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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.


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