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With the aid of a translator named Shahid (Fajer Al-Kaisi), eight people tell their war stories. Yassar (Amir Arison) is a confident and hip dermatologist who learns that he loves his country more than status. Basima (Leila Buck) is a Christian woman, a wife and mother who loses everyone she loves in the war. Rafiq (Laith Nakli), born in Fallujah, is a pharmacist who holds no grudges until his nephew is killed by the Americans. There are others, including an imam (Demosthenes Chrysan), who claims the guns found in his mosque were there for purely defensive purposes, in fact supplied by the American military.
Blank (who also directs) and Jensen go to great lengths to give each of their characters a personal story and they are quite successful. Arison is particularly adept at portraying the type of Middle Eastern yuppie enamored of the superficial attributes he believes represent the Western world. Nakli is most successful at making his pain palpable. However, when the various stories of these everyday people turn to their war experiences, they begin to exhibit a remarkable similarity.
"War is hell," is a statement generally attributed to Union general William Tecumseh Sherman, who certainly taught the citizens of Atlanta the truth of that maxim. It is a truth that holds for any war, in any place, at any time, and for any cause. The Nazi citizens in Hitler's Germany could say war is hell. The Confederate citizens supporting a war to maintain the "curious institution" of slavery could do the same. The people caught up in the Vietnam and Bosnian wars. . .the list could go on.
Aftermath is well written and at times brilliantly acted. But, it is a contrived work in that it trades shamelessly on the natural empathy and guilt privileged Americans tend to feel when confronted with the hardships they have caused, or even the horrible conditions they have not caused but that are nonetheless endured by less fortunate people.
The play's conversations are based on the selective memories of people Blank and Jensen interviewed. Rafiq remembers living in harmony not only with Shi'a and Sunni. As he puts it: "we were friends, we didn't care the difference." He adds that their friends and neighbors also included the Jews who lived "next to the mosque." The fact is that there are only a few dozen Jews left in one of the world's oldest Jewish communitiesand in 1969 the bodies of 11 Jews hanged as spies, were displayed in the public square in Baghdad. Nevertheless, Rafiq apparently lived in peace and harmony with his Jew, a blacksmith, who "had this beautiful face."
Another Aftermath character, Asad (Daoud Heidami), is a theater director who talks about working on O'Neill's Great God Brown. He tells us "Before 2003, we work on everything, discuss everything; Aeschylus, Sophocles . . .But after 2003 it became harder to make art. There was no more funding, of course, because there was no more government." Are we really expected to believe that Saddam Hussein allowed artists total freedom of expression?
In her groundbreaking work Coming of Age in Samoa, anthropologist Margaret Mead painted a picture of Samoan adolescents making a smooth transition from childhood to adult in a period of time unmarred by anxiety or confusion. After her death, Mead's work in Samoa was questioned by fellow-anthropologist Derek Freeman who claimed Mead ignored the violence in Samoan life and was fooled by people who told her what they thought she wanted to hear. No doubt Blank and Jensen are thoroughly sincere in their interpretation of the interviews on which Aftermath is based. Yet one can't help but wonder whether they, like Mead, did not believe without question stories that supported positions the Iraquis assumed they had already taken.
We don't need Blank or Jensen or any of the people they interviewed to tell us war is hell. It's pretty obvious the war in Iraq was initiated by the United States under the last regime and that regrettable mistakes were made. The question is what does Aftermath contribute to the plethora of words written about this terrible situation and our understanding of how we got into it —and how we can get out?
Editor's Note: Blank and Jensen's Exonerated was a much simpler less play-like setup than Aftermath, but it introduced people to a situation in our penal system with which many people weren't all that familiar. It, had a long run Off-Broadway and has been produced elsewhere. To read our two reviews in New York go here; for the London review go here.