web analytics
September 2, 2015 / 18 Elul, 5775
At a Glance
Sponsored Post

Home » Sections » Arts »

Reconsidering Iraqi Women

9 Parts of Desire

Written and performed by Heather Raffo

Directed by Joanna Settle

September 29-November 12, 2006

Arena Stage

1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington, DC

(202) 488-3300, www.arena-stage.org



 “I try to tell momma she won’t get stolen. Her hair is not that nice. They only steal people whose families have money. But she says, ‘Don’t tempt your fates; now they steal little girls to take them out of the country.’ Today I thought maybe I should get stolens [sic], so I could leave my country.”


 So says an Iraqi girl named Samura, as she plays with her abaya (a traditional Iraqi black robe-like garment) in between dance steps to N’Sync music. As she watches her satellite television, Samura reflects upon her family – “I hate my momma! Baba, my father, he said I am smart, but momma says I am stupid” – and upon the political landscape.


 “Today even they showed papa Saddam on TVs, and they look through his hair to make fun of him – Do you have lice in your hair? – that is always how we tease in the school when we want to be the most cruel to the poorest kids. Do you have lice?” she says. “I don’t know if he had lice – but to see it like that, he looked like an old man, like a baby. I felt sorry for him, but I didn’t cry.”


 Samura is one of the nine Iraqi women depicted in Heather Raffo’s one-woman show, “9 Parts of Desire.” Raffo conceived of the play when she visited the Saddam Art Center in Baghdad in 1993. In the museum, she found many portraits of Saddam Hussein (often billboard size), but in a back room, she discovered a painting titled “Savagery,” depicting a woman clinging to a tree. After researching the artist and interviewing Iraqis, Raffo wrote the play, although the Arena Stage website is quick to note the disclaimer: “Please be aware that all characters in this play are fictitious. The character of Layal is in no way meant to personify the real life artist Layla Attar. Inspiration for her character was purely taken from having seen her painting ‘Savagery’.”



Heather Raffo as Nanna. Courtesy of Arena Stage



 Raffo’s play is an unusual performance to address in these pages. The word “Jew” appears only once in the entire script, and it is part of a list that includes Sunni, Shia, Kurd and Christian. The word “Israel” appears three times, each of which refers to the land without any Jewish connotations. But Raffo’s play – albeit not even marginally Jewish in literal content – struck me, as a Jew, as particularly relevant.


 “Actually I cried today too when I saw papa Saddam on TVs,” reconsiders Samura, who later reveals that her father and brothers were killed by Saddam, “because he stole my father, so I thought he was bigger than anyone, but he didn’t even fight to death. I felt ashames [sic], because why I am afraid from him all my life? Momma, she is right. I am stupid.”


 Although Samura either suffers from a learning disorder or simply lacks an education (or both), her observation that her fears, which had previously carried larger-than-life proportions were now cut down to size, is a perspective worth considering in the current war on terror. It is only the rare racist, whom I have heard refer to all Iraqis as a single entity of “terrorists” or “heathens,” or the like. But I found myself paying careful attention to the wide variety of characters that Raffo presents in “9 Parts” who span the religious gamut – from a traditional 38-year-old Bedouin named Amal, who wears her abaya, in between telling the story of her many failed marriages – to the painter, Layal, who wears her abaya as a smock and worries about leaving Iraq, because “Maybe I am not so good artist outside Iraq.”


 It is often very hard to remember that people, though foreign and of different cultures, are still people, and I found myself very intrigued by stories of people I’d have never conceived of before. An old woman named Mulaya (a mulaya is a hired woman who leads other women in call-and-response mourning at funerals), who is obsessed with continuity and history, throws old shoes into the river. “My feet hurt. I have holes in my shoes. I have holes now even in my feet,” she says. “There are holes everywhere. Even in this story.”


