Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire
Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire is a one-act, one-woman play that expresses the collective experiences and identities of Iraqi women in the context of Iraq's troubled history. Over the course of an hour and a half, nine characters tell their stories, share secrets, and divulge politics, all expressed by a single actress on a set littered with props used interchangeably by the characters. Raffo, an Iraqi American woman, was inspired to write this play following a visit to family in Iraq in 1993. She spent the next ten years interviewing Iraqi women. This work eventually coalesced into Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire.
Raffo's title comes from Geraldine Brooks's nonfiction book about Islamic women, Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, which in turn draws its title from a recently recovered text by Imam Ali, an important Islamic leader from the seventh century. He wrote, "God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men." Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire was first produced in August 2003, with Raffo performing, at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, and has since been produced in London, New York, and Washington, DC. It is available in a 2006 edition from Northwestern University Press.
Raffo was born in Michigan in the early 1970s to a Christian Iraqi father and an Irish Catholic
mother. In 1974, at the age of four, Raffo traveled with her parents to Iraq to visit her father's family, a trip that she recalls as being full of magic and wonder. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 1993 with a bachelor's degree in English and spent that summer backpacking around Europe before making her way to her relatives in Baghdad, Iraq. It took her seventeen hours by bus to reach Iraq from Jordan, but once she arrived, she was warmly embraced and entertained by her family. Her experiences there, including a trip to the Saddam Art Center, where she saw Layla al-Attar's inspiring painting Savagery, were the inspiration for Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, which she began writing in 1998 as part of her thesis for her master of fine arts degree in acting performance at the University of San Diego. Raffo also credits American playwright Ntozake Shange and her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf as inspiration. Raffo's play premiered at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, in August 2003 and then moved to the Bush Theatre in London, England, later that year. In October 2004, it was produced at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre in New York and thereafter toured the United States. For her work on Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, Raffo was awarded the Lucille Lortel Award for best solo show, the Blackburn Prize Special Commendation, and the Martin Seldes-Garson Kanin Fellowship, all in 2005.
In 2006, Raffo joined five other playwrights and actors in writing The Middle East, in Pieces. Her contribution was an excerpt from Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire; the work was read at Cherry Lane Theatre in New York as part of the Reading Series produced by Back House Productions.
Raffo considers herself more an actress than a writer and continues to perform on the stage, in films, and in television commercials. She lives in New York and Los Angeles.
Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire opens with the dawn call to prayer. The first character the audience meets is the mullaya, or professional mourner. She is singing a traditional Iraqi song, "Che Mali Wali" ("Because I Have No Ruler") and throwing shoes into a river onstage. In her poetic monologue, the mullaya talks about the river as the source of life, both the beginning and the end. Over and over, she uses the word "sole," which when spoken to an audience also sounds like "soul." An additional layer of meaning comes from the fact that in Middle Eastern cultures, the bottom of one's shoes or feet, the soles, are considered to be unclean. The mullaya mourns what has been lost, referring in particular to the Marsh Arabs displaced after Saddam Hussein dammed and diverted the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. The mullaya herself is a Marsh Arab and mourns for the loss of the life she once lived, but she concludes, "Now the river has developed an appetite for us."
The mullaya transforms into the next character, Layal the artist. Layal comments that many artists and intellectuals, including her sister, have left Iraq. She stays because she is not sure she would be as good an artist outside Iraq. She paints nudes and is the curator at the Saddam Art Center, a post many think she attained by sleeping with a government official, although Page 97 | Top of Article she denies this. She tells of a college woman brutalized by Saddam's son Uday and how she immortalized this woman in a painting of a blossom hanging from a branch, unreachable by hungry dogs. "I fear it here / and I love it here" Layal admits.
Layal becomes Amal, an intense Bedouin woman. Amal is looking for answers. She tells how she left her Saudi Bedouin husband, a plastic surgeon, in London after she caught him sleeping with one of her friends. She next moved to Israel and married a fellow tribesman who promised to move her somewhere else, but she was only the second wife, and the first wife would not allow them to move. She leaves him also and begins a long-distance relationship over the telephone with Sa'ad, a friend of her first ex-husband. After a year, they decide to marry. They meet for the first time in Dubai and have dinner, and then Sa'ad calls off the marriage, saying "you are not the Amal I love." He tells her he is not worthy, but Amal is heartbroken and ashamed. Amal is a woman of deep passion and love but believes that Sa'ad rejected her for being fat and not pretty enough, not fashionable enough. Now she fears running into Sa'ad in London, where her children visit with their father. She feels free finally, but not at peace.
Amal transforms into Huda, an Iraqi exile living in London. A lifelong political protestor, she talks about the war in Iraq. Huda hates Saddam Hussein, Iraq's president, so much that she cannot protest this war because that would ally herself with his supporters. "[T]his war was against all my beliefs / and yet I wanted it."
Huda then becomes the doctor, who is vomiting from a terrible stench and then washing her hands. She has just lost a patient, a mother giving birth. However, the baby, who has two heads, has survived. She talks about the horrors she has seen here in Basra, including children affected by radiation poisoning. Her husband has lost his legs and cannot work. Although she is Western-trained, the doctor returned to Iraq to work in the best hospitals, which are now reduced by radiation and cancer to a horrible experiment. Feeling nauseous, she admits to the audience that she is pregnant.
The doctor then becomes an Iraqi girl, dancing to American pop music. She is angry at her mother, who will not let her out of the house since the U.S. soldiers arrived. The Iraqi girl tells how her grandparents had their house run over with a tank because they did not understand the English spoken by the soldiers who came to their house. Her father was taken away for speaking against Saddam to his daughter, who had repeated his words at school. Her brothers are also gone, and she and her mother do not leave the house without a male escort now, for fear of kidnapping. The girl is so adapted to life in a war zone that she can identify different bombs by the sounds they make as they pass overhead. On some level, she understands her role in her father's disappearance and feels "stupid," as her mother calls her.
