Iraq Through the Eyes of Its Women
Actor-playwright Heather Raffo introduces you
to a family you didn't know you had
by Pamela Renner
In 1974, a curious and lively four-year-old girl from Michigan went with her family to visit her father's homeland, Iraq. To this day, Heather Raffo—creator and performer of the Off-Broadway hit Nine Parts of Desire—remembers every detail of that visit. She can still see her grandmother's house in her mind's eye; she can feel the warmth of the desert land that gave the ancient world its first code of civil law under Hammurabi, the priest king of Babylonia. When she went back as an adult in 1993, just after the first Gulf War, so much had changed, and yet her family was in many ways the same: embracing of the exotic cousin with her blonde hair and American ways who had come all the way from the U.S. to tell them, "We're sorry, and we love you and are thinking about you."
"I think that young people are especially influenced by their first war," Raffo reflects. "If you came of age during Vietnam, that event helped shape you. My coming of age was the first Gulf War—although it wasn't very long in time frame and didn't seem to affect Americans that much, it affected me hugely."
The war played out on television screens as a triumph of American airpower, with a mostly invisible enemy. The name of Saddam Hussein grew to such emblematic proportions that it seemed to fill the sun-bleached spaces of the country from border to border.
The launch of the war in 1991 marked Raffo's political awakening, and in many ways it also divided her life in two. Raffo realized, "Oh, I'm not just from Michigan—-I'm living in Michigan with a big family in Iraq. I'm not on one side of this war. I can't sit in a bar with people cheering as bombs are going off. My body, blood and psyche want my family to live. What if I never see them again? What if they're just in the wrong place in the wrong time?"
In Nine Parts of Desire, her solo evocation of contemporary Iraqi womanhood, Raffo doesn't let us forget the savagery of Saddam's regime; neither does she ignore the way that violence, occupation and insurgency have trampled law to dust. At the same time, there are no soldiers in sight on the small stage. Instead, Raffo trains us to see—as if for the first time—those women in black abaya who peer out from the margins of newspaper photographs: the mothers and daughters of Iraq's scarred contemporary world, whose power to love is, in many ways, heightened by the tumult of their lives.
Nine Parts of Desire is Off Broadway's dark-horse hit of the season, with gorgeous reviews and a matching enthusiasm from audiences, who have turned a limited engagement—directed by Joanna Settle and produced by the not-for-profit Manhattan Ensemble—into an open-ended run. The play premiered in 2003 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and later played London's Bush Theatre. In England, Raffo garnered critical plaudits from The Times of London and The Guardian. She returned to New York City last spring for a reading at the Public Theater's New Work Now! festival.
MET's artistic director David Fishelson got word of a one-woman show dealing with Iraqi womanhood from an English colleague, and his curiosity was piqued. He invited Raffo to do an informal reading at MET's theatre in Soho, and the moment she finished performing, he walked on stage and optioned the play. Fishelson's instincts have been borne out by the intimate production's luminous reception. With glowing reviews in The New Yorker, New York Times,Wall Street Journal and other publications, Nine Parts is now on its fourth extension. Additional engagements are in the works for the 2005-06 season at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles and in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Chicago, Seattle and Philadelphia. The play is also in the running for a number of literary prizes.
While many of theatre's established playwrights have remained silent to date about the ongoing Iraqi war and its casualities, Raffo has jumped into the vacuum with a work of experiential and poetic resonance. Alone on stage, she summons a chorus of resolutely individual Iraqi women. Some are far from the eye of the storm; others embody it. Umm Gheda, whose entire family was incinerated by an American "smart bomb" during the first Gulf War, survives as a witness to atrocity, having lost all other identity in the chaos:
I named my daughter Gheda
Gheda means tomorrow.
So I am Umm Gheda, "mother of Gheda"
it is a sign of joy and respect to call a parent by their kunya.
In Baghdad, I am famous now as Umm Gheda
because I do live here in yellow trailer
outside Amiriya bomb shelter
since the bombing
13 February 1991.
Yes I was inside
with nine from my family
then such a pounding shaking
everything is fire
I couldn't find my children […]
In the whole day later […]
the only body I did recognize
is my daughter-Gheda
so I did take her name.
There are other women in Raffo's group who desperately hold on to a name, a story, any shred of individuality. Among the characters are a woman physician, struggling against the cancers caused by environmental poisons unleashed by the bombings; a painter who collaborated with Saddam's regime, yet filled his museums with forbidden images of female nakedness; a robust Bedouin mother who has left two husbands behind and lost the love of a man she idealized; an Iraqi girl who dances to *NSYNC and wishes she could befriend the American soldiers; a hard-drinking expatriate in her fifties who lives in London and deplores the persecution of civilians under Saddam; a professional mourner who immerses herself in the grief of a whole people; and a young American woman who has an Iraqi family and can hardly tear herself away from the daily news reports on television—so deep is her fear for those who might end up as unnamed casualties of a CNN news feed. Their words rain down in torrents, changing us as we listen.
Raffo remembers that first 1974 trip to Iraq as a childhood interlude of enchantment—the voices of cousins who chattered, hugged and teased her, the intricate stories her uncle told the children as they slept out on the roof, enjoying the clear desert sky with its canopy of stars.
As Raffo grew up, the family was forced to grow apart. In the '70s, there were still aunts and uncles who popped in to visit the family in Michigan. Their vivacity stirred Heather's imagination, and they brought gifts of sandals or spices that smelled like the place she remembered. Why she identified so strongly with these ties of blood is still a bit of an enigma for Raffo.
In 1980, when Iraq went to war with Iran, the borders shut tight. In the midst of American sanctions and embargoes and a devastating collapse of Iraq's economy that left even the middle classes starving, Raffo felt drawn to return to the Iraqi family she remembered with a child's clear eyes.
She finally did, in 1993. To approach Iraq at that time required a 20-hour bus ride across the desert, only to arrive at a closed border. It took Raffo five hours to get through the checkpoint. Border patrol divided up the bus's passengers into lines, one for returning Iraqis, one for people from other Arab states. The third line, for designated "others," was empty; Raffo stood alone. With her American passport, flowing blonde hair and limited Arabic, she expected a long bureaucratic tussle.
Raffo told the officer in charge that she had an Iraqi father. "This guy sitting at a big desk looked like trouble," says Raffo. But, to her surprise, the official got up, walked all the way across the room to greet her, and stamped her passport for entry. "He had the warmest twinkly eyes you ever saw," she recalls. "He said, 'Welcome to your father's country.'"
It was as if a wall had parted, and suddenly she was on the inside: "I was the daughter—the daughter of a whole country. They could not see me as anything different." Her Baghdad family, by now grown to 60 or 70 people, had amiable shouting matches in Arabic concerning whose house she'd visit first for dinner, until her eldest uncle, Behnam, intervened, devised a social calendar for his visiting niece. (Years later, he was also the first to reach her after 9/11 devastated New York, having become almost like a second father during her 1993 stay.)
She continues, "There was an inner seed in me that felt this connection to Iraq. It had a lot to do with my femininity—I don't know why. When I started working on this play and meeting Iraqi women and really talking to them, I realized how similar we were, and they would laugh, 'Oh, you're Iraqi!' They wouldn't give me any room to be American, too."
Their instinctive acceptance helped Raffo conquer her sense of fracture and self-division. Her personal family story is also the story of the two nations that have formed her bloodline, and it's no longer just hers.
As Nine Parts of Desire illuminates a hidden, female world, Raffo effectively extends that immigration official's gallant invitation to all of us, welcoming us to an Iraqi family we didn't know we had.
Among Raffo's gallery of characters is a painter named Layal, based on a woman artist named Layal Al-Attar who once filled the palaces and museums of Saddam with flattering portraits and lush nudes. "She was already dead in 1993, when I first saw her artwork in Iraq," Raffo notes. Was Layal a voluptuary without conscience or a prisoner of the regime? Raffo wasn't certain, and everything she learned in her research only deepened the paradox. "Layal was like the Marilyn Monroe of Baghdad. Everything about her was steeped in rumor. She was this complicated woman who was possibly very tied to the regime. Maybe she was forced to be; maybe she liked it."