 A whiskey drinking Iraqi exile, Huda, now in her 70s, reflects, “Well, exile in London for the intellectuals, is mostly Scotch, of course politics, and poetry.” Huda lays out what she calls the dilemma: “Personally, I have my doubts about American policy. I feel they’re making their own map of the Middle East; still I prefer this chaos to the regime, because Saddam was the worst enemy to the people than anybody else.” Huda maintains that Saddam taught his men how to brutally murder; his henchmen’s atrocities are so inhumane that they couldn’t have been innately known.


 An anonymous doctor has begun counting deformed babies. “Look, in June alone six babies no head, four abnormally large heads, now today another one with two heads. Such high levels of genetic damage do not occur naturally. These things, maybe you see them once in a textbook.” She laments the fact that children play at bombsites and take bullets to school “to show their classmates what they collected from America. One came in wearing a bullet around his neck, a bullet tipped in depleted uranium around his neck.”


 Another woman, Umm Ghada, has taken her daughter Ghada’s name, after Ghada (which means “tomorrow”) was boiled alive with many others in a bomb shelter.


 “So I am Umm Ghada, ‘mother of Ghada’,” she says, “It is a sign of joy and respect to call a parent by their kunya (an honorific reference to the parent by child’s name).”


 The two final characters are an American girl (who also goes anonymous) with an Iraqi father who watches the havoc in Iraq on CNN, and Nanna, described in the stage instructions as “an old, old woman, scrappy and shrewd, she has seen it all.” Nanna tries to sell her wares on a street corner, and eventually offers the audience Layal’s painting of a woman-as-a-tree, pitching it as more valuable, after Layal was killed by a bomb.


 I saw the play during its nine-month premiere at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater in New York in the fall of 2004. Arena Stage is a more open space than Manhattan Ensemble, and the play seems to have benefited a little from the claustrophobic space. But the lines that kept surfacing in my head after seeing the premiere were the same ones that struck me after the second viewing: the commentaries on freedom.


 As Americans, we so often think of freedom as the domain of license and no restraint, whereas as Jews, we are told, “You shall not find a free person, but s/he who is engaged in the Torah.” Raffo’s characters cling to their tradition – to what makes them Iraqis at their deepest cores – as expansive, dynamic and safe, rather then containing. They have complaints, to be sure. Amal reflects, “I have no peace. Always I am looking for peace. Do you know peace? I think only mens [sic] have real peace. Womans [sic] she cannot have peace. What you think?”


 But it is perhaps Layal’s story about responsibility that is most imperative. “There is a restaurant with a sign, ‘come in, eat all you want, free of charge. Your grandson will pay the bill’,” she begins. “So a young man, a teenager, he goes in happy for the free meal; he eats, and eats, and eats. When he is done eating all he wants, the waiter brings him a bill. The young man says to the waiter, ‘No, your sign says free of charge, my grandson will pay the bill.’ The waiter says ‘Yes, indeed sir, but this – this is your grandfather’s bill’.”


 This sense of continuity and family is the cause of the Iraqi-American’s obsession with CNN shots of destruction, and it is what keeps the exiled Huda talking about the very country that cast her out. It is what makes Mulaya dump old shoes in the river and retrieve them at the end of each day. And it is what makes Layal scared of Americans. “I think you’re dangerous – most Americans they are not so attached this way. They feel so free, even to be alone. They are not tied to each other or to anyone. I am afraid to be alone. I don’t want freedom – to be alone? I don’t care for it; I like protection. All I want is to feel it, love.” As Jews, this is surely something to which we can relate.


 Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

If you don't see your comment after publishing it, refresh the page.

Our comments section is intended for meaningful responses and debates in a civilized manner. We ask that you respect the fact that we are a religious Jewish website and avoid inappropriate language at all cost.

If you promote any foreign religions, gods or messiahs, lies about Israel, anti-Semitism, or advocate violence (except against terrorists), your permission to comment may be revoked.

No Responses to “Reconsidering Iraqi Women”

Comments are closed.

Current Top Story
Sen.Barbara Mikulski
Maryland’s Sen. Mikulski Gives Obama Magic Number for Iran Deal
Latest Sections Stories
Lunchbox Restaurant in Tel Aviv.