The Iraqi girl becomes Umm Ghada. Umm Ghada, or Mother of Tomorrow, is a woman without a name. She is a survivor of the destruction of the Amiriyya bomb shelter during the Gulf War and calls herself Umm Ghada after her daughter, Ghada, the only body she was able to identify. She now lives in a trailer at the site and has dedicated her life to keeping alive the memory of what happened to more than four hundred innocent people. The shelter was mistaken for a military communications center and targeted for the trial of a new, two-part bomb. The first bomb drilled through the shelter, and the second bomb went in the hole and detonated. Four hundred three people died; Umm Ghada was the only survivor. She asks the audience to sign her witness book.
Layal returns, paintbrush in hand. She tells a proverb about a restaurant where one can eat free of charge and one's grandson will pay the bill later. A man goes in, eats, and is surprised when the waiter brings him a bill. It is from his grandfather. Layal is living with her sister because her house, in the upscale neighborhood of Mansur in Baghdad, was bombed while she was away. She laughs to think someone thought her dangerous enough to try to kill her and destroy her paintings. Layal then talks about falling in love with another art student and having an affair with him. Her husband shot her when he found out, but she did not die. She sees herself as having so much hunger for love and flesh that she cannot control herself. "I tell you / when you're this way / so attached / always loving like you will die without something— / you love like an Iraqi woman!" She describes Americans as loving freedom and being "passionate, selfish, charming," whereas the Iraqis want to be attached, protected, to "love like you cannot breathe."
Layal transforms into the American. She is glued to the scenes of war on her television set. She talks about her father, who recognizes the neighborhoods where his family lives in this footage. They are looking for familiar faces, beloved family, aching for knowledge of what is happening to them. She says their names over and over, like a prayer, trying to call them on the phone but the lines are down. Like Layal, the American relates how her Iraqi relatives are attached to each other and to their past.
Huda takes Layal's place. She says she cannot leave London because this is where her husband died. She is done moving, although many people she knows have gone back to Iraq. She sees that the young women who should be stepping up to fill her shoes are giving up their education and wearing the veil. "Their grandmothers are more liberated than them." Huda also talks about the attachments between Iraqis: her family is a mix of Kurd, Shi'a, and other ethnicities and lived together comfortably. Huda recalls how Saddam should have been removed from power during the Gulf War. The Iraqi people were counting on the United States to help, but the United States turned its back on them, and Saddam killed ten of thousands of people. The United States embargoes, which had been intended to cripple his dictatorship, ended up only strengthening it. Huda now believes that the way to change is by gradual development, not revolution.
Huda becomes Nanna, an old woman selling things on the street. The third call to prayer sounds. She says that the looting Iraqis had been spurred on by Americans. "It's freedom to have!" Nanna feels her life has been spared and she owes a debt for that. She confides to the audience that the burning of the National Archives and the Qur'anic Library was not an accident, and now their history has been erased. Nanna believes this is a punishment from God because the Iraqis did not do away with Saddam themselves. She remembers a time in school when she drew a picture of her mother and was chastised by the teacher because it was only proper to draw the men in one's family. So Nanna erased her mother.
Nanna now becomes the American. She scorns the media attention given to seven people trapped underground in the United States, as compared with the millions of lives threatened by the war that the United States has engaged in on Iraqi soil. She worries about her Iraqi relatives and keeps saying their names. She knows she needs to go on with her life, but she cannot do mundane things without being disgusted with herself. The American is consumed with worry. She still cannot call her family in Iraq. She is angered and embarrassed by the images and words of American supremacy. "Why don't we count the number of Iraqi dead?" she cries out.
Layal returns and says that she has been called a whore for choosing to paint herself nude, for painting Saddam, for installing a mosaic of U.S. president George H. W. Bush on the floor of the lobby of the Rashid Hotel. She knows that despite these criticisms, she is more free to express herself than the Americans are. She has been used by her government and needs them as much as they need her. She wishes she were afraid and knows she cannot escape complicity.
Huda abruptly takes over, mid-sentence. She is remembering the coup in 1963, when she was among one hundred eighty thousand people who were rounded up for their leftist politics and held in prison for months. Conditions in the prison were terrible, and treatment was inhumane. Huda says the people need only empowerment to help them accomplish their dream of liberation.
The character changes back to Layal, who is in the middle of a bomb raid. It is near the end of the Gulf War in the early 1990s. She is on the phone, asking someone to do something about the bombing. She lives in a rich neighborhood and cannot believe this would happen, even by accident. The person on the line is asking her to do a mosaic and then to meet with him privately tomorrow. Layal reluctantly agrees.
The scene switches now to the American, who is listening to a message from her uncle in Iraq, asking her if she is okay. It is immediately after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001. Her family loves her very much, and they do not stop calling until they hear her voice.
Layal takes over, answering the phone. It is her daughter Sabah, whom she clearly misses and worries about. Layal tells her to stay away from Baghdad, that it is too hot for her to come home, which has a double meaning: both the temperature of summer in the desert and the political condition of the city. Their line cuts out and Layal drops her phone.
The American's uncle leaves another message for her, after the September 11 attacks. He asks her to visit and bring her family because it is hard for them to get to her. Now, in 2003, it is the American's turn to desperately try to call her family overseas. She finally connects with her Aunt Ramza in Iraq, who speaks very little English but tells her to pray and that she loves her. The American recites the names of forty-six of her Iraqi relatives as a prayer for their safety.
Layal declares that she will never leave Iraq and that she does not believe in the American idea of freedom. She is now amused at the idea of creating this mosaic of President Bush, because she is not afraid of the consequences. She starts smashing things in her studio to make pieces for the mosaic. Her next speech is ecstatic, hysterical, and mournful, blending together dialogue from the other women the audience has heard from. The fourth call to prayer sounds, and Layal ends with, "I'm dead."
The mullaya takes over Layal's pacing but speaks with ease rather than volatility. Her dialogue is full of warnings, such as, "To the well one day you'll return / thirsty, assured it will be there / but you'll not find—spring, nor river / so beware of throwing a stone / into the well." The mullaya steps into the river to wash, gradually becoming fully immersed in the water. A professional mourner, the mullaya uses the dialogue of all the women to mourn with them, for them.
The last call to prayer is heard, and the mullaya becomes Nanna, still selling things on the street. She has Layal's painting, Savagery. Nanna tells the audience that Layal died when a bomb fell on her sister's house. The painting is worth more because of her tragic end. "I give you secret," Nanna confides, "some trees are womans / this one, little one, is me / I let her paint me / aa, she see me / shhh / don't say / my husband he thinks it's just a tree."
Amal is a thirty-eight-year-old Bedouin woman who is full-figured and vibrantly inquisitive. Her name means "hope." Bedouins are traditionally desert-dwelling nomads. Amal has been married and divorced twice and has a fourteen-year-old son, Omar, and an eight-year-old daughter, Tala, from her first marriage. She left her first husband, a Saudi Bedouin plastic surgeon based in London, after she found him sleeping with one of her friends. She also left her second husband, an Israeli Bedouin, when he did not keep his promise to take her out of the Middle East. Her true heartbreak comes from Sa'ad, a friend of her first husband, with whom she strikes up a long-distance romance. He breaks off their relationship shortly after they meet in person for the first time. Amal cannot understand why she has been rejected. Her love and loyalty, as well as her independent spirit, are a refreshing take on Middle Eastern women for the Western viewer.
The American is the first of Raffo's three main characters and is loosely based on Raffo herself. The American lives in New York City and is half-Iraqi; however, because she is blonde, people do not see her as someone of Middle Eastern descent. As war descends on Baghdad, she is gripped with fear for her extended family and driven to frustrated anger by the cavalier attitudes of the other Americans around her, who either cheer for the war—which could mean the deaths of her innocent relatives—or cannot stand to watch news coverage of the war, which is a denial of what is happening. The American recites the names of her relatives—Raffo's cousins, aunts, and uncles—as if to stay attached to them, to keep them alive. More than any of the other characters, the American is struggling to reconcile the halves of her identity. She is safe compared with the others, but she is the least at peace.
The doctor is Western trained, but she returned to work in one of the best hospitals in the Middle East in the city of Basra. The war has brought cancers and birth defects to Basra, caused by radiation, taking her job far beyond normal health care. Her daily life and work are full of horrors now, and she is barely coping. She is also suffering from morning sickness because she is pregnant, a condition that should bring joy but for the Doctor is fraught with worry because of the high risk of birth defects in her region.
Huda is an intellectual Iraqi exile living in London; she is the second of Raffo's three main characters. She is in her seventies, drinks whiskey, and chain smokes. Huda is the most political character, denouncing Saddam Hussein for specific acts of inhumanity. She hates Saddam so much that she cannot help but want this war, since it means he may finally be deposed. Her name means "enlightenment," a fitting description for an academic who has spent her life protesting the dictatorship in Iraq. Her enlightenment has come at a hard price. She spent several months in prison following the 1963 Ba'ath coup and has been unable to return home permanently. She has lived in London for a long time; her husband died and was buried there, and she feels she cannot part with the life they built in London. Huda leaves the future to the younger women, despairing that they take up the veil and give up their educations. However, she now believes that change must come slowly if it is to endure.
The Iraqi girl, named Sammura, is about nine years old. She is trapped at home with her mother because the streets have become unsafe for women to walk alone. Her three older brothers have disappeared and are presumed dead; her father was taken away after the Iraqi girl repeated at school something he said against Saddam Hussein. Since the war began, her mother will not let her go to school. She loves to watch American television shows, such as Oprah, and dances along with American pop music. Her mother calls her "stupid" because Sammura appears naive about the war and its implications; in fact, though, she can tell the difference between Kalashnikov and M16 gunfire, and she speaks English better than anyone else in her family. The Iraqi girl knows that she is smart, but she understands she has made a mistake regarding her father and for that feels stupid.
Layal is an Iraqi artist and Raffo's third main character. Her name means "nights," and is a variation on the name Layla. Layal is loosely based on the famous Iraqi artist and painter Layla al-Attar, who, like Layal, was curator of the Saddam Art Center and was favored by Saddam's government. In the play, Layal exudes confidence, but her life has not been easy. She was shot by her husband when he discovered her having an affair, but she miraculously survived. She has had to sleep with men to maintain her position of political favor, and she has had to take on work that she did not want, such as the mosaic of President George H. W. Bush at the Rashid Hotel. In exchange, she has been able to express herself in unexpected ways without challenge, including the creation of the painting Savagery and its incongruous display at the heart of the Saddam Art Center. This artwork corresponds to a real painting of the same name by al-Attar, which provided the inspiration for Raffo to write Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire. At the end of the play, Layal begs her daughter not to come home, an allusion to the death of al-Attar, who died in a 1993 bomb raid ordered by the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton following an assassination attempt on former President Bush. Al-Attar's husband and housekeeper also died, and her daughter was blinded in one eye.
The mullaya is a professional mourner; in this play, she is a mythic figure, tying together past and present. She is seen at the beginning, dropping the shoes of dead people into a river, which symbolizes ushering the dead into the next realm. She is a Marsh Arab, an ethnic group that lived in the marshlands at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq for five thousand years until they were displaced in the early 1990s, when Saddam ordered the rivers dammed and diverted. Saddam thus turned the marshlands into desert as punishment against the Marsh Arabs for rising up against him and harboring defecting soldiers. Having lost their livelihood, the Marsh Arabs dispersed throughout Iraq and Iran. The mullaya, a member of an ancient profession and an ancient ethnic group, is in mourning herself. At the end of the play, she Page 101 | Top of Article brings together all the voices of Raffo's nine characters in a monologue that is part eulogy and part song of love and survival.
Nanna is Arabic for "Granny." Nanna is an old woman peddling found objects on the street to buy necessities. She has seen a lot in her life and speaks of the burning of libraries and the loss of history. She holds secrets and memories but appears willing to give up almost anything for money to buy food, as when she tries to sell Layal's painting at the end of the play. Nanna represents the past and the immediate future of Iraq, as its people struggle for stability and identity.
See Iraqi girl
Umm Ghada is the sole survivor of the destruction of the Amiriyya bomb shelter on February 13, 1991. This civilian installation was mistaken for a military communications center and thus targeted. She lost her nine family members among the 403 dead; she calls herself Umm Ghada, or "mother of tomorrow," after her daughter Ghada, the only body she could identify. Umm Ghada lives in a trailer next to the destroyed shelter, keeping alive the memory of what happened and acting as a witness of its existence to other people. The character of Umm Ghada is loosely based on the real person of Umm Greyda, a woman who lost eight children in the bombing and lives on-site to serve as a guide.
Survival is a central theme in Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire. Raffo's nine portrayals of different Iraqi women describe a culture that is still full of hope and love despite decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein. These women are not victims but survivors—survivors of both the war and their individual tragedies. Layal has had the freedom to seek the full extent of her expression as an artist and survives despite indignities that she must suffer as a woman in the realm of politics. Through her art, she is able to save women who have been victimized, such as the college student whom Uday murders and whom she secretly memorializes as an unreachable blossoming branch in one of her paintings. Layal dies in a U.S. bomb raid, but her message lives on in her paintings.
The Iraqi girl is an unlikely survivor because, being young, she seems so fragile against the Page 102 | Top of Article mechanisms of war. However, she shows herself to be clever and leaves the audience with the sense that she will grow up to be the sort of woman Huda envisions as a leader in Iraq's future. Huda is a survivor in a very literal sense: imprisoned for several months after the Ba'ath Party takeover in the 1960s, she has lived in exile from Iraq all her life but has never given up hope of return, or at least the reform of Iraq and the downfall of Saddam. The doctor, who like Layal has chosen to stay in Iraq and work, faces the horrors of birth defects and cancer in children on a daily basis. Her despair is tangible and her survival seems tenuous, yet she is full of hope when she reveals that she is pregnant. Nanna, who has lived a long life and survived revolution after revolution, feels that her life has been spared for some reason and that she must owe a debt for that. She is a mouthpiece for history, representative of cultural survival, but she feels that the Iraqi people are being punished by God for not getting rid of Saddam sooner. Raffo's theme of survival in this play maintains a sense of hope, rather than the despair of a victim. The mullaya, a professional mourner, is speaking of hope and renewal when she says "I cannot choose to leave / throw our arms wide / sing to my mother / I am home again."
Love is a theme echoed by all the characters in this play, in different ways. For Amal, love is loyalty, and those who are not loyal to her will lose her; however, when she is on the receiving end of rejection, Amal cannot understand what went wrong or how her lover saw her as anything other than herself. Layal, sexy and confident, paints nudes of herself and conducts affairs that she barely conceals from her husband. Her love is very physical, but it also takes shape in her paintings, where she preserves the dignity of women in general, despite the politics she must take part in. She loves her attachment to people, scorning the American idea of freedom. Umm Ghada's love for her murdered family has shaped her present life as a survivor and witness to their senseless deaths. She has given up her individuality, calling herself simply Mother of Ghada. The American, who loves her relatives in Iraq, is desperate to hear that they are safe. She is caught between two worlds, watching footage unfold and praying for their lives.
The title of this play is derived from a hadith (a story) of Imam Ali, an important Muslim leader from the seventh century. He said, "God
created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men." Raffo's title, Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, is an allusion to this hadith and to the complexity of love that women feel. All of the women in Raffo's play are passionate and torn, but their love buoys them and helps them to survive.
Symbols are objects, marks, or sounds that represent something else. Symbols are quick and effective ways to communicate meaning without extended explanation. Raffo's one-act, one-woman play relies on symbols to fill in meaning surrounding the actress's monologue. For example, the water on stage that represents the two rivers of Mesopotamia's landscape, the Tigris Page 103 | Top of Article and the Euphrates, also symbolizes life and death. This meaning is drawn out by the mullaya's use of the water, because she is a professional mourner. The doctor, whose profession also deals with life and death, also uses the water on stage.
Another important symbol is the abaya. The abaya is a square overgarment that is usually black and worn loosely at the shoulders or from the top of the head. It is a symbol of Iraqi identity in this play, distinguishing the actress from her audience. The actress performing in this play uses her abaya to effect the transformation between characters. Through use of the abaya, which is as much prop as clothing throughout the play, Raffo illustrates the range of personalities and of stories of Iraqi women.
Dramatic monologue is a narrative style used in plays wherein the character is communicating information with another person not obviously present on stage, such as the audience. Traditionally, dramatic monologues are given in verse; in Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, the characters all speak in free verse, a type of poetry that does not follow any specific rules for rhyme or meter. Raffo's characters, speaking in dramatic monologues, share themselves with the audience, establishing an emotional journey that is more meaningful for both the characters and the audience than if the characters were speaking to themselves, unaware of being observed. Amal, for example, says, "I have never talked this before / nobody here knows this thing about me." She is excited to share herself with outsiders.
Founding of Modern Iraq
Modern Iraq was shaped after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire following World War I. The region, known by its ancient name of Mesopotamia, was under British control until the United Kingdom granted independence, and the Kingdom of Iraq was formed in 1932. In July 1958, after decades of instability and British intervention to maintain oil supplies, a military coup successfully overthrew the monarchy and established the Republic of Iraq. The republic was first led by General Abdul Karim Qassim. Qassim was friendly with the Soviet Union, then a communist nation, which prompted the anticommunist governments of the United Kingdom and the United States to support his overthrow. Qassim was ousted and killed in February 1963, and by 1968, the Ba'ath Socialist Party controlled Iraq. Saddam Hussein, a Ba'ath Party leader, took the offices of president and prime minister in July 1979 in a bloody purge of government officials that claimed more than five hundred lives.
