For most Americans, the first Gulf War was a video-game war. We knew it only as television images of blurry streaks across greenish skies, talking heads, excited voices giving a play-by-play on tactics and military decisions; we found it impossible to understand what was happening on the ground, who was suffering our relentless bombardment. But a few revelatory images did leak out. The one I remember most clearly was taken inside a bomb shelter in Baghdad, where frightened people sat against a wall; in the foreground, a man buttoned up his little boy's jacket. As his father carefully performed this most mundane and routine of tasks, the child gazed directly at the camera, his face expressionless, his eyes large and dark with terror. When I learned some days later that Baghdad's biggest shelter, Amiriya, had taken a direct strike and that some 408 people, including many children, had died in heat so intense that it carbonized flesh to walls and turned human bodies into shadows, I wondered if this was the shelter I had seen, if the little boy and his father were among those shadows.
The Amiriya catastrophe plays a significant role in 9 Parts of Desire, Heather Raffo's one-woman play about the lives of Iraqi women. One of Raffo's powerful and telling monologues is delivered by Umm Ghada, a woman who stands vigil outside the bombed shelter. She tells us that the U.S. military claimed this well-known shelter was a communications center, but that she believes we were using it to test a new kind of bomb.
Raffo is the daughter of an American woman and an Iraqi father, so she is uniquely qualified to bring the two cultures face to face. She herself is represented by a character in the play, an American woman who feels the current war tearing at her soul. This woman talks about the frantic worry she feels for aunts, uncles and cousins, while all around her in New York, life goes on as usual. She finds she's unable to turn off the television set, even as she wonders if a yoga class mightn't relieve the overwhelming stress. She remembers the loving, concerned phone calls she received from Iraq after 9/11. And she ponders the fact that in America, it's well understood that a single traumatic event can distort your life forever, yet the Iraqis have faced one trauma after another: the vicious rule of Saddam Hussein, the war against Iran, the 1991 war, the years of deprivation brought on by the embargo, and now the daily violence of this second Gulf War.
Based on a decade's worth of interviews, Raffo's script includes insights as revelatory as they are simple: that Iraq is an ancient, highly civilized country, rich with myth and history; that the Iraqis themselves are as distinct, complex, unpredictable and often unsure as any other people. In communicating all of this, 9 Parts of Desire neither preaches nor lectures; the play simply presents a rich tapestry of female experience and lets the viewers see it for themselves. Here, there's none of the flatness you often sense while watching pieces based on interviews, that feeling that you're watching readers' theater. Raffo has shaped her material so that each portrait is a piercing glimpse into someone's soul. And at the same time, these portraits fit together, one woman's insights illuminating or deepening another's, their language interweaving, the whole communicating a sense of unity and power.
Besides Umm Ghada and "The American," we meet Layal, a figure based on famous Iraqi painter Layla Al-Attar, who was killed in 1993 when President Bill Clinton, responding to a supposed Iraqi attempt on the life of George H. Bush, ordered a bombing raid on Baghdad. Layal is a complicated, conflicted character, sex-obsessed, passionately committed to her art and attempting to use it to make the unbearable bearable. She tells the story of a woman murdered by Saddam Hussein's son, Uday, who covered this woman's body with honey and set his dogs on her; in one of Layal's watercolors, the murder victim has become a blossoming branch — safe now, but hidden. Herself in Saddam's favor, Layal has traded soul and body for safety and the opportunity to continue painting, and her psychic disintegration occurs long before the American raid that ends her life. (Al-Attar herself was a loved and revered figure who did much to promote women artists in the Arab world; I have no idea whether she was tainted with the kind of collaboration Raffo describes. Perhaps she was, or perhaps for Raffo, being a powerful and successful artist in a dictatorship is a form of collaboration in itself.)
The horror of Hussein's rule, and the way totalitarianism twists and distorts lives, is also expressed by a child who unwittingly betrayed her father and whose mother has never forgiven her, as well as by an elderly exile in London — a sick, highly intelligent, whiskey-voiced onetime Communist and revolutionary who supports the U.S. invasion because she feels even chaos is preferable to Saddam's reign of terror. We meet a Bedouin woman who describes her world, bemoans a lost love and finds that simply talking about all this has given her a sense of freedom; a Western-educated Iraqi doctor attempting to deal with the illness and deformation caused by depleted uranium, including the two-headed babies, the babies with no heads at all; a professional mourner, placing worn-out shoes into a river, taking them out, tenderly touching them; a street peddler trying to sell the ancient bits and scraps that make up Iraq's history — a history that, she tells us, is now finished.
This passionate play was a terrific choice for Curious Theatre, and it's well directed by Penny Walrath Cole. Alone on the stage for two hours, Karen Slack gives a strong, beautiful, courageous performance. She has clearly immersed herself in this piece, role by role, making each rich and full, highly differentiated and very specific. From the infectious laughter of the Bedouin to the croaky despair of the London exile, she has etched each portrait in light. These women diminish the distance between themselves and us, speaking to the audience directly, asking for understanding, offering communication and even love.