Saturday, October 10, 2009

Doing the aftermath

Went this evening to say a play my mother heard about on PBS, the latest piece of documentary theater of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, most famous for "The Exonerated" (about people saved from death row by DNA vindications of their innocence). This one, called "Aftermath," brings to the stage the words of eight of 36 Iraqi refugees Blank and Jensen interviewed in Jordan in 2008 (and their translator, also a refugee). Their words are powerful, and for the most part very well played (I'm not sure what the right word is for documentary theater). Their stories are human and horrifying - the imam you see above was imprisoned at Abu Ghraib for two years (for having described the Americans as "occupiers," perhaps, though when he was brought to trial it was for having converted from Shi'a to Sunni Islam, which is not a crime) and, on release, lost many members of his family in raids on his mosque; apology wouldn't be enough for what America has caused Iraqis, he says, and predicts, with anger but also sadness, "your children will have to repay our children."

And yet I don't think the piece is entirely successful. We learn nothing about the conditions in which these refugees are now living (something I could probably picture because of an internship I had - sheesh, 24 years ago - at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, most of whom are in Jordan). The production - simple but beautiful, seven unmatching but all unblemished chairs and a few clean benches on an empty stage, spotlit or backlit as required - makes them seem to be floating in an abstract and only abstractly terrible limbo. Like ghosts. Blank and Jensen don't want to make them seem merely devastated victims, so let them smile and tell happy as well as sad stories, but this makes their predicament seem that much less pressing. They are haunted by what they have lost, but the implication that they are nothing but a personality and its memories, not struggling with these to make a new life (or refuse to make a new life, as refugees often do), makes them seem in the end merely theatrical characters.

That the aftermath of war, persecution, loss lasts forever was confirmed for me earlier in the day when I spent some time with the elderly neighbor of some of my friends - they visit her every day, and asked me to housesit for them this weekend while they were away and see her. I've told you about her before. She grew up in a multi-ethnic part of Romania taken over by the Soviets before and by the Germans soon after the start of WW2. Her father and brother were taken away by the Soviets and never seen again. She fled the approaching Germans with her mother (they were Jewish) and survived the war by remarkable resourcefulness and courage. I described her amazing survival last year. Today she told me her mother never recovered from the loss of her son, and that it was a mercy God let her die at 47, ostensibly of a kidney infection but really, her daughter was convinced, "of a broken heart." There's nothing as awful as losing a child, she said, "which is why I say: no children!" But her mother wasn't the only one who suffered. She told me she thanks God every day that her father and brother didn't have to suffer long, and even wishes she herself (who went on to emigrate from Romania, first to Italy and then to the US, raising a son of her own) had been taken with them. Speaking with her today it was clear part of her was still in 1940 - or maybe not part; in 1940 she was still whole.

Perhaps in 2008 the wounds of the American occupation of Iraq in 2003 were too fresh for anyone to know how deep they go, a depth which will only show itself as these survivors live on? Paradoxically, in letting their sources only describe what they lost and how they lost it, and not what they are doing now (however limbo-like), Blank and Jensen don't allow us to feel the lasting wounds of war.

No comments: