NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
A year ago on his sixth visit to Iraq for The New Yorker magazine, writer George Packer focused on the dilemma and the tragedy of the Iraqis who worked as translators, fixers and drivers for the U.S. government, the military or non-governmental organizations and for the media. People branded as collaborators by many of their fellow Iraqis who get little or no help from the United States.
His piece in The New Yorker came out last March - "Betrayed: The Iraqis Who Trusted America The Most." In the month since, Packer adapted his piece into a play called simply "Betrayed," which starts previews in New York's Culture Project tomorrow and formally opens there on February 6th.
If you'd like to talk with George Packer about the plight he describes about his reporting from Iraq or his book "The Assassins' Gate," our number is 800-989-8255. E-mail us, email@example.com. And you could join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
George Packer joins us from our bureau in New York.
And it's nice to talk with you again.
Mr. GEORGE PACKER (Writer, The New Yorker; "Betrayed: The Iraqis Who Trusted America the Most"): It's good to talk with you too.
CONAN: And are you nervous?
Mr. PACKER: I am very nervous. This never happened to me before. And so many moving parts, so many out of my control, a whole new medium that I'm an amateur in. So it's exciting and it's scary.
CONAN: Why did you decide to take an important and much talked about piece in The New Yorker magazine and make it into a play?
Mr. PACKER: It's a good question. The best I can tell you, Neal, is the voices that I heard in my interviews in Iraq that you mentioned last year just would not go out of my head even after I'd written the piece, published it, talked about it, testified to Congress about it. I just kept hearing them - those Iraqis telling me the story - not just of where they were when I found them but the whole story of the war from their point of view. It really was the story of the group that had the highest hopes, risked the most and had lost the most. And in that sense, it kind of epitomized what was so tragic about this war for Iraqis. And I wanted to find a way to bring them to life in a medium that even long-form, deep New Yorker-style journalism couldn't do. And because those voices were what were so strong, I thought just step aside and let the voices do the telling. And so get the narrator out of the way. Let the Iraqis speak for themselves. Obviously, the script did underwent radical changes but it still carries those words that I heard from those Iraqis last year.
CONAN: I was going to ask how much is their voices and how much were your writing.
Mr. PACKER: It began, I would say, with about half the script literally picked from a range of interviews - not a one-on-one character-to-person basis but kind of a smorgasbord of quotations with maybe two or three people I interviewed conflated into one character or another character. But after rehearsals and more rehearsals and, especially, collaborating with the director Pippin Parker who's just done a terrific job, I think what's left is probably 20 percent from life. And the rest is from imagination. And that's probably as it should be.
CONAN: We're talking with George Packer about his new play "Betrayed." If you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. E-mail us, firstname.lastname@example.org. And now let's get Heather(ph) on the line. Heather calling us from Cleveland, Ohio.
HEATHER (Caller): Hello.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air, Heather.
HEATHER: Hi. Thank you very much for taking my call. I read Mr. Packer's article and I found it really interesting. And I was wondering if he had any information about what has happened to some of these people since his article is written; if anything has improved or if it's basically stayed the same.
Mr. PACKER: It's a great question. I'd say the short answer is it's basically the same. One by one, anecdotally, Iraqis I know, Iraqis I hear about, are beginning to get out of Iraq and into this country with visas or as refugees. But the vast majority of Iraqi refugees, and especially this particularly imperiled group of Iraqis who worked with the U.S. and who were targeted for having worked with us, are still stuck in Baghdad or in Damascus or in Amman. And the wheels of the bureaucracy are turning so slowly that it's - it cannot just be a red tape. I think there is a real resistance on the part of the administration to face this problem. The president has not said one word about it, and as a result, a moral scandal is continuing under our noses. Something that - there is so much about Iraq we cannot control any longer. But this is something we can actually fix, and we're not fixing it. So the situation is maybe just marginally better than a year ago, but not much.
CONAN: The ambassador in your play - not named any other thing other than the ambassador - but he says, look, we can't have a mass exodus of Iraqis into this country. That would be an admission that we failed.
Mr. PACKER: …which is something that our government officials said off the record, and which is, I think, the most honest explanation for why President Bush and the White House have not made this issue a priority, and instead, have left it to midlevel bureaucrats. And the Department of State and Homeland Security sort of slowly cranked the wheels and let Iraqis in one at a time. It just doesn't look good for us to be saying we're going to win. The surge is succeeding. We're not going to abandon our allies in Iraq, while, at the same time, large numbers of them are coming here.