Iraq under Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein was president of Iraq from 1979 to 2003. He maintained his rule through brutal suppression of opposition. His secular government was unusual for a Middle Eastern country, and in 1980, Saddam began a war with neighboring Iran, which had recently come under Islamic rule. Suspicious that insurgency was developing in the Kurdish village of Halabja in Iraq, in March 1988, Saddam ordered poison gas to be dropped, killing five thousand people and wounding ten thousand more—an act classed as genocide by Human Rights Watch. Iraq's economy and thus its people were devastated by the war, which ended in a stalemate in August 1988. In 1990, Saddam invaded Kuwait, a small nation south of Iraq on the Persian Gulf, hoping to take control of its rich oil resources and thus repay some of Iraq's war debt. Kuwait repelled Iraq with the support of U.S. military forces in a conflict that became known as the Gulf War. Saddam was nearly overthrown during the Gulf War; however, the U.S. military withheld support at the crucial time and Saddam successfully quelled the rebellion.
For all that Saddam was a dictator and an inept military commander, Iraq had some of the best universities and hospitals in the Middle East and generously supported its artists, musicians, and writers. However, people lived in fear of coming under Saddam's scrutiny. Many people, suspected of being dissidents, simply disappeared, like the Iraqi girl's father in Raffo's play.
The Iraq War
On March 20, 2003, a coalition of forces sent by the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries invaded Baghdad to oust Saddam from power, following reports that he had weapons of mass destruction, which posed a threat to security around the world. Baghdad and other cities were bombed, and the Ba'ath
Party was unseated. Saddam was captured in December 2003; after a lengthy trial, he was executed for crimes against the Iraqi people on December 30, 2006. Meanwhile, religious and political groups struggle for control of Baghdad and the rest of Iraq while the United States tries to hand over sovereignty to the unstable nation.
Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire premiered in August 2003, five months after the United States invaded Baghdad, seeking to overthrow Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Public consciousness and curiosity about Iraqis was high at this time, bringing her production greater attention. Jackie McGlone, reviewing the original show at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland, for the Scotsman, calls it a "powerful drama," whereas Joyce McMillan, writing for the same publication, is more critical. "Neither a slightly confusing script, nor Raffo's deeply-felt but poorly differentiated performance, quite rise to the challenge posed by this huge theme." Michael Billington, reviewing the same production for the London Guardian, finds small technical faults with Raffo's performance but sees tremendous value in what her play has to say. He writes, "The effect of her show is to challenge the audience's comfortable moral certainties and to make manifest the daily sufferings of Iraqi women and the people at large."
Raffo next performed her show at the Bush Theater in London. Reviewer Fiona Mountford describes it in the Evening Standard as "unstructured sprawl" and an "underwhelming Production." According to Simi Horwitz in "Face to Face: Heather Raffo; Exploring the Complexity of Identity," in Back Stage, both the London Times and the Independent selected Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire as a best play for 2003.
The play then moved to the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre in New York City. Writing for the New York Times, Charles Isherwood concedes, in a generally positive review, that "the play may not be particularly distinguished as a dramatic text, but it is effective as humanistic journalism." Page 105 | Top of Article Raffo's play went on to tour the country and be performed by other actresses. She occasionally made small updates to keep the text relevant. In 2008, Chris Jones reviewed Raffo's performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art for the Chicago Tribune, noting, "It's probably fair to say that this piece had more impact in 2003 than it does today." However, Jones still finds value in the play, which he describes as "highly absorbing … with equal parts intellectual heft and raw human compassion."
Ullmann is a freelance writer and editor. In the following essay, she examines Western misperceptions of Iraqi women and how Raffo dispels these misperceptions in her play Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire.
Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire was inspired by the playwright's experiences with real Iraqi women after she traveled to Iraq to visit her father's family in her early twenties. "When I returned to the U.S., people would say, ‘Oh, you're an Arab—and you went to Baghdad, so did you wear a veil?’" Raffo told McGlone in an interview for Edinburgh's Scotsman.
In the United States, many people believe that women in the Middle East are uneducated, unemployed, robed from head to foot, often veiled, and kept by men as if they were property. They are thought to be voiceless and modest. It is a very stimulating image for a nation where men and women freely argue the finer points of equality. Western misperceptions of women in Middle Eastern countries come from a combination of sources, but primarily news media, television shows, and films. When the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, images sent back to the United States by reporters and photographers showed Afghani women veiled and robed from head to foot in a garment called a burqa. Intentionally or not, these women were considered by Western reporters and their viewers to be helpless victims of both the war and the culture of which they were part.
Afghanistan, which is located in south-central Asia, between Iran and Pakistan, was unusual compared with other countries in the Middle East and southwest Asia because it was governed by the Taliban. The Taliban is a fundamentalist group that interprets the Sharia, or Islamic religious law, very conservatively. The Taliban ruled in Afghanistan from 1996 until 2001, when it was overthrown by North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in an effort to stem terrorist activities abroad, believed to be supported by the Taliban. While in power, the Taliban required women to dress in burqas and travel only with a male escort, and it forbade them to attend public school or hold jobs in most sectors. This extreme conservatism became a standard image, to Westerners, of what was wrong in the Middle East.
The war in Afghanistan immediately preceded the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iraq and Afghanistan could not be more different culturally, but media coverage at the outset of the war in Iraq was vague about Iraq's possible connections to Islamic terrorists, which thematically tied Afghanistan and Iraq together. Afghanistan is largely inhabited by Sunni Muslims, whereas Shi'a Muslims dominate in Iraq. Iraq was a secular nation under Saddam Hussein, and it was unusual for women there to be veiled. Despite Saddam's harsh methods of controlling his people, all were encouraged to get an education, including women. Women held jobs, owned businesses, and participated in politics. Iraq was, in some ways, more socially progressive than many other Middle Eastern countries, where theocracies or democracies failed to give women opportunities equal to those of men. Iraq had the best universities and the best hospitals in the region, and Saddam's government was a strong supporter of the arts. This is what Raffo saw when she visited Baghdad in 1993. Raffo told McGlone, "There are no images of Iraqi women out there that aren't flat, one-dimensional and somewhat victimised. The real Iraqi woman does not exist in western culture."
