Iraqi women speak with universal voice
Powerful drama rooted in the aftermath of two Gulf wars
By Martin Millerchip, North Shore News October 21, 2010
- 9 Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo, directed by Brenda Leadlay at Presentation House Theatre to Oct. 30. Box office: 604-990-3474.
AS 9 Parts of Desire ended, my wife was on her feet cheering, along with many others in the opening night audience.
I wasn't -- although there were moments in the show that had brought tears to my eyes -- and it's taken me a few days to try and figure out why I wasn't quite as enthused.
Initially I thought the answer might be as simple as she's a woman and I'm not -- and I think that's a large part of it. But beyond that, my wife is stridently anti-war, and this play is as effective and important as any other I know in underlining the message that war maims and wastes indiscriminately. Finally, my wife lives in the here and now, responding to life by how she feels about it. I, on the other hand, am far more reserved (which allows me to be objective about such things as pacing and transitions). And since Heather Raffo's script is based, in large part, on the feelings of other women and does a credible job of recreating them, when you add it all up, a woman should probably be reviewing this production.
Raffo is part Iraqi, a daughter of U.S. immigrants and was 20 at the time of the first Gulf War. She visited Iraq for only the second time in her life in 1993 in an attempt to understand both what had happened and her heritage. She wrote 9 Parts of Desire based on a subsequent 10-years-worth of interviews with Iraqi women. Some of the nine characters presented -- in this production by actor Valerie Buhagiar -- are based on specific people, but all of their words are distillations of what Raffo absorbed in her quest.
On a fractured set dominated by a beautiful set piece designed by Pam Johnson, we meet in turn: a Marsh Arab whose sense of humour remains, even if her homeland does not (Saddam drained the marshes as a punishment for the 1991 uprising against him); a doctor dealing with cancers and deformed babies because of the war's use of depleted uranium; a Bedouin woman who at first appears to yearn for a man to love her, but really just wants the freedom to speak freely; a young girl who has not yet learned the lesson all Iraqis must learn in order to survive -- "never to open their mouths, not even for the dentist"; Umm Gheda, a tour guide to the Amiriya bomb shelter in Baghdad that contains the vaporized remains of her family; a conflicted ex-pat in London, who escaped the U.S.-backed coup that put Saddam's Ba'athist party in power; and a young woman in New York who receives a call of condolence from her Iraqi family after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 before watching newscasts in horror as her Baghdad neighbourhood burns. There is one other character -- a professional mourner, I think -- but I had trouble separating her role from the Marsh Arab and became confused about who was channelling souls.