Layal's nude portraits also bear the metaphoric burden of explicating other female lives. Her canvases always transform her subjects, sometimes in the Ovidian sense, making raped and murdered girls into slender trees rebounding with blossoms. In her monologue, Layal says: "Always I paint them as me / or as trees sometimes like I was telling you / I do not want to expose exactly another woman's body / so I paint my body / but her body / herself inside me. / So it is not me alone / it is all of us / but I am the body that takes the experience."
An actress by training and vocation, Raffo acknowledges the parallels to her own methodology: "Those lines were absolutely the way the play shifts my psyche into their psyche." Critics have labeled her a chameleon, and some have marveled at her ability to change not only voice but tempo, as she performs her interconnected soliloquies. Before our eyes, she seems to grow gaunt or fat, young or aged, exuberant or sorrowful with the burden of remembering.
Raffo says, "It is only my body on stage, and it's a way to give an audience the flesh of Iraqi women, the thoughts of Iraqi women, while protecting them as well. The hardest thing for Iraqi women to do is put themselves out there in that way. Even Layal, who is very sexy and loves attention—even her nature is to be very coy about what she's going to reveal and how. So I felt that the gift I was given as a creator and artist was an ability to be emotionally and spiritually naked. Maybe that's my gift as a writer, too."
In terms of her literary influences, there's really only one that feeds this play: Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Raffo discovered Shange's poetic drama about African-American women in an undergraduate theatre class, and its form opened a vein of deep identification. "Reading it, I just felt like the women were speaking from inside me, and speaking something so central and truthful," Raffo says. "They were finding words that I'd wished I had at the time. I wasn't an African American or Puerto Rican; I'd never been discriminated against; I didn't have these experiences, but the raw current of need and desire and emotion and femininity, and the ability to articulate it as it moves through the world, was absolute."
Raffo's women are also witnesses to loneliness, savagery and the desolation of love—in short, they are not so very different from Shange's characters in their hearts. They speak of the desire for friendship, the pain of rejection, the need to memorialize the murdered and to absolve the living.
When Saddam lost the first Gulf War and the provinces of Iraq began to rise up against the Baathist regime, many felt that the CIA had made promises that it then failed to keep. American forces could have toppled Saddam, but didn't. "The biggest crime for me is that we chose as a world community to go to war with Iraq in 1991, and there were lots of groups, already established, that were anti-Saddam. Something like 18 out of 20 provinces fell after the war, and we saw Saddam going in with helicopters to put down the uprisings—and we let him do it! In a no-fly zone! They rise up, and we don't do anything. What we're doing now could have been done in 1991, without us going to Baghdad. Instead, we have given them 13 years of the worst oppression they've ever had: all the intellectuals leaving, the middle class starving, doctors making $4 a month! So when they say that this war was to liberate human beings, I say, 'No. That was your chance. That's when we would have gotten the roses in the street.'"
When Raffo began writing Nine Parts of Desire in 1998 for a thesis project, she recognized that she needed more research, more testimony, to draw upon. "Americans were hungry for this human face of Iraq," she says. "They only knew Saddam. They wanted me to tell them everything. I think that was one of the reasons why I knew a play could be worthwhile." Her subsequent interviews included a circle of Iraqi expatriates in London as well as her Iraqi relations. The play is not a literal transcription of Raffo's interviews any more than it is a polemical antiwar tirade. At a recent talkback, Raffo sat in shiny purple sweatpants, her hair still damp from the evening's onstage immersion in a river that could be the Tigris or Euphrates, an immersion that stands in for the river of voices, gradually merging, and the flow of measureless history.
Her chair faced her Manhattan Ensemble Theater audience, an audience hungry to know how much of the play was "real." All of it was real, Raffo gently explained, but almost nothing was literal. "I liken it to writing a song," she said. "I went and lived with them, and then I came home and wrote it, and said, 'This song's for you.'
"Their history is our history," she continued. "I mean, that was the cradle of civilization; aren't we all tied together from our beginnings?"
In the play, it's Nanna, a street vendor and scavenger who sells what she finds to keep from starving, who addresses the audience directly in these words:
I have too much existence
I have lived through 23 revolutions
my life has been spared
if my life has been spared
to whom do I owe my debt?
I have so much to repay.
To whom do I owe my debt?
Pamela Renner is a New York City-based writer and a frequent contributor to American Theatre magazine.