Raffo shows the many faces of Iraqi women through the characters in her play. Some wear an abaya, a long, loose overgarment, but none of Raffo's women are veiled. In Raffo's play, the Page 106 | Top of Article abaya is practical desert clothing rather than a symbol of overzealous protection of femininity. It is also used as a prop to represent long hair, a baby, a painting, and more. All nine women are vibrantly alive—angry, hurt, confused, impassioned. Layal, a famous painter, and the doctor have made the choice to live in Iraq despite pressures to live and work elsewhere. Layal asks, "Who will be left to inspire the people if all the / artists and intellectuals run?" and "What's to paint outside Iraq? / Maybe I am not so good artist outside Iraq." The doctor despairs at what her country has become after the Gulf Wars. There is so much radiation from depleted uranium used in munitions that babies are born with grotesque birth defects, and young children suffer from cancer at alarming rates. The doctor is an intellectual, suffering for love of her country.
Umm Ghada, survivor of the destruction of the Amiriyya bomb shelter, lives to bear witness to the world of the senseless murder of more than four hundred civilians. She is calm and peaceful, but she will not let Amiriyya be forgotten lest it happen again. Nanna is a witness to history, having lived in Iraq throughout its transformation from British mandate to kingdom to republic. "I see things / I see everything." Huda is also a witness to the past but lives in exile. She has spent her whole life fighting from the outside, in Page 107 | Top of Article the form of political protests, to have Saddam removed from power and make Iraq a safe place to live again. She drinks alcohol, something an observant Muslim would never do. The Iraqi girl, Sammura, is energetic and modern. She knows English better than the rest of her family. She can distinguish, by sound, between the firing of different weapons and know how far away the shooting is. She seems to be a silly girl obsessed with American television at first but truly struggles with the deaths and disappearances of her grandparents, brothers, and father. She hopes to study and be smarter for her father when he returns, if he returns.
Amal is an Iraqi Bedouin woman who has been married and divorced twice. She is not modest, and her forthright expressions of love are surprisingly frank. Amal's tale of divorce and heartbreak, her concern about her weight and her children could be the story of many women all over the world. The American, like many Americans, is obsessed with news coverage over the war, but unlike others, she is desperately seeking knowledge that her family members in Iraq are safe. Like Huda, the American lives outside Iraq, where it is supposedly safe, but this safety also renders her powerless to do anything but watch the war unfold.
The mullaya is the most mythic and traditional figure in the play. She defines herself as a Marsh Arab, an ethnic group whose way of life was destroyed by Saddam when he diverted the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, causing the marshes to dry out. She is outcast, like Huda and the American, but in her own country. At the conclusion of the play, she becomes an amalgamation of all nine characters, channeling them as if to usher them to another realm:
I fear it here
and I love it here
I cannot stop what I am here
either I shall die
or I shall live a ransom for all the daughters of savagery.
In Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, Raffo shows the audience nine very different, very Iraqi women, none of whom are veiled, modest, or ignorant. They are of different ethnicities, religions, ages, education, and professions, but are united by a shared culture and history. "I knew I had to tell the stories I'd heard because they're funny, sexy, radical and deeply emotional," she explained to McGlone. Raffo's play is important for Western audiences to see because it dispels the myth of the silently suffering, burqa-wearing woman in a dusty hovel. Raffo writes, as the mullaya, "life did choose to root / here in this grave / all my family is here / … / always it is life and death / and life and death." The love and suffering of these women are not only universal to people the world around but also across time. With these lines, Raffo acknowledges that which is past, reaching far back into ancient Mesopotamia but also forward into the future.
Source: Carol Ullmann, Critical Essay on Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, in Drama for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.
Pat McDonnell Twair
In the following review, Twair documents the production history and Raffo's strong characterization in Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire.
In a one-woman show which has drawn an enthusiastic response from critics wherever it has played, Heather Raffo, the daughter of an Iraqi immigrant to the United States, tells the story of Iraqi women under siege.
A caretaker at the Amariyeh bomb shelter, a Scotch-drinking intellectual in London, a twice-divorced Bedouin looking for a new husband, a pre-teen gyrating to 'N Sync who hasn't been allowed to go to school since the GIs arrived in Iraq. These characters represent just a few of the Iraqi women Heather Raffo portrays in Nine Parts of Desire.
Her subjects are composites of Iraqis Raffo met when she visited her father's family in 1993. She has been developing the characters ever since as her conversations continued through the second Gulf War and resulting occupation.
One of them may even be Raffo herself I thought, as I watched her portrayal of an Iraqi American woman in Manhattan who impatiently filed her fingernails while viewing news coverage of Iraq: "Why don't they count the number of Iraqi dead," the agitated woman asks of no one in particular.
Ironically, Raffo says she didn't appreciate her paternal Iraqi heritage while growing up in Michigan, where her civil engineer father emigrated to in the 1960s and later married her American mother. But everything changed with Desert Storm. Suddenly the University of Michigan graduate was desperate to see her father's homeland.
No one was happy with her mission to view the war-torn land of her ancestors. But in 1993, Page 108 | Top of Article Raffo crossed one border after another until she was in the arms of her nine uncles and aunts in sanction-impoverished Baghdad. The visit was to change her life.
During a month long run of Nine Parts of Desire, Raffo played to a full house at the prestigious Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles. There are no costume changes in her one-act performance but Raffo does astonishing things with an abaya as she transforms herself into a series of remarkably different women.
