Jooneed Khan


Truth and Treason, the latest play by Rahul Varma, takes a so-called « mistake of war » in official and media parlance – a Canadian girl is shot by a US soldier at a check-point in Baghdad – and turns it into a tight and powerful reconstruction of the “mistake” that has been the “War on Iraq” itself. Ultimately, it suggests, all wars are mistakes.


The riveting two-hour, one-act performance directed by Arianna Bardesono, marks a spectacular coming-of-age for the Teesri Duniya (Third World, in Hindi) Theatre company, co-founded 28 years ago in Montreal by Varma, a soft-spoken but resolute Canadian who immigrated from India in 1976.


Coming-of-age for Teesri Duniya or rather for a world that has caught up at long last with the agit-prop style of the troupe, given the shattered pretenses, the arrogant power projection and the sheer lies of the so-called “Free World” in the rough and tumble wake of the Cold War?


No doubt, the matured Varma has refined his technique. Though it is yet another play about abuse of power and impunity, Truth and Treason is a far cry from Isolated Incident, his 1988 play about the shooting of a 19-year-old Black Montrealer, Anthony Griffin, by the police. I still cringe at the thought of his in-your-face approach as he had the coffin paraded over and over across the stage of the venerable Centaur Theatre in Montreal!


Habib Tanvir


Such overkill was perhaps necessary then, when the world was more innocent. With the Iraq war, the truth is so brutal and barbaric that it dispenses with the enhancements of fiction. The guidance of India’s late iconic dramatist Habib Tanvir, Varma’s friend and mentor who passed away in June, has also proved most effective and fruitful in the construction of Truth and Treason. To him Varma dedicates this play.


The absolute horror of the war on Iraq is brought home to us through 10 characters within the cloistered confines of the stage. As the curtain rises, we find ourselves in the midst of it all: asking to see her father, a young girl called Ghazal runs towards the tall olive drab curtains that enclose the set of the play. She is warned to stop, then she is shot. Her mother Nahla, an Iraqi Canadian, comes running, looking for her.


We are inside the Green Zone, the enclosed, high-security area of Baghdad where the US forces and their hand-picked Iraqi administration are headquartered. And that’s where we stay to the bitter end. It turns out the father, Omar, an Iraqi dissident, is being held prisoner on a suspicion of “terrorism” – when, and that’s Bardesono’s tour de force, the whole atmosphere of the play reeks of terror!


Rumsfeld and Saddam


Commander Frank, the US proconsul, is Omar’s archenemy. That’s because Omar knows him from way back when Donald Rumsfeld was dealing and shaking hands with Saddam Hussein during Iraq’s war against Iran, in the 1980s. Omar himself was anti-Saddam but, like other Iraqis who stayed, he had to work for the regime. Now, with the US occupation, he is a credible voice for Iraqi national pride.


Edward is his trusted lieutenant, but Edward has pangs of conscience because of the widespread death of civilians as “collateral damage” of the war and occupation. He obviously disagrees with General Tommy Franks, the real-life architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, who said, infamously: “We don’t do body counts”. To him, every innocent life counts.


Edward has a love interest in Kendra, a Black American official who is in Baghdad to supervise a bidding war between US and foreign firms for big-time Iraqi contracts. This is “Disaster Capitalism” at work. Kendra empathizes with Edward, but that does not keep her from stashing away for herself a cool million from the deluge of cash that was poured by Washington into Iraq to buy out collaborators.


Auction, anger and bombs


An Iraqi cleric has already issued a fatwa calling for the death of Edward to avenge the killing of Ghazal. The bidding goes on within the bubble of the Green Zone with an obsequious, corrupt and wily Iraqi Prime Minister acting as auctioneer, as Omar addresses the angry crowd outside, and ordinary Iraqi life shakes the Green Zone with the reverberations of exploding bombs.


The conscience-stricken US army officer finds an ally: as Samir, the UN representative, flails about ineffectually, Trista, a Canadian journalist, is intent on digging out the truth behind the death of Ghazal and the detention of Omar. Together, they persuade Omar to use Nahla’s Canadian passport and seek refuge in Canada – and Trista’s report on war crimes convinces Commander Frank to let them go.


As they leave for Canada, their plane blows up shortly after take-off. The play ends with a highly symbolic choreography of the dead and living characters whirling in a dream-like danse macabre where they all eventually die. “The dance was Bardesono’s idea. I had written the end with only the voices of Ghazal and the people killed in the explosion of the plane saying simple things they would have said if they were still alive”, explained Varma. “But the message is clear: in war everybody loses”, he said.


Rousing reception


Truth and Treason played to a full-house rousing reception at its première, a two-week run in September at the Monument National in Montreal, the city where tens of thousands walked in the bitter cold of the Winter of 2003 to oppose the impending invasion of Iraq.


The cast was just great, especially David Francis, a Stratford veteran and lover of Hindu temples, as Commander Frank, Abdelghafour Elaaziz as Omar, Alex Ivanovici as Edward, Ivan Smith as the scheming Iraqi cleric and also as the wily Prime Minister, Warona Setshwaelo as Kendra, and Sarah Garton Stanley as Trista. Christine Aubin Khalifah was Nahla, Jean-Moïse Martin was Samir, Karim Babin played Ahmed, an Iraqi soldier, and young Charley Hausknost was Ghazal.


Arianna Bardesono, assisted by Maya Dhawan, did a superb job of bringing the play to the stage. Special mention goes to the Design and Production Teams (Jesse Ash, Romain Fabre, Ève-Line Leduc, Natasha Rosdol, Kirsten Watt, Kathryn Cleveland, David Surette, Michael Panich and Michelle Smushkevitch) for the sets and costumes, and for keeping us trapped throughout the play in the sulfurous claustrophobia that is war.


Canada and Afghanistan


Teesri Duniya organized panel discussions with various participants after some shows and these too were well-attended and lively. I had the pleasure of being on the panel one night. I pointed out my unease with the fact that the Canadian characters, two women and a child, were all “nice people” – an artistic choice, no doubt, but which masked the utter ambiguity of Canada’s real role in the world.


Yves Engler’s The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, published earlier this year, rates Canada as “the 5th or 6th largest contributor to the US war against Iraq” – either by easing the US load with its warring role in Afghanistan, providing various types of support or training Iraqi army and police in Jordan.


In fact, substituting Afghanistan for Iraq in the play, and moving the set from Baghdad’s Green Zone to the Canadian base at KAF (Kandahar Air Field), with soldiers playing field hockey in the dust, civilians dying under NATO bombs, and questions raised about torture and handing over of suspected “terrorists” to the Karzaï régime would leave Truth and Treason just as relevant and poignant.


Which is another way of saying how great the play is.


(Jooneed Khan is journalist with Montreal French Daily La Presse.)

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