despite the fact that the play is showing in a French theater festival, she still feels that it is written for the Lebanese people.
Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige showed a multi-media installation of videos, photographs, and sounds to create a space of absence, bullets, and simplicity that aims to recreate Lebanon’s memory, highlighting in a double-film shown in the space entitled “Khiam 2000-2007,” named after a detention camp in southern Lebanon occupied by Israel until 2000, and which was destroyed in the 2006 Lebanon war. The resulting piece deals with questions, as stated on the Avignon Festival website, “of what is seen, what is not seen, making the invisible speak, rendering it faithfully, but also calling up the ghosts to question Lebanon’s present.”
Zad Moultaka’s vocal ensemble piece, “The Other Bank,” used a child set to the backdrop of bombs in Lebanon, to pose the question: “What if I were born on the other side?” Through the piece, which deals with the hate and violence that is born from the partisanship and internecine violence, a catharsis of sorts is reached. In Moultaka’s second piece, “Non (No),” he utilizes the stomping feet of Yalda Younes to recreate the sounds of war, deafeningly loud and terrifying, to remind the audience of the powerlessness daily combat creates.
At one point during the interview, Saneh referred to the other Lebanese artists as ‘we.’ Asked what they really had in common by Ayoub, she said that through their work they must further an important discussion: why they must both forget the war and also never forget it. At this year’s Avignon Festival, both arguments were heard.
A Ghada Samman Duet
By Al Jadid Staff
One of the most prolific novelists in the Arab world, Ghada Samman, remains as busy as ever in enriching the Arab library of letters and engaging the literary imaginations of scholars and critics. Two new books further that trend, one by her and one about her. “The Owl Told Me And Said,” by Syrian critic Ibrahim Mahmoud, published by Dar al-Talia, Beirut, is an aesthetic-textual approach to an earlier book by Samman, “Dancing with the Owl.” The new work by Samman is titled: “The Young Woman Will Come to Admonish You—The Beginnings of Rebellion,” and is published by Ghada Samman Publications, Beirut.
In “The Owl Told Me and Said,” Mahmoud raises a series of questions about the significance of the owl in Samman’s writings. According to a review in the London and Beirut-based Al Hayat newspaper, Mahmoud asserts that Samman abandoned her own image and found the image of her dreams in the owl. She understands that she cannot escape her image during the day, but whenever she looks into the magical mirror at night, rather than finding her own mundane likeness, she sees instead the wide eyes of the owl, a bird gifted with mythic psychological and spiritual powers of sight and free from the banalities of daily existence.
“The Young Woman Will Come to Admonish You” is the 17th volume of Samman’s “Incomplete Works,” a collection that includes unpublished essays. It is the fifth in a series of conversations between Samman and her literary colleagues, parts of which appeared in “The Tribe Interrogates the Victim,” “The Sea Tries a Fish,” “Wandering Inside a Wound,” and “Putting Love on Trial.” Literary figures Ghali Shukri, Mutah Safadi, and George al-Rassi are among those with whom Samman conversed.
In praising Ghada Samman, the late Moroccan author Muhammed Choukri said, “She was the foremost daring literary figure in the Arab world during this century. Ghada Samman is a pioneer among the courageous authors, whether in her interviews or creative works; she was steadfast in spite of all temptations, and it is my hope that others who appreciate her will also add their own.”
Hollywood In-Fighting Over Israel Goes Public
By Al Jadid Staff
When Canadian documentary filmmaker John Greyson pulled his latest movie, “Covered,” from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) late in August, the controversy did not arise from the removal of his film, as might be expected. Nor was it his subsequent criticism of TIFF’s new film series entitled City-To-City, highlighting the films of Tel Aviv in an open letter. Rather, the hype was in the names of the celebrities that endorsed his letter that put the trade papers in a frenzy, effected a harsh response from even more celebrities, and forced actress Jane Fonda to explain her decision to support Greyson on the Huffington Post.
