October 15, 2009 / 3:36 PM / 9 years ago

Iraq exile tales shock and awe N.Y. theater audiences

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - An imam describes being locked in a small cage by U.S. soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, forced to listen to deafening music that mocked Islam. An Iraqi woman unveils her bomb-destroyed face.

Amir Arison and Fajer Al-Kaisi perform in "Aftermath" at the New York Theater Workshop, in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/New York Theater Workshop/Handout

They are two of the characters in “Aftermath,” a new play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen based on interviews with Iraqi war refugees who fled to Jordan to escape the sectarian violence that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The authors said they wanted to highlight Iraq’s refugee problem, which remains a humanitarian crisis. According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, there were nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees living in neighboring countries and 2.6 million internally displaced people as of January 1, 2009.

“Aftermath depicts the real people behind the phrase ‘collateral damage,’” Blank and Jensen said.

It is not easy to get a ticket for ‘Aftermath’, which runs until Sunday at the New York Theater Workshop. Thanks to a handful of positive reviews over the last few weeks, the docu-drama is playing to nearly sold-out audiences.

The performance begins in Arabic and switches into English, but with the illusion that the characters continue to speak in their native language. As the one-and-a-half hour drama develops, the characters grow increasingly angry when they feel their story is not being translated properly or completely.

The actors speak directly to the audience, which is placed in the position of interviewers in Jordan seeking to learn what Iraqi refugees experienced after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 that toppled Iraq’s feared former leader, the late Saddam Hussein, and his government.

The scenery is sparse. The only things on the stage are benches, chairs and eight actors, who come in and out of the light as they tell how their lives were shattered by death, torture, humiliation and of their desperate flight to Jordan.

Among the characters are a pharmacist, a widowed housewife, a dermatologist and a theater director. Driven by an urgent need to tell their stories and afraid that an important detail might be left out, they often order the interpreter Shahid, played by Fajer al-Kaisi, to “translate that.”


Any hopes the characters had for a better life after the collapse of Saddam’s government were quickly replaced by disappointment. They speak of living in terror of U.S. soldiers and murderous Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim gangs.

An imam named Adbul Aliyy (Demosthenes Chrysan) tells how he was beaten and caged by U.S. soldiers at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. When he is interrupted with an unrelated question, he flies into a rage and demands that he be allowed to finish his story.

Shahid explains to the imam that many Americans were horrified by the revelations about U.S. abuse at Abu Ghraib.

“I thank these people for their feelings,” the imam says. “There are mistakes for which apologies are not enough.”

A Christian Iraqi woman named Basima (Leila Buck) tells how her husband and newborn baby were killed in a bomb attack in Baghdad. Blinded and severely burned, she describes how she sat for hours until American soldiers looked after her — long after they had inspected the bomb site.

Shortly after the blast, Basima says she pleaded with passers-by to tell her what happened to her family. A man told her that that they had gone to Allah.

Fajer Al-Kaisi, Rasha Zamamiri, Omar Koury perform in "Aftermath" at the New York Theater Workshop, in this undated handout photo. REUTERS/New York Theater Workshop/Handout

Basima removes her headscarf to display her disfigured face. She describes the terror she felt when her eyesight was partially restored and she first saw her image in a mirror.

Rafiq, a pharmacist (Laith Nakli) from Fallujah, tells how his nephew was killed by U.S. soldiers for no apparent reason other than bloodlust. He asks the audience if that would be considered justice in America and demands to know who could have authorized such a murder.

“Who is the criminal?” Rafiq shouts. “Who is the suspect? Who is the judge?”

Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Patricia Reaney

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