And the ambassador - you know what, you have to have a bit of sympathy for his position. He is carrying out his president's policy, and in his view, to have a mass exodus from the Green Zone would be a complete black eye for that policy. He says, look, in Vietnam, it was clear. We had lost in April 1975. And so, it was not, as Gerald Ford said, to do anything other than let the Vietnamese who worked with us come here, would add moral shame and humiliation. But that's not the case in Iraq. It's - out policy is not - that we have lost.
CONAN: No president would admit or this president would not admit humiliation, and certainly not in Iraq, at least.
Mr. PACKER: It's not a word you hear from the administration.
CONAN: No. Thanks very much for the call, Heather.
As you described this plight, the three main characters are Othman and Laith, who is - are translators who work for the U.S. embassy. There is also Bill Prescott, who is a lower-ranking foreign service officer who, you know - it would have been easy to portray these people in black and white.
Mr. PACKER: Well, that's what is beautiful about theater. It does not like black and white. It doesn't like issue advocacy. And I didn't write the play in order to advocate for the issue. I wrote it in order to explore the relationships and the inner lives of Iraqis and Americans, who are in this enormously difficult, complicated situation.
The two Iraqis - one is Sunni, one is Shia. How does a friendship between those - people from those two groups survive in the middle of a civil war? What are their feelings about their American supervisor as setbacks happen, and as they begin to feel that they're being left stranded? And what does their American supervisor do when his loyalty to the mission begins to come into conflict with his loyalty to his Iraqi employees? And these are the questions that really seized me and moved me to write the play. There is also a woman, Iraqi character in the play.
And, again, the question, what does it mean to be an Iraqi woman working in the Green Zone? It's different; it's worse than being a man. And I wanted to have the audience get a very fine textured sense of their lives, and of this situation, and to have to inhabit it for an hour and a half, and not simply tell them that this is a scandal that we need to do something about.
CONAN: One of the interesting issues you described is access to the Green Zone and there are - if you're an Iraqi national, there are only a very few portals into the Green Zone that you're allowed to use - and are standing outside on line often for hours, trying to get through the checkpoints.
And for a woman, Intisar(ph) - the name of the character for the woman in our play - has to start wearing much longer sleeves even in the summer time because she does not want to be identified - she doesn't want to be called a prostitute.
Mr. PACKER: I mean, these Iraqis working for the Americans in the Green Zone go to - in just an unbelievable length to hide the fact that they're working for the Americans. They don't tell their families. They don't tell their friends. They hide their embassy cell phones in the car on their way to work. They hide their badges in their undergarments or under the seat in the car. They have fake names in their cell phones for their friends in case they are kidnapped. They don't accept phone calls from their American supervisors on the street because they would have to speak English. And all of this came from my interviews, and all of it becomes part of the sort of gritty detail of what this double life forces these people to do, simply, in order to survive.
And absolutely, that gate to the Green Zone is a critical point. It's where informers and lookouts nicknamed the ones who chew(ph) are waiting and looking at who's coming in and out, and reporting back to the militias.
And it was part of my reporting that the Iraqis asked the embassy over and over to let them skip the line and get searched inside, which meant raising their clearance one level, and it didn't happen. And the fact that it didn't happen didn't just put them in greater jeopardy, it told them that official, America didn't really care.
CONAN: Let's get Bill(ph) on the line. Bill is with us from Madison, Wisconsin.
BILL (Caller): Yeah, hi. I have a brother who was staff sergeant, who is U.S. Army. And he was infantry but he was often detailed to drive one particular interpreter, but he is seeing different interpreters working. He had a kind of interesting perspective on it. You know, first, he had to (unintelligible) in with - when the first Gulf War ended and we (unintelligible) Baghdad. And we encouraged, you know, Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein and that we'd support them - and we did it.
But for the next 10 years, there has been sort of this low-level insurrection organizing. And some of these guys, with that kind of agenda, became interpreters, and because they're in such (unintelligible) because there is a high demand for them, they can be - they're kind of a headache for local - for low-level commanders because they kind of do their own thing.
You know, they - they're not - they don't always even go by the regulations that the military were trying to inflict on them: how to wear the uniform, what type of uniform, what firearms they can carry, communication, protocols.
