9 Parts of Desire
Written by Heather Raffo
Directed by Joanna Settle
Featuring Mozhan Marnò
Main Season · Thrust Stage
January 20–March 5, 2006
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
A portrait of the extraordinary—and ordinary—lives of a cross-section of Iraqi women, 9 Parts of Desire lifts the veil on women in the war zone. “The voices are a study in contrasts: vivid and subdued, sophisticated and naïve, seductive and standoffish. But they cohere to form a powerful collective portrait of suffering and endurance.” So begins the New York Times’ radiant review of this remarkable solo performance—the Times’ pick of the week for 24 straight weeks—coming to Berkeley after its highly acclaimed and often-extended off-Broadway run. It’s a work so compassionate that it reveals our shared humanity in a way that CNN never can.
9 Parts of Desire was inspired by Heather Raffo’s trip to the Saddam Art Center in Baghdad, where she saw room after room filled with billboard-sized portraits of Saddam Hussein before discovering a back room, with little more than a nude woman clinging to a barren tree. “There was a light in front of her like a sun,” Raffo remembers, “and her head was hanging, bowed. It was titled Savagery.” Curious about the artist who created this striking work and the world that inspired her, Raffo began interviewing Iraqi women—ultimately collecting the stories and experiences that have created the play’s composite characters.
Heather Raffo · Author
Joanna Settle · Director
Antje Ellermann · Set Design
Kasia Walicka Maimone · Costume Design
Peter West · Lighting Design
Obadiah Eaves · Sound Design
Nicole Dickerson · Stage Manager
- Mulaya · professional mourner
- Layal · artist
- Amal · Bedouin woman
- Hooda · Iraqi ex-pat living in London
- the Doctor
- Samura · Iraqi girl
- Umm Gheda · widow who leads tours of a destroyed bomb shelter
- the American
- Nanna · old street vendor
“Poignant…Provocative…Played with striking assurance.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Marnò skillfully inhabits the lives of Raffo’s diverse women.”—Oakland Tribune
“Nothing short of stunning.”—Contra Costa Times
“Speaks the quiet truth of those whose voices have been silenced.”—San Jose Mercury News
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
A window into a war
I have never been in a war; never served as a soldier, never seen the violence or destruction left in its wake. During the Vietnam War, I protested by starving myself so that my weight would be under the limit required to serve in the army. Most of what I learned about what was happening in Southeast Asia was gleaned from television, movies, books and talking to veterans who returned from that disastrous military campaign.
When I saw 9 Parts of Desire in New York last year, I was reminded how little I knew about the reality of war. For all the overload of information we were given (and not given) about what was happening in Iraq, it was only by experiencing the chorus of characters in Heather Raffo’s play that I was able to generate some real empathy for the reality of the situation. Ms. Raffo’s nonpartisan view of nine women caught in the middle of an international trauma struck me as so immediate, so honest and so emotionally vivid as to make me not just reflect about the war, but to put a human face on the situation. Here were people, everyday people, caught in a whirlwind of catastrophic force, hurtling through time with suddenly uncontrollable speed, each life irrevocably changed while trying to hold its own familiarity. This tender, raw and personal landscape is what gives the play its artistry.
It is difficult and risky to create art from topical events. There is always the threat of being outstripped by reality; that things will change so rapidly as to make the project irrelevant. 9 Parts of Desire suffers no such fate. We all know that the initial, massive military strike in Iraq has been replaced with guerilla warfare, continuing to destabilize the country and creating conditions for a civil war. Millions of people, like the characters you will meet tonight, are simply trying to find a way to live under conditions that seem unlivable.
I find that the power of human resilience is ultimately a cause for hope. Our urge to live, even in the most dire of circumstances, becomes for some a source of faith. Not always faith in the religious sense, but a deeper feeling for both our vulnerability and our strength, our fragility and stamina, our animal and spirit nature. At its best, this is the faith offered by the theatre.
