An intimate and complex portrait of the extraordinary (and ordinary) lives of nine Iraqi women, this remarkable solo work offers a meditation on what it means to be a woman in a country overshadowed by war. Based on her interviews with real women during the reign and fall of Saddam Hussein, Heather Raffo weaves utterly distinct voices into a tapestry of humanity, love, and endurance in the face of oppression.
*Member of Actors’ Equity Association,
the Union of Professional Actors and Stage Managers in the United States.
9 Parts of Desire, which premiered in 2004, is now considered a classic of Middle Eastern American theater. This, in itself, shows how recent our community’s presence in mainstream theater is. Alongside other writers like Yussef El Guindi and Betty Shamieh, Heather Raffo helped define a powerful immigrant cultural voice at a time when this community was ignored at best and vilified at worst. With her sparse poetry, big political metaphors, and her resistance to categorization and genre, Heather uniquely claimed that powerful space between here and there. I’ve heard numerous playwrights I adore — Leila Buck and Hannah Khalil, to name just two — cite this play as the work that gave them the courage to step into their own voice.
So, how do you approach a contemporary classic of “your people” as a director? Especially if this classic is still painfully current due to American military’s ongoing acts of geo-political aggression in Iraq. In this case, I decided to listen to my heart rather than my brain. In this American moment, when I feel my whole existence — as an immigrant, Muslim, Middle Eastern-American, queer man — is politicized, questioned, erased on a daily basis, following intellectualism and logic kept leading me to a hopeless place. So I decided to follow the heart-first path Heather laid out in her text and created this play as an honoring of pain and injustice, sure, but more as an ode to survival and hope and laughter and healing.
“I paint my body
but her body, herself inside me.
So it is not me alone
it is all of us.”
This simple passage from 9 Parts quickly became my key into what this play can be. What does it mean for an Arab American woman to paint nine Iraqi and Iraqi-American women inside her own body today? And to stand open and vulnerable in front of an American audience — an audience that comes with their preconceived notions and biases?
As I write this note during rehearsal, the answers to those questions lie outside of myself. I am focused on watching, listening, and learning from the gloriously talented Nora el Samahy, our soulful cultural consultant Israa Hasani, and the deeply generous and curious Heather Raffo. I’m letting these three bad ass Arab-American women guide me to a place of courage. Because the Iraqi women that inspired Heather’s gorgeous play would not let me do anything else.
Photo Credit: Kate Szrom