Bringing your own sandwich to a restaurant would appear as the height of chutzpah, but not any more—at least not at Lunchbox…


Last year, OneFamily published a cookbook in Hebrew featuring the bereaved mothers’ recipes.


How did an unresolved murder case turn into an accusation of ritual murder?

Excerpted from The Apple Cookbook (c) Olwen Woodier. Photography by (c) Leigh Beisch Photography with Food Stylist Robyn Valarik. Used with permission of Storey Publishing.

The flag had been taken down in the aftermath of the Charleston shooting and was now back and flying.

A light breakfast of coffee and danishes will be available during the program.

A variety of glatt kosher food will be available for purchase at Kosher Korner (near Section 1).

Jewish Press South Florida Editor Shelley Benveniste will deliver a talk.

Corey Brier, corresponding secretary of the organization, introduced the rabbi.

The magnificent 400-seat sanctuary with beautiful stained glass windows, a stunning carved glass Aron Kodesh, a ballroom, social hall, and beis medrash will accommodate the growing synagogue.

Even when our prayers are ignored and troubles confront us, Rabbi Shoff teaches that it is the same God who sent the difficulties as who answered our prayers before.

I’ve put together some of the most frequently asked questions regarding bullies, friendship and learning disabilities.

His parents make it clear that they feel the right thing is for Avi to visit his grandfather, but they leave it up to him.

More Articles from Menachem Wecker
Menachem Wecker

The exhibit, according to a statement from guest curator Michele Waalkes which is posted on the museum website, “examines how faith can inform and inspire artists in their work, whether their work is symbolic, pictorial, or textual in nature. It further explores how present-day artwork can lead audiences to ponder God, religious themes, venerated traditions, or spiritual insights.”


It all started at an art and education conference at the Yeshiva University Museum. When one of the speakers misidentified a Goya painting at the Frick Collection, both the gentleman sitting next to me and I turned to each other and corrected the error simultaneously.

One of my favorite places when I was growing up in Boston was the used bookstore on Beacon and St. Mary’s streets. Boston Book Annex could play a used bookshop on television; it was dimly lit and cavernous, crawling with cats, and packed with a dizzying array of books, many of which sold three for a dollar. But used bookstores of this sort, however picturesque and inviting, are a relatively modern phenomena. In the Middle Ages, for example, I would never have been able to afford even a single used book unless I had been born into an aristocratic family. (Full disclosure, I was not.)

Jewish medals, several with Hebrew inscriptions and provocative imagery, were among the gems at The European Art Fair (TEFAF) in Maastricht, Netherlands, as I wrote in these pages two weeks ago. Another mini-trend at the fair, which will interest Jewish art aficionados, was an abundance of works by Marc Chagall.

It’s virtually impossible to ignore the financial aspects of TEFAF Maastricht, the annual arts and antiques fair in the historic city about two hours south of Amsterdam. More than 250 dealers from nearly 20 countries sell their wares—which span from Greek and Roman antiquities to contemporary sculptures—in the halls of the Maastricht Exhibition and Congress Centre, whose corridors are adorned by nearly 65,000 tulips.

Max Ferguson’s 1993 painting Katz’s may be the second most iconic representation of the kosher-style delicatessen after the 1989 Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan film, When Harry Met Sally. Ferguson’s photorealistic painting depicts the deli from an interesting perspective, which is simultaneously inviting and hostile—in short, the dichotomy of deli culture.

The whole idea of an artful pushka (tzeddakah or charity box) is almost a tease, if not an outright mockery. Isn’t there something pretty backward about investing time and money in an ornate container to hold alms for the poor?

Located about nine miles north of Madrid, the Palacio Real de El Pardo (Pardo Palace) dates back to the early 15th century. Devastated by a March 13, 1604 fire that claimed many works from its priceless art collection, the Pardo Palace and its vast gardens were used as a hunting ground by the Spanish monarchs.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/reconsidering-iraqi-women/2006/11/01/

Scan this QR code to visit this page online: