U.S. Doublespeak a Betrayal of Iraqi Translators
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Last year, while I was working on a documentary about life in Baghdad before, during and after the invasion, the producer and director engaged the services of two Iraqi interpreters.
As we edited the film in one room, they sat in a room upstairs with headsets on, faithfully transcribing videotaped interviews, translating Arabic into English.
One of them, a woman I'll call Amira (I've changed their names), was a graduate student who served as an interpreter for the United States Army. They brought her back to America to train soldiers, but she was in constant fear of being sent back to Iraq, where her work with our military meant she was sure to be on a death list - from al-Qaeda, Sunni insurgents or Shia militias.
The other - call him Hassem - had worked for an Iraqi television station before the war. It was owned by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, who, prior to his death in a firefight with US troops in July 2003, was notorious for cruising the streets of Baghdad and kidnapping attractive women, many of whom were never seen again.
Hassem's job was overseeing the translation of pirated American and British movies for Uday's station. When one of his charges forgot to translate two lines of dialogue from an old Bette Davis film, it was deemed a seditious act and Hassem spent some time being "reeducated" in one of Saddam's prisons. Afterward, rather than return to the TV station, he volunteered for the Iraqi army. He deserted as the war began, and, following the fall of Saddam, became a translator for the Coalition Provisional Authority. That led to a college scholarship in America. Unlike Amira, he was eager to return to Iraq.
Their stories came back to haunt a couple of weeks ago when I attended a performance of a new play by George Packer, journalist for The New Yorker Magazine, whose coverage of Iraq resulted in one of the best books about the war, "The Assassins' Gate."
His play, "Betrayed," directed by my friend Pippin Parker, is based on reporting conducted by Packer about a year ago and focuses on the fate of Iraqi translators who worked for the American government, nonprofits, media or private contractors. They were, as Packer wrote in March 2007, "the mostly young men and women who embraced America's project so enthusiastically that they were prepared to risk their lives for itâ€¦. The four years of the war created intense friendships, but they were forged through collective disappointment. The arc from hope to betrayal that traverses the Iraq war is nowhere more vivid than in the lives of these Iraqis. America's failure to understand, trust and protect its closest friends in Iraq is a small drama that contains the larger history of defeat."
Packer's fine play, abetted by the able directing and dramaturgical skills of Parker, focuses on three translators, two men and a woman, working at the American Embassy inside the Cloud Cuckooland of Baghdad's high-security Green Zone.
Potentially, they were more than interpreters. They were educated and well-informed. Each could serve, Packer noted, as "a cultural adviser, an intelligence officer, a policy analyst." But the United States largely ignored such possibilities or was so suspicious of the Iraqis' motives that an opportunity for greater understanding of the country it occupies was squandered.
To make matters exponentially worse, when the promise of a new, better and democratic Iraq went so quickly south - the disarray and ineptitude exacerbated by sectarian and insurgent violence - any Iraqis working for the United States were pegged by their countrymen as spies and traitors. Despite elaborate attempts to hide for whom they worked, hundreds have been killed, their bodies tortured and mutilated.
Many of those surviving have asked for asylum in the United States. After all, when Saigon fell, President Gerald Ford admitted 130,000 Vietnamese. "To do less," he said, "would have added moral shame to humiliation."
Four million Iraqis have fled their country since the war began; last year, we granted asylum to about 1,600 of them. Sweden, not even a member of the Coalition of the Willing, has admitted 20,000.
Some say America's reluctance to admit more reflects anti-terrorist concerns, real or imagined; others believe it's simply because to grant wider asylum would be to admit that this administration's Iraq policy has failed.
"Help yourself by yourself, that's the best way," Laith, one of the translators in "Betrayed," says. "Find a solution for yourself. But I can't see any solution. I am, how do you say it, hung out to dry."
"Betrayed" will be playing at Culture Project, 55 Mercer Street, in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood through March 16. As for my Iraqi colleagues, Hassem went back to Baghdad, where he had a job with a think tank, but has fled to Kurdistan because it's just too dangerous. Last week, I had an email from Amira, who got one of the magic visas. She's still going to school and working in a bakery.
"Why did we take the jobs?" Adnan, another character in "Betrayed," asks. "Because of hope." And at the end, he adds, "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. Until this moment, I dream about America."
Michael Winship, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and former writer with Bill Moyers, writes a weekly column for the Messenger Post Newspapers in upstate New York.