Baghdad burning: A girl’s-eye view of life in post-Hussein Iraq
In 9 Parts of Desire, Hooda talks about what it was like to live under Saddam Hussein: “he made the country more backward and religious. And funny enough Saddam is not particularly religious…”
We in the West generally tend to agree with Hooda’s view of things. We associate Hussein with a cruelty far beyond anything we have ever known, and certainly didn’t imagine his regime to be at all concerned with improving the quality of life for anyone, especially not for women.
However, it is a fact that Saddam Hussein was instrumental in helping pass a constitution which pronounced men and women equal under the law. Hussein’s ascent to power brought with it a focus on secular society—he was not interested in ruling with an Islamic iron hand (only with an indiscriminate iron hand). As a result, society appeared to shift away from religious regulation of the conduct of women. A book entitled In Search of Islamic Feminism quotes a Palestinian woman as saying that Saddam Hussein has “done more for women’s rights than any leader in the Arab world.”
So, some viewed Hussein’s lengthy reign as great progress for women’s rights, but others, like Hooda, saw women losing the battle with the fundamentalist movement that Hussein allowed to rise unchecked. And since his downfall, it seems that fundamentalism is now gaining momentum at an alarming rate. What follows are excerpts from a blog about life in postwar Iraq called “Baghdad Burning” (riverbendblog.blogspot.com) written by a young Iraqi woman who calls herself “Riverbend.” In August of 2003, she described herself this way: “I’m female, Iraqi and 24. I survived the war. That’s all you need to know. It’s all that matters these days anyway.”
Blog key: “E.” is her brother, “A.” is a coworker.
Saturday, August 23, 2003
Females can no longer leave their homes alone. Each time I go out, E. and either a father, uncle or cousin has to accompany me. It feels like we’ve gone back 50 years ever since the beginning of the occupation. A woman, or girl, out alone, risks anything from insults to abduction. An outing has to be arranged at least an hour beforehand. I state that I need to buy something or have to visit someone. Two males have to be procured (preferably large) and ‘safety arrangements’ must be made in this total state of lawlessness. And always the question: “But do you have to go out and buy it? Can’t I get it for you?” No you can’t, because the kilo of eggplant I absolutely have to select with my own hands is just an excuse to see the light of day and walk down a street. The situation is incredibly frustrating to females who work or go to college.
Before the war, around 50% of the college students were females, and over 50% of the working force was composed of women. Not so anymore. We are seeing an increase of fundamentalism in Iraq which is terrifying.
I am female and Muslim. Before the occupation, I more or less dressed the way I wanted to. I lived in jeans and cotton pants and comfortable shirts. Now, I don’t dare leave the house in pants. A long skirt and loose shirt (preferably with long sleeves) has become necessary. A girl wearing jeans risks being attacked, abducted or insulted by fundamentalists who have been…liberated!
Fathers and mothers are keeping their daughters stashed safe at home. That’s why you see so few females in the streets (especially after 4pm). Others are making their daughters, wives and sisters wear a hijab. Not to oppress them, but to protect them.
Don’t blame it on Islam. Every religion has its extremists. In times of chaos and disorder, those extremists flourish. Iraq is full of moderate Muslims who simply believe in ‘live and let live.’ We get along with each other—Sunnis and Shi’a, Muslims and Christians and Jews and Sabi’a. We intermarry, we mix and mingle, we live. We build our churches and mosques in the same areas, our children go to the same schools…it was never an issue.
Sunday, August 24, 2003
The story of how I lost my job isn’t unique. It has actually become very common—despondently, depressingly, unbearably common. It goes like this…
I’m a computer science graduate. Before the war, I was working in an Iraqi database/software company located in Baghdad as a programmer/network administrator (yes, yes…a geek). Every day, I would climb three flights of stairs, enter the little office I shared with one female colleague and two males, start up my pc and spend hours staring at little numbers and letters rolling across the screen. It was tedious, it was back-breaking, it was geeky and it was…wonderful.
When I needed a break, I’d go visit my favorite sites on the internet, bother my colleagues or rant about ‘impossible bosses’ and ‘improbable deadlines.’