In his critique, Greyson wrote, “Isn't such an uncritical celebration of Tel Aviv right now akin to celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963, California grapes in 1969, Chilean wines in 1973, Nestles infant formula in 1984, or South African fruit in 1991?”
But the response from Hollywood was quick and strong. Jerry Seinfeld, Seth Rogen, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Lenny Kravitz were just a few of the names who endorsed a rebuttal condemning the Toronto Declaration protest letter as being silly and anti-Semitic. Objectionable to them was the letter’s claims that “Tel Aviv is built on destroyed Palestinian villages” and the labeling of Israel as an “apartheid regime.”
In the end it was Jane Fonda who garnered the most attention of any celebrity endorsement, both for her quickness to join in the fray initially, but also for backpedaling from the controversy once it erupted. Fonda’s outspokenness in Mideast politics has caught attention before. As a strong voice in the anti-Vietnam War movement she surprised some anti-war activists in 1982 when she and her then husband Tom Hayden came out in support of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. When she traveled to Israel in 2002 as part of a tour of the Palestinian territories and protested Israel’s 35th year of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip outside of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s residence, she appeared to be back in the good favor of peace groups, so it was no surprise when she added her name to Greyson’s letter as a part of her recently articulated opinions. But when she backpedaled from the letter in an article written for the Huffington Post it exposed her lasting sensitivity on the issue, and the inflated importance of semantics in this debate.
In that article, Fonda wrote that she regretted some of the language used in the original letter, as she wanted to make clear that she was not questioning the legitimacy of Israel or the filmmakers involved in the festival. She went on to explain that her better judgment was blinded at first, and even criticized the one-sided nature of the original letter she signed, writing that “it can become counterproductive to inflame rather than explain and this means to hear the narratives of both sides.”
Iraqi Refugees Find a Voice in ‘Aftermath’
By Al Jadid Staff
“Aftermath,” a new play by the award-winning husband-wife duo of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, is an 85-minute series of monologues centering on the lives of Iraqi refugees in Jordan. Inspired by 35 interviews with Iraqi refugees in Jordan conducted by Blank and Jensen in 2008, the play is concerned with engendering a dialogue between Iraqis and Americans--not as individuals directly involved with the war or politics of Iraq, but as everyday people left in the wake of a destructive war. Those Iraqis interviewed were posed with the question: If you could say something to a room full of Americans, what would you say? The resulting monologues render a range of voices that can be at times sad, funny, regretful, indignant, insightful, but more than anything else, humanizing, which in the end is the goal of “Aftermath”. Garnering strong praise for its focused and nuanced storytelling and deft performances from the New York Times, Variety, and the Boston Globe, “Aftermath” will be playing at the New York Theater Workshop until Oct. 4.
Martin Amis’s ‘The Second Plane’:
Fiction as Middle East Studies
By Simone Stevens
(Al Jadid Staff Writer)
“The Second Plane,” a collection of 14 essays on 9/11, terrorism, and American policies, is British fiction writer Martin Amis's latest book. Author of such works as “The Rachel Pipe,” “London Fields,” and “The Pregnant Widow," he has been known to cause uproar amongst literary critics, especially those with some knowledge of Mideast politics. In the “Second Plane,” Amis expounds on his theories about 9/11 interchanging terrorism and Islam. Some of Amis's intellectual sources were also inspirational to neoconservatives, including the polemical and divisive Bernard Lewis, a darling of the Bush Administration prior to the invasion of Iraq.
Covering the time span of Sept. 18th 2001 to 2007, the essays are a detailed journey of Amis’s initial reactions and shifting perspectives. It is a far cry from his usual world of make believe, and the prevailing question among critics seems to be “Does a British fiction writer have the right, or the chops, to deliver a serious attempt at non-fiction that dissects 9/11, the Middle East, and American policies?" The consensus is that he does not.
Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times calls Amis’s book a “weak, risible, and often objectionable volume that the reader finishes convinced that Amis should stick to writing fiction and literary criticism.” For many, he simply crosses a line into a world that leaves him looking foolishly arrogant, lacking the credibility that a historian or political scientist could stand on. He then proceeds to make heavy proclamations concerning the Muslim community that are offensive and over- generalized, reflecting his own ignorance, and borderline racism. Jonathan Tepperman of Newsweek says“Amis’s own perception also breaks down. He relies on supposedly telling anecdotes that reveal only his prejudices….his targets gradually shift from radicals to the Muslim world at large. As he paints with an ever broader brush, his tone becomes nastier, he suggests at one point that average Afghans are probably proud that their mothers and sisters are illiterate.” In Amis’s defense, Joy Tollimore of truthdig.com writes, “The remarks really were not only, as he (Amis) now admits, ‘stupid,’ but deeply offensive. Such overtly discriminatory policies have something important in common with terrorism.’ On the other hand, the price of engaging in moral thought in a serious way-rather than simply standing on the sidelines and muttering platitudes about the goodness of peace and tolerance-is that one will on occasion give offence, including legitimate offence; and the only way to avoid guarantee that one never hits the wrong target is to avoid taking any stand at all.”
If nothing else, the Amis controversy shows that freedom of speech and open debate are alive and well. Though at liberty to say what they wish, those who venture to publicly speak their minds always risk opposition and stand to be exposed. And so Martin Amis was.
The Photo Op Seen Around the World
By Hilary Hesse
(Al Jadid Staff Writer)
Provoking much controversy, director Errol Morris’ disturbing documentary, “Standard Operating Procedure,” opened to extremely mixed reviews. Though not the first film about Abu Ghraib, it is the first to concentrate so strenuously on the notorious photographs that blew the torture whistle on the prison. In fact, it can be said that the movie focuses almost single-mindedly on trying to understand the images: Why were these photos taken, and what reality do they reflect? What disturbing presence stands behind the camera?
We later identify this force as staff sergeant Charles Graner, who fathered Lynndie England’s child while simultaneously carrying on with his future wife, Megan Ambuhl. In love with Graner, a smiling England poses holding a man on a leash in what has become the scandal’s most infamous shot. Something else we learn is that most of the torture had taken place before the inmates were delivered to the wardens. Again, why were the shots taken? According to Roger Ebert, of the Chicago Sun Times, “the taking of the photos seems to have been the motivation for the moments they reveal.” Was it all done, then, just for the picture?
Some have suggested that Morris’ non-dialectical method made for lackluster interviews of the punished soldiers. Indeed most of them say about what one would expect. However, this banality underscores the film’s unspoken thesis that these “bad apples” (they were thus termed by the military and later, sarcastically, by Morris) were actually just cogs in the military machine. Throughout the piece an invisible finger points upward.
A substantial amount of noise has also been made about the fact that Morris paid several of his interviewees, a practice thought to jeopardize credibility. Others have implied that this is just standard operating procedure when it comes to documentary filmmaking.
Above all, “Standard Operating Procedure” has been questioned on the basis of its blockbuster production techniques, which many see as inappropriate in a film intending to take a grim look at human savagery. An especially put off New York Times concluded that, “Mr. Morris’ epistemological quest has led him to re-imagine Abu Ghraib in the vernacular of a cheap Hollywood horror flick.” If controversy and disagreement are hallmarks of successful filmmaking, then Morris should congratulate himself on the achievement.
Phil Donahue Goes To War
By Hilary Hesse
(Al Jadid Staff Writer)
With visions of tracking down Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan, 22 year-old Tomas Young of Kansas City, Mo. enlisted in the Army on September 13, 2001. From him, as from many, the attacks elicited a fierce patriotism, and even a newfound sense of purpose. But he never made it to Afghanistan. After completing basic training at Fort Hood, Texas, he was shipped to Iraq, where he was shot through the spinal cord a mere five days into his tour. He is now paralyzed from the waist down.
