One spring evening last year Miriam Asnes, a 24-year-old Jewish American woman, sat in a darkened theater in Cairo and watched an Iraqi prisoner of war being tortured. The play was "Vietnam 2" by Ahmed Mursi Abu Haiba. The play's heroes are fighters in the besieged city of Falluja and the bad guys are the officers of the American command in the city.

The play ends with the successful completion of an operation by the members of the Iraqi underground (Vietnam 2 is the code name given to the operation) and with the implied death of Dr. Ali al-Mohamadi, who organized the operation but at the time it was carried out was on the Americans' torture rack. In the last minutes of the play, the actor who portrays Mohamadi stands on stage next to an American flag and delivers a final monologue. When he finishes, the flag bursts like a balloon to reveal swastikas and stars of David behind it.

"I was startled," says Asnes, in Hebrew, at a Tel Aviv cafe, "but I don't think it helps to shut one's eyes or ears. It won't help if I go home, and a few hours later or a few years later think `what I saw really was terrible.' I'm missing something if I say that I refuse to listen." Asnes stayed to watch the actors bow to the audience - women in modest Muslim dress and men who spurred on the actors from the galleries by calling out religious slogans. A few days later, Asnes returned to the theater, met the playwright and even developed a friendship with him, and this month, from her current residence in Nazareth, she completed translating the play into her mother tongue, English.

It is hard to believe an American publisher will be found that is prepared to publish the English translation of "Vietnam 2." In any case, Asnes will conduct the first study making use of the text. With the help of author Anton Shamas, who is advising her in her studies for a master's degree at the University of Michigan, Asnes wants to analyze ties between Islamic theater and politics in the past and present.

Drawn to the Mideast

Asnes grew up in Watertown, a suburb of Boston that has real cultural diversity. Her high school offered courses in Armenian as an elective language and the stores along the main street sold Lebanese knafa (pastry) and coffee with cardamom. She was always drawn to the Middle East, but was first exposed to the complexity of the situation in the region while making her way up New Hampshire's Mount Washington, the highest mountain on the East Coast of the United States.

Her climbing partner was Deema Arafah, a student of Palestinian origin. On the slope of the mountain, while breathing heavily, Arafah contradicted some of the views Asnes had learned in Jewish schools. "I found the history I knew and the history she knew differed. The slope was very steep, almost perpendicular and the fact that we climbed together created a special setting."

Asnes, who at the time led the prayer services in her local synagogue and spoke perfect Hebrew, decided to learn Arabic as well. After a year of studies at the University of Michigan, she enrolled in the CASA program, which enables American students to spend a year at the American University in Cairo.

Asnes quickly adapted to Cairo's bustle, working during the days as a math tutor for the daughter of the Israeli embassy's spokesman and in the evenings experiencing the local culture, primarily theater.

The local theater scene is enormous, but Asnes felt it was missing something. "I saw that both the actors and the audience belonged to the same social group, as if they'd come from central Tel Aviv," says Asnes. "It's very nice, but it doesn't interest me. I already know intellectual people like art; that's no surprise. I think their work is very important, but they tend to talk to themselves. I wanted to know what people on the street see and I found they mainly go to movies because they're not targeted only at intellectuals and the left."

Lindsay Wise, an American journalist living in Cairo, directed Asnes to Abu Haiba's Islamic theater troupe. The theater where "Vietnam 2" was staged is located between the center of town and the traditional Saideh Zeinab neighborhood, and the production has been successfully staged in some Nile Delta towns. But then something went wrong. A series of performances scheduled to take place in Saudi Arabia was cancelled. "The Americans aren't happy with Ahmed Abu Haiba," the Saudi impresario told the playwright over the phone. Concurrent with the cancellation, Egyptian intelligence officials began pressuring the troupe not to stage another production of the play in Cairo. Realizing no more plays were likely to be staged for a while, Asnes left for further afield. First she went to Syria for a month, where she met with the remnants of the Jewish community of Damascus, and then came to Israel as a volunteer in the Arab sector under the auspices of the Shatil organization. Here, too, she finds herself frequenting unusual cultural events: she recently went to a performance of the Gevatron singing troupe along with MKs from the National Religious Party.

Harsh reactions

What is there in this play that evokes such harsh reactions from high-ranking echelons? The swastikas and stars of David were the brainstorm of the set designer and they are not at all mentioned in the play. The characters are diverse and are relatively deep; some of the Americans even demonstrate compassion, humor and intelligence. The playwright describes Lieutenant Johnson as someone who "believes in human values and fights for them."

The Iraqi fighters are actually the ones who are portrayed as being rather flat. They deal primarily with the question of whether or not death is a kind of victory in and of itself. "Victory?," Osama the fighter asks his comrades toward the end of the first scene. "What does it mean victory? That you'll escape from a place like this whole? Is that what you consider victory? Successfully carrying out the mission? Is that what you call victory?"

Fighter Abdu's contribution to that same conversation may explain the threat inherent in this play. "With my own hands, I'll poison their bread," Abdu says, referring to the occupiers of his country, "every minute, every hour, every night. With my own hands, I'll make their night day and their day night. I don't know these fancy words of victory and martyrdom you speak of. All I know is that I'll take my gun and go to all corners of Iraq, firing on those who stand on my land, and anyone who doesn't run will be buried where he stands."

How does a young American Jewish woman feel as she translates these words? Asnes notes that Abdu's inflammatory rhetoric is taking place in a theatrical context. "When I spoke with Ahmed, he stressed the difference between the play and real life. He dreams of an international ethical Arab opposition movement that only fights against the soldiers of the occupation and not against civilians. What he presents is more philosophy than a political position, and in his identification with the soldier and his opposition to the policy of the commanding officers, his approach is not that far off from that of an increasing number of Americans today."

Another aspect of the play disturbs her more. Abu Haiba refused to include women in it. He was deterred by the possibility that a woman would arouse desire in the men in the audience. In one of their meetings, Asnes argued with him over this issue. "I told him: `But love, desire and sex add an important color to theater and art in general. When you decided to drop them it's not like deciding to drop the color beige, it's like dropping the color red or black.'"

Abu Haiba responded that there are many other colors in the theatrical spectrum and delving into passions corrupts the art and the artists. He pointed to Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman's divorce as an example of what might happen to licentious actors. They had no limits, he said. He wants to respect his values as a person even in his writing for the stage and in his work as a director.

Upon her arrival in Israel, Asnes learned that here too there is an artist who values modesty and is only willing to act alongside his own wife. "I'm dreaming of bringing [ultra-Orthodox actor] Shuli Rand to Egypt," she smiles, "to introduce him to Ahmed and then to argue with both of them."