Arab media pundits took to criticising the US for what they saw as its double standards - on the one hand espousing democractic principles and, on the other hand, allowing torture and sexual abuse of Iraqi prison inmates.

 

Live television talk shows were flooded with callers from the Arab world who expressed their outrage and shock at the Abu Ghraib abuses.

 

In Jordan, however, a theatre director decided to take the issue one step further.

 

Director Muhammad Shawaqfa, 47, wanted to capture the anger and frustration of the "Arab street" directed at the "biased US policy in the Middle East" and its "unjust war in Iraq".

 

His theatre production, A New Middle East, has resonated with Arab audiences because of its strong anti-interventionist and pro-Arab undertones.

 

One recurrent theme that he follows through from one scene to the next is the premise that things happen in the Middle East only if the US wills it.

 

Gripping scenes

 

"I wanted through this play, and especially the Abu Ghraib scene, to tell everyone, look, this is the democracy that the US is talking about in the Middle East," Shawaqfa told Aljazeera.net.

 

Writers also described it as a "sad and funny play at the same time because it reminded us of our miserable situation".

 

The play spares none of the graphic pains associated with Abu Ghraib prison.

The play highlights US policy in
the Middle East

 

"I miss my dog back home," says Lynndie England as she holds a cigarette in one hand and drags an Iraqi detainee with a dog leash in the other.

 

Then she lets out a wild and menacing laugh, which rings through the halls of Abu Ghraib prison.

 

Audience members watching were gripped by the intensity and the depravity of the scene.

 

"This scene was very tough on me - to depict her [England] character because I am against torture and the killing of anyone," actress Suhair Fahd told Aljazeera.net speaking about the role she is playing at the Amoun Theatre in Amman, Jordan.

  

"I felt I needed to show the world the horrific abuses that were taking place at the prison and I studied England's character carefully and discovered that she was enjoying the abuse against Iraqi prisoners," Fahd added.

 

Torture and abuse

 

The play reveals the importance of the Abu Ghraib scandal to contemporary Arab society and may shed insight into growing anti-US feelings in the region.

Fahd's portrayal of England was
particularly difficult, she says

 

Newspapers critics agree, saying the play, which started showing in July 2004 and is playing through the month of Ramadan, highlights the gap between the rich and the poor and blames "American democracy [for] causing this gap".

 

For example, an actor in the role of a US soldier is seen escorting an Iraqi prisoner with a plastic bag wrapped around his head. He pulls the plastic bag off his head, asks the prisoner to drink water, then kills him, laughing out loud.

 

The issue of human rights is a particularly sensitive one in the region. Play critic for Jordan's daily Al Rai newspaper Jamal Iyad believes the US passed laws and policies after 11 September 2001 which restricted human rights and some freedoms.

 

Arab defiance

 

Arab reaction to US influence in the region is personified in the character of Uncle Ghafil, played by Hussein Tubaishat, a popular veteran of Jordanian soap operas. In one of the scenes, he throws US dollar notes in the face of a US producer writing a screenplay which embraces "western objectives of destroying the Arab nation and its moral system".

"[The play] said a lot of the things that we were unable to say"

Amir Statiya, theatre patron


"Take your dollars because we will continue to fight and resist until the last drop of our blood," Uncle Ghafil yells at the producer. In a scene, which ostensibly shows the fate of those who speak out against US politics in the Middle East, it is the character of Uncle Ghafil who is now tortured and abused.

 

But in a line which plays well with Arab audiences, he declares he "does not fear anything any more".

 

Vox populi

 

Despite its controversial and somewhat macabre scenes, the play has become popular with Arab audiences.

The play has resonated well with
the Arab street

 

Amir Statiya, 29, said he enjoyed the play because "it said a lot of the things that we were unable to say".
                                        

A 25-year-old mother who took her five-year-old said the play reflected the views of the Jordanian street, but was saddened in some parts "because it reminded us of the US and Israeli oppression".

 

"I wanted to tell the Jordanian audience that this is your future as the US wants it," Shawaqfa said.

 

The play continues its run until next spring.