Although she does not speak Arabic, the broken English accents of her characters reveal regional and class distinctions. Take for instance, the high-pitched singsong voice of the Bedouin woman who divorced her Saudi husband in London and left her second husband, a Bedouin from Israel, before striking up a correspondence with a third potential spouse.
Instantaneously, Raffo morphs into Hooda, who speaks the king's English albeit with a smoker's hoarseness. A chandelier illuminates the pampered woman who has fled to London where she ruminates: "This war is against all my beliefs, yet I wanted it."
This single act tribute to the spirit of survival in Iraqi women developed out of a 20-minute performance Raffo made at San Diego's Old Globe theatre in California, for her MFA acting thesis at the city's university. The title Nine Parts of Desire is borrowed from an Islamic adage that god bestowed nine parts of sexual desire to women, and only one to men.
Raffo premiered Nine Parts of Desire in August 2003 in Scotland, at Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre. It then moved to the Bush Theatre in London's off-West End where critics praised it as one of the best five plays in the London September 2003 season. New Yorkers viewed the show from October 2004 to May 2005 at the Manhattan Theatre Ensemble.
The play opens with Mulaya, a homeless crone who tosses shoes into a river as she mourns the lost soles/souls of the dead. Her lament is poetry:
When the grandson of Genghis Khan
Burned all the books in Baghdad
The river ran black with ink
What colour is the river now?
It runs the colour of old shoes
The colour of distances
The colour of soles torn and worn
This river is the colour of worn shoes.
With a few magical twists of the abaya, Mulaya is transformed into a blonde artist, Layal, who performed favours for Saddam Hussein and his sons. As she works at her easel, she comments that she could have escaped the war and moved to London with her sister. "But what happens if all the intellectuals go? Here, I am a good artist, I may not be in London."
Raffo passionately portrays a physician desperate over the disintegrating condition of her hospital and the smell of raw sewage that makes her retch. She decries the effects of depleted uranium weapons that have left radiation in the air, water and soil.
"Iraq had the best hospitals in the Middle East," she shouts, now it has been cast into the Dark Ages. The desperate doctor curses radiation that causes infants to be born with no heads or two heads and creates breast cancers in toddlers who play on battle-sites alive with depleted chemical waste.
Perhaps the most tragic is Um Rudha, who lives in a yellow trailer next to the site of the Amariyeh bomb shelter where 403 Iraqis were immolated in 1991 when a US bomb destroyed it. All the members of Um Rudha's family were incinerated in the air strike leaving her alone, to feed and clothe herself by guiding visitors through the ghastly memorial
"Now you sign the witness book," she tells the audience, "your name will be a witness too."
How do Iraqi Americans react to Nine Parts of Desire?
Following her performances at the Geffen, Raffo met with Arab psychologist Dr. Ilham Sarraf who enthused: "You have told our stories. This is my fourth viewing and I identify more of my sisters each time I come."
Up close to this commanding talent, Raffo proves to be not a larger-than-life Medea-like figure, but a petite young woman who graciously accepts praise for her remarkable portrayal of women under fire.
Source: Pat McDonnell Twair, Review of Nine Parts of Desire, in Middle East, No. 362, December 2005, pp. 56-59.
In the following review of Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, Renner follows the success of the original production run and provides an account of Raffo's early life.
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 Theater—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 casualties, 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 Page 110 | Top of Article 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 existencePage 113 | Top of Article
I have lived through 23
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?
She hasn't left her apartment in New York
City for days; she is glued to the TV.
Now they're digging through mass graves
with their bare hands.
and one guy on tv I saw him
he found a pack of cigarettes
and he said my brother smoked
this kind of cigarette
so this is my brother's body
and he took the bones
so he could bury them / what
was his brother.
I've never seen men cry like that.
I watch my dad
try not to cry
because when he's watching tv
and it's green
nighttime footage of
he can recognize the street and
where all his family
I watch tv
of my family
so all I do is cry.
But my dad
he ends up choking and making himself
he's lived here in the US
for 40 years
he plays golf
5 times a week.
he's just sad / but
you just can't
I'm on my knees
in the middle of my apartment
with my mom
on the phone
I'm holding a rosary
and I want to pray
but I don't have
so I say their names
over and over trying
to see them
and we don't know if—
and we can't call
we can't get through on the phones
now people are burying their dead in their
in the garden
the football field
a police station
my uncle Sarta lives next to a police station
Amo Zuhair lives next to the airport
Ama Hooda / the Palestine Hotel
Ama Zuhira / in Karada / Mount Lebanon
Maysoon she used to work for the UN—
the whole face got blown off / I'm reading on
They never forget ever.
They carry everything with them /
I mean everything they are / they're so
attached / like
great-grandparents, parents, children /
it lives in them, walks with them
they can't let go
they hold inside them.
So when they cry
I've never seen anything like it.
—From Nine Parts of Desire
Source: Pamela Renner, "Iraq Through the Eyes of Its Women," in American Theatre, Vol. 22, No. 4, April 2005, pp. 20, 71.
In the following interview, Horwitz asks Raffo about her motivation for creating the one-woman show.
Actor Heather Raffo asserts she did not write her one-person show, Nine Parts of Desire, in which she stars, as a vehicle for herself. Its creation emerged from a much deeper place: her identity—and pain—as a woman of Iraqi heritage.
"I'm an American, but I became aware of myself as an Iraqi—had a sense of myself as ‘the other’—for the first time during the Gulf War," Raffo recalls…. "I realized from that point on that my cousins in Iraq—family whom I loved—would be viewed by many Americans as dark and dirty. I also realized that the only difference between my cousins and myself was the accident of where we were born. That was my loss of innocence and, in a way, the beginning of this piece, although I didn't start writing it until I was in graduate school at the University of San Diego. It was my master's thesis."
Nine Parts of Desire, which bowed Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater on Wed., Oct. 13, presents a portrait of nine Iraqi women from all Walks of life—from the most traditional (indeed, some are awash in mythic beliefs) to the most modern, calculating, and cynical; from those who feel anyone in power is an improvement over the brutality of Saddam Hussein to those who feel that President Bush brought only chaos to the region and ultimately betrayed the Iraqis.
The play is based on a series of interviews Raffo conducted with Iraqi women and inspired by an aphorism from a Muslim text: "God created sexual desire in 10 parts, then gave nine parts to women and one to men." Raffo, who inhabits each persona fully, moving from character to character seamlessly, says that whatever their differences, "all the women are united by their desire to live fully. I chose the title because it has a certain resonance. It points to the complexity of these women."
A highly animated, 34-year-old native of Okemos, Mich., Raffo, who punctuates her thoughts with a flurry of hand motions, meets with me in a Back Stage conference room, eager to talk about her worldview, politics, and the evolution of her show, which played in England last season and was selected as the best show in London by The Times and as one of the five best plays in London in December 2003 by The Independent.
"I would love audiences to find these women—many of whom may be alien—familiar in some way," notes Raffo. "I'd love to hear an American say, ‘That Bedouin woman is just like my aunt.’ But at the same time, I want American audiences to walk out a little confused, not able to say, ‘Oh, I get it,’ but rather [to] understand how difficult it is to grasp the psyche of people who have lived under Saddam for 30 years with American support, then had a war with Iran, resulting in 1.5 million deaths, followed by 13 years of sanctions and two wars under American firepower."
Still, in an effort not to create characters who are too foreign to Westerners, Raffo admits presenting the most secular, educated women, Page 114 | Top of Article "softening the religious aspects, although many Iraqis are Christian, not Muslim." Indeed, Raffo was raised a Roman Catholic. Her American-born mother and Iraqi-born father, who came here as a young man to work as a civil engineer, are both Christian.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Arab-American audiences have been the most responsive, Raffo reports: "They come to me at the end of the show with tears running down their faces. They recognize the women I'm portraying. One young man told me he lost eight members of his family because they didn't have a picture of Saddam Hussein on their wall. I had an Iraqi father and daughter come backstage with very different politics. The father kept saying, ‘Bush is a miracle, Bush is a miracle.’ The daughter didn't feel that at all, but they both loved the show. I don't know what Americans feel," Raffo continues. "They're less vocal, but I think they're enjoying it, with the exception of some middle-aged Republicans who saw it in Edinburgh, didn't get it, and were obviously turned off."
PERTINENCE IN A DEEP WAY
Raffo wanted to act from the outset. She earned her undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she majored in literature, before heading off to the University of San Diego, where she received her M.F.A. Short of a brief dry period, Raffo has worked steadily as an actor in commercials ("which pays the rent") and in theatre. Some of her recent acting credits include an Off-Broadway production of Over the River and Through the Woods, along with Macbeth (as Lady Macbeth), The Merry Wives of Windsor (Mistress Page), and The Rivals, all with the Acting Company. Under the auspices of the Old Globe Theatre, Raffo acted in Othello (directed by Jack O'Brien), Romeo and Juliet (directed by Daniel Sullivan), As You Like It (directed by Stephen Wadsworth), and The Comedy of Errors (directed by John Rando).
Raffo credits her acting experience in classical theatre as a significant—albeit unwitting—influence on her development as a writer: "It has allowed me to think mythically, poetically, and out of the box. There's nothing that prepared me more for writing than acting. Acting is about sympathizing and feeling with your whole body. And when I write, I'm in my bones, just like an actor."
She adds that her acting background helped her with interviewing Iraqi women—that and being an Iraqi, "which got me in the door, and being an American, which, oddly enough, made it possible for the women to trust me. They felt they could say things to me, as an American, that they wouldn't allow themselves to say to another Iraqi."
Raffo insists that while she defines herself as an Iraqi-American (equally American and Iraqi), being a woman is what most shapes her.
"What's missing in the world is the feminine balance," Raffo suggests. "I'm not talking about female empowerment, but rather the combined energy of the male and female in everybody."
Raffo's most significant artistic influence is Ntozake Shange, a feminist playwright: "When I first read For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, I felt I could write too. I felt it came from my blood. If I ever meet Ntozake, I'm going to hug her."
Raffo continues to view herself essentially as an actor, but writing has given her a chance to "integrate my voice in the process. I wish that were true for me as an actor, where only a part of me is used. Acting in my own one-person show is the best way to go for integrating all aspects of me. But, truthfully, I don't really care for solo shows, unless they really enhance the material."
Raffo is not entirely sure what she'll do next: "My real ambition is to appear in movies. I never really wanted to do theatre, although I believe the best training is in theatre. And before I did this piece, I dreamed about doing all the great classic roles. I no longer feel that need. In fact, I'm angry when I think about some of the classics. Why is everyone suddenly doing Greek plays to talk about Iraq? Why don't we go to the Iraqi artists when we talk about Iraq? Or unearth our own stories—new stories—that deal with Iraq?" She adds, "I'm not talking about topicality, but pertinence in a deep way."
"What's missing in the world is the feminine balance. I'm not talking about female empowerment, but rather the combined energy of the male and female in everybody."
Source: Simi Horwitz, "Exploring the Complexity of Identity," in Back Stage, Vol. 45, No. 44, October 29, 2004, pp. 7, 44.
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Raffo, Heather, Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, Northwestern University Press, 2006.
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Imam Ali, son-in-law of Mohammed and founder of the Shi'a sect of Islam, is credited with these adages, or hadiths, which are respected as Muslim teachings. The title of Raffo's play comes from a hadith by Imam Ali.
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Brooks, an Australian journalist and correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, draws on her experience as Middle East correspondent and draws a modern portrait of Muslim women behind the veil.
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Kelly writes about Saddam's senseless murder of thousands of Kurds and his trial by the Iraqi High Tribunal. He examines Saddam's motivations, as well as the lack of response from the rest of the world to this genocide.
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Polk, a diplomat and an academic, examines Iraq's troubled history of war, occupation, and revolution and makes recommendations for a peaceful future.