'Aftermath' Illuminates Lives Of Uprooted Iraqis Composed almost entirely of interview transcripts, the off-Broadway play focuses on ordinary citizens whose lives have been upended by the conflict in their home country. It's a powerful look at conflict from the inside.
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'Aftermath' Illuminates Lives Of Uprooted Iraqis

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'Aftermath' Illuminates Lives Of Uprooted Iraqis

'Aftermath' Illuminates Lives Of Uprooted Iraqis

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

A crop of plays and movies that have been made about the Iraq War have usually focused on either U.S. soldiers or the politics leading up to the conflict. A new off-Broadway documentary play, "Aftermath," offers a different focus: it looks at the stories of ordinary Iraqis whose lives have been uprooted by the war.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: Playwright Erik Jensen says it's all too easy for Americans to see Iraqi civilians as numbers, as collateral damage.

Mr. ERIK JENSEN (Playwright): Just the other day, it said in the newspaper, 21 people killed in a bombing north of Baghdad. What does that mean? You know, 21 people. Well, they were a pharmacist, a lawyer, a doctor, somebody who was on the way to pick up, you know, something for their mother, somebody who was going to propose to his girlfriend. These are the things that never get given to us in the paper.

LUNDEN: Jensen and his writing partner and wife, Jessica Blank, set out to meet some of these regular people and find out about their lives to use in a documentary play. While they wanted to go to Iraq, they found it would be too dangerous. So instead, they flew to Jordan, where a community of almost a million displaced Iraqis lives.

Jessica Blank says she went into the interviews with some trepidation, but found all 37 people they met to be warm and welcoming, inviting them into their homes, offering them tea and cookies, showing them family photographs.

Ms. JESSICA BLANK (Playwright, "Aftermath"): Nobody we met was angry at us. Nobody we met treated us with any mistrust. And I think after 25 years of living with Saddam, the Iraqis that we met really understand, on a sort of deep and visceral level, that there's a difference between the policies of a government and the people of a country.

LUNDEN: These interviews were transformed into the script of "Aftermath."

Mr. FAJER AL-KAISI (Actor): (as Shadid) Saddam's religion was loyalty. He killed many, many people because of this. He even killed his own brother-in-law when he opposed him. If Saddam appeared on TV, the father couldn't say anything bad because his son might say something in school. Do you know this joke about (unintelligible) Saddam would come to any area in Iraq? No? Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AL-KAISI: (as Shadid) People would come out and meet him and cheer for him. These were organized demonstrations (unintelligible) but meant to look spontaneous, you know.

So the joke says in one of these demonstrations this little kid says, Dad, Baba, isn't that the guy on TV that you spit on every time that you see him? And the father lifts up his son and yells, Who lose a child? Whose child is this? Huh? You see? Under Saddam, the father was even afraid of his own son. Everyone was watching everyone and everyone knew he was being watched.

LUNDEN: Blank and Jensen returned from Jordan with hundreds of hours of tape filled with stories like this one. They gathered a team of actors at Dartmouth College last summer to work on creating the play, reading from the raw transcripts of the interviews, many of which tell harrowing stories.

One of those actors was Demosthenes Chrysan, who plays an imam.

Mr. DEMOSTHENES CHRYSAN (Actor): The material was so intense that every single actor in that room somewhere in the middle of reading it just broke down. And we had to stop because it was just overwhelming.

(Soundbite of play, "Aftermath")

Mr. CHRYSAN: (as character) I myself did not leave Baghdad. I took my family out because neighborhoods could be hit with cluster bombs. They have these little balls in them and they go into a wide area. They don't explode right away. They are affected by vibrations. They explode later. So, for example, there will be nothing and then one bird might fly and because of this one vibration they would explode.

LUNDEN: For all of the people in "Aftermath," the violence of the war has changed their normal lives forever. Blank and Jensen ultimately winnowed the material down to six real stories, among them a pharmacist whose nephew gets killed by contractors, a married couple who flee the country because of harassment from the militias, a dermatologist who ends up doing triage at a hospital in Baghdad.

Jessica Blank says they also created a composite character of a translator.

Ms. BLANK: We realized that the act of translation was what had enabled us to cross that gap, and that it was imperative that we have a translator character in the play, and that we deal with the issue of translation. There are so many misunderstandings and so many cultural...

Mr. JENSEN: Missed cues.

Ms. BLANK: ...missed cues, exactly.

LUNDEN: Fajer Al-Kaisi, who was born in Baghdad and grew up in Montreal, plays Shahid, the translator.

Mr. AL-KAISI: We discovered that actually helped ease the trauma, to have someone sort of guide you through it, or to have someone kind of weave in and out of the stories and sort of pop in.

(Soundbite of play, "Aftermath")

Mr. AL-KAISI: (as Shadid) I didn't speak good English at first, just so-so, but I got my first computer in 1988 and all the games were in English (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AL-KAISI: Those (unintelligible) PC.

LUNDEN: As the stories go deeper in "Aftermath," the trauma can't be avoided. The character of the imam tells upsetting stories of being imprisoned and interrogated in Abu Ghraib.

(Soundbite of play, "Aftermath")

Unidentified Man: (As Imam) So I tell him you claim to have brought us freedom but you don't want me to express my freedom of speech. As may not to say that you are occupiers, fine, but do not arrest me because you don't like what I'm saying. He said that this word occupier is worse than saying fight them. So I told them ha ha, we are back now to the same methods used by Saddam - say this but don't say that. She didn't say anything.

LUNDEN: Fajer Al-Kaisi says the lives of these people have been translated into effective theater.

Mr. AL-KAISI: I think they've struck a really kind of beautiful balance where everyone in this play has something horrific and horrendous and tragic happen to them but yet they're still accessible as human beings and they're still in the room with you as human beings.

LUNDEN: Co-author Erik Jensen hopes this play can find a life outside of New York City because he thinks audiences will recognize themselves in these characters.

Mr. JENSEN: Like most Americans, most Iraqis just want to, you know, get to their jobs, feed their kids, get home — they're fairly apolitical. I actually think the Iraqis that I met have more in common with my sort of conservative, family-oriented Lutheran relatives back in Minnesota then they do with somebody in New York City, even.

LUNDEN: "Aftermath" has been extended at the New York Theatre Workshop. It plays through October 18th.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

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