I loved my job—I was good at my job. I came and went to work on my own. At 8am I’d walk in lugging a backpack filled with enough CDs, floppies, notebooks, chewed-on pens, paperclips and screwdrivers to make Bill Gates proud. I made as much money as my two male colleagues and got an equal amount of respect from the manager.
What I’m trying to say is that no matter what anyone heard, females in Iraq were a lot better off than females in other parts of the Arab world (and some parts of the western world—we had equal salaries!). We made up over 50% of the working force. We were doctors, lawyers, nurses, teachers, professors, deans, architects, programmers and more. We came and went as we pleased. We wore what we wanted (within the boundaries of the social restrictions of a conservative society).
During the first week of June, I heard my company was back in business. It took several hours, seemingly thousands of family meetings, but I finally convinced everyone that it was necessary for my sanity to go back to work. They agreed that I would visit the company (with my two male bodyguards) and ask them if they had any work I could possibly take home and submit later on, or through the internet.
One fine day in mid-June, I packed my big bag of geeky wonders, put on my long skirt and shirt, tied back my hair and left the house with a mixture of anticipation and apprehension.
We had to park the car about 100 meters away from the door of the company because the major road in front of it was cracked and broken with the weight of the American tanks as they entered Baghdad. I half-ran, half-plodded up to the door of the company, my heart throbbing in anticipation of seeing friends, colleagues, secretaries…just generally something familiar again in the strange new nightmare we were living.
The moment I walked through the door, I noticed it. Everything looked shabbier somehow—sadder. The maroon carpet lining the hallways was dingy, scuffed and spoke of the burden of a thousand rushing feet. The windows we had so diligently taped prior to the war were cracked in some places and broken in others…dirty all over. The lights were shattered, desks overturned, doors kicked in and clocks torn from the walls.
I continued upstairs, chilled to the bone, in spite of the muggy heat of the building which hadn’t seen electricity for at least two months. My little room wasn’t much better off than the rest of the building. The desks were gone, papers all over the place…but A. was there! I couldn’t believe it—a familiar, welcoming face. He looked at me for a moment, without really seeing me, then his eyes opened wide and disbelief took over the initial vague expression. He congratulated me on being alive, asked about my family and told me that he wasn’t coming back after today. Things had changed. I should go home and stay safe. He was quitting—going to find work abroad. Nothing to do here anymore. I told him about my plan to work at home and submit projects…he shook his head sadly.
I stood staring at the mess for a few moments longer, trying to sort out the mess in my head, my heart being torn to pieces. My cousin and E. were downstairs waiting for me—there was nothing more to do, except ask how I could maybe help. A. and I left the room and started making our way downstairs. We paused on the second floor and stopped to talk to one of the former department directors. I asked him when they thought things would be functioning, he wouldn’t look at me. His eyes stayed glued to A.’s face as he told him that females weren’t welcome right now—especially females who ‘couldn’t be protected.’ He finally turned to me and told me, in so many words, to go home because ‘they’ refused to be responsible for what might happen to me.
OK. Fine. Your loss. I turned my back, walked down the stairs and went to find E. and my cousin. Suddenly, the faces didn’t look strange—they were the same faces of before, mostly, but there was a hostility I couldn’t believe. What was I doing here? E. and the cousin were looking grim, I must have been looking broken, because they rushed me out of the first place I had ever worked and to the car. I cried bitterly all the way home—cried for my job, cried for my future and cried for the torn streets, damaged buildings and crumbling people.
I’m one of the lucky ones…I’m not important. I’m not vital. Over a month ago, a prominent electrical engineer (one of the smartest females in the country) named Henna Aziz was assassinated in front of her family—two daughters and her husband. She was threatened by some fundamentalists from Badir’s army and told to stay at home because she was a woman, she shouldn’t be in charge. She refused—the country needed her expertise to get things functioning—she was brilliant. She would not and could not stay at home. They came to her house one evening: men with machine-guns, broke in and opened fire. She lost her life—she wasn’t the first, she won’t be the last.