Writer-performer Heather Raffo, whose one-woman show about the lives of Iraqi women has drawn rapturous reviews since it opened last year off-Broadway, is something of a surprise up close. Slim, blond and animated, the New York resident comes off more Californian, with her surfer-girl first name, her spontaneity and her habit of emphasizing points with her hands. Raffo has such a youthful energy, it’s a bit hard to imagine how she transposes it into the gravitas required for the characters in her show, who include victims of bombing, terrorism and torture. It’s also hard to imagine Raffo’s presence filling a venue as large as the Brentwood Theater, where Nine Parts of Desire began Tuesday. But then there are Raffo’s eyes: dark, burning, almost otherworldly, widening at the slightest hint of a provocative idea, like a cat catching sight of a bird. In conversation, the eyes challenge and engage, an absolute that contrasts with the diffuse, ready-for-anything air that can only be described as American. Raffo likes it this way. She’s an Iraqi-American who has thoroughly probed the depths of what the hyphen means.
“As an American, I can say, ‘Hey, Iraqis are thinking and feeling this,’ ” she says. “I don’t have that separation. I can fill the gap. I am them, but I’m also sexy, attractive, familiar — the blond you were flirting with a minute ago.”
Part of Raffo’s charm is how she can say all this without sounding vain or self-serving, just truthful. Indeed, all of the accolades for Nine Parts of Desire cite its truthfulness and believability as the core of its power. In the midst of a polarizing war in which Iraq has enlarged the usual scale of Us vs. the Other, Raffo has done the near-impossible — she has humanized the Other. And not sentimentally: Her nine portraits of Iraqi women (the title is taken from a Muslim scripture about God giving nine parts of sexual desire to women, and one to men) reflect the specifics of whom and what Raffo saw, and felt, when she was in Iraq. “You know, Iraqis have a wicked sense of humor,” she says. “I once read in The New York Times a story about Iraq, and somebody there was quoted as saying, ‘Americans brought electricity to my ass before they brought it to my country!’ ” She howls with laughter.
Make no mistake, Raffo takes the show and its campaign of humanization seriously. Nine Parts is really a collection of stories and voices she began curating in 1993, when she visited family in Iraq for the first time in the aftermath of the first Gulf War and the onset of crippling sanctions imposed by the U.S.
Raffo grew up in Michigan, the child of an Iraqi father who was a civil engineer and who left the country in the 1960s — pre-Saddam — and an American mother. Though she was aware of her Iraqi heritage, it didn’t really resonate until Desert Storm, which happened when she was still an undergrad at the University of Michigan. It was a defining moment in more ways than one. “It was so personal,” she says. “All of my dad