And the reason I bring this up was that, in particular, my brother has seen in a number of occasions was this guy, who would actually a Jordanian, who had came to Iraq to become an interpreter kind of wandering off on his own sometimes to work his own agendas. Not necessarily personal, but like political agendas. He was trying to work things his way, and not in ways that (unintelligible) to the overall U.S. mission. But sometimes, in ways that - maybe would have conflicted with the (unintelligible) regulations that most U.S. military. He wanted to play like a Dirty Harry figure out there, but maybe more like Robert de Niro's character in "Brazil," where, you know, you just - you couldn't really (unintelligible) the guys in all the time. And it was interesting for him to see sort of this all - this freelance agendas being worked.
CONAN: Well, George Packer - thank you very much for that, Bill. And George Packer, in your play, one of the characters is encouraged to expand the contacts with some people he grew up with in Shia militias. And then when he goes the least bit beyond that very narrow permit, get into a lot of trouble for it.
Mr. PACKER: Yeah, the - I mean the caller's story is really fascinating and makes complete sense to me. The Americans depend on the interpreters. The interpreters are vulnerable because they're working with the Americans. But at the same time, they're living in Iraq and they're crossing the line back and forth between Americans and Iraqis who are profoundly separated in this war by fear.
And so, they're absolutely going to be working their own agendas, perhaps, out of selfishness, but also because they may understand that within the strictures of the American mission, they really can't do very much. There's - they're drastically limited. But to make contact with - as in my play, some old high school friend who's now Sadr militia men could be of great benefit to the American embassy with the approval of the embassy. But then, how far do you take it?
So there's this gray that the Iraqis talk about, which they inhabit and which is the area between these two worlds, which officials in the embassy can't understand and eventually investigate and punish them for. And so it - the caller's story is really apt for that theme of the play, which is that these Iraqis are in between. They're neither with the Iraqis nor with the Americans, and really neither side trust them.
CONAN: George Packer, his new play is "Betrayed."
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's get Adil(ph) on the line. Adil with us from Phoenix, Arizona.
ADIL (CALLER): Yes. Good afternoon, Neal.
CONAN: Go ahead.
ADIL: I just wanted to say that I did actually work in Iraq, in Baghdad and interacted with these individuals who are helping the U.S. And when I was listening in the radio, the names Bill, the U.S. official, and Laith and Othman did ring a bell because I did interact with them personally and with - some of us have tried to help these people find a bit of life once when they were no longer caught - and useful and caught to the U.S. government that most of them have left there just hang dry to find their own way and find - what you call that - the threat for their life and their families once they figured out that they were working for the U.S. government. And the embassy of the Green Zone just wasn't able to help or wasn't willing to help like he specified earlier.
CONAN: Yeah. One of the great lines in the play is - well, a character says to one of the interpreters, you're from the Red Zone. The Red Zone, what's that? That's anything other than the Green Zone. Oh, you mean Iraq.
Mr. PACKER: Yeah, that's right. And the sense inside the Green Zone that everything else is Iraq, it's this undifferentiated menace meant that that these interpreters coming in every day from the Red Zone, from Iraq. We're part of that undifferentiated menace, which is why all sorts of barriers and checks and restrictions were thrown up against them. But what all of those meant was the - gradually, the trust between the two sides wore down. And the Iraqis felt more and more as if they were criminals. And a lot of them were investigated for little, small mistakes on the polygraph test and were fired or even sent to Abu Ghraib. And now, the number of Iraqis working at the embassy compared to Jordanians and others from outside the country is about a quarter of what it was at its height. And that means that we do not have the eyes and ears of people who really know what's happening in Iraq, working inside the embassy. So it's just a gigantic loss.
CONAN: Adil, thanks very much for the call.
ADIL: Thanks, (unintelligible)…
Mr. PACKER: And I - what did I ask you - I'm sorry for hitting that button too quickly. But, George Packer, there's a line toward the end of the play where Adnan(ph), I think it is, says, you know, we're just really getting to know each other with the Americans. Sometimes, the dialogue is in the language of violence. But at least we're talking to each other. We're learning a little bit about each other by now.
Mr. PACKER: You know, that captures a quality that I heard over and over in the interviews, which is that - although, there's a lot of bitterness on the part of these Iraqis, it's not complete bitterness because it's almost more like the feelings of a jilted lovers, someone who thought the Americans were there for them and gave the Americans their trust and risked their lives and found that it wasn't the same for the Americans. And that is enormously painful and tragic. And yet, they still would like to come here because they can no longer live in their country. And that's the tragedy I've tried to write about.
CONAN: George Packer's first play "Betrayed" opens in previews tomorrow night off Broadway at the Culture Project in New York. And he joined us from our bureau in New York. Break a leg, George.
Mr. PACKER: Thanks a lot, Neal.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.
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