Intending to make a documentary about the war in Iraq, TV talk show legend, Phil Donahue, took a tour of Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he met Young as he was undergoing rehabilitation. Deeply moved by Young’s ordeal, Donahue teamed up with director Ellen Spiro. What emerged was the telling of Young’s painful, sadly all too common, story in a film titled “Body of War.” On a literal level, the body in question is obviously Young’s, with the documentary focusing heavily on the external ravages of war. The audience is introduced to the daily struggles that accompany life in a wheel chair, ranging from difficulty with dressing to nerve pain, depression and urinary tract infections. One might extrapolate that Young’s intellectual and spiritual bodies are also referenced in the title, as we are presented with the evolution of his political consciousness, another product of the war. The hardest blows may have been dealt to his emotional body, which include having been briefly married and then left by his wife.
The other “body” is Congress. Alternating between scenes involving the hurried decisions of the U.S. House and Senate, and a devastated Young, the film makes no pretensions about the cause and effect relationship it illustrates, indicting all but the 23 congressmen who stood in opposition to the war. According to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, “Body of War” would have been equally, if not more, effective had it featured only a broken Young. However, part of the film’s power lies in its chronicling of the relatively simple A to B decisions that led to the invasion of Iraq and juxtaposing that with mind-blowingly complicated aftermath: the daily plight of maimed vets like Young becomes even more deplorable in light of such egregious congressional irresponsibility. “Body of War” reminds us that things could have and should have gone differently.
Play Examines the Human Cost of Empty Promises
By Simone Stevens
(Al Jadid Staff Writer)
George Packer is a novelist and journalist with a savvy political eye. Through his column in The New Yorker, various essays, and his most recent book, “The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq,” the writer has unleashed his own brand of fierce criticism of the war and its tragic consequences. His most recent protest comes in the form of an off Broadway production called “Betrayed,” which marks Packer’s first foray into playwriting.
Adapted from an earlier published article of the same name, “Betrayed” focuses on the experiences of three Iraqi translators working for the U.S. Intoxicated by the promise of a new Iraq, the translators – two men and one woman – go about their duties with unwavering dedication, until violent protest to the occupation begins erupting all over the country. Suddenly threatened for having aligned themselves with the wrong side, the translators request political asylum from the U.S., which they are repeatedly denied. Feeling abandoned by an administration they had risked their lives to help, one of the men says, “I fell in between heaven and hell. The Americans didn’t want me, and the Iraqis didn’t want me. Where will I go? …I am – how do you say – hung out to dry.”
By focusing on the lives of ordinary Iraqis, the play offers a refreshing alternative to the sterility of statistics and economic obsessions that all too often characterize American journalism on the war. In “Betrayed,” it is the human toll that counts, and much of the dialogue is taken from actual interviews with Iraqi citizens. Packer is quoted in The New York Times as saying, “I wanted to do something with the material I had, that I didn’t think journalism could do, which was to go deeper into the experience of the Iraqis themselves.”
At this point, the American public does not need to be convinced that the war was a mistake, but it may, nevertheless, require reprogramming on the subject of war in general. Art offers such a possibility. “Betrayed” combats the media objectification of Iraq’s citizens by reminding the viewer that they are not ideas, but human beings. And public empathy and indignation may just be the best deterrents against future “pre-emptive” military operations. Of his experience seeing “Betrayed,” New York Times writer Adam Feldman comments, “One leaves sharing the translators’ frustration at the supposed saviors who brought freedom’s door to Iraq and then guarded it against entry.”
“Betrayed” opened off Broadway in February 2008 and garnered attention for its novel yet relevant subject matter. Pippin Parker’s lean direction and talented cast (including Waleed F. Zuaitar, Sevan Greene and Aadya Bedi) have been applauded by several distinguished critics, and the production won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Play. Calling the set and design “sparse and devoid of any distinct creative flair,” The New York Times suggested that the ambience was supplied mainly by the actors and Packer’s powerful script. Due to positive reception, "Betrayed"'s run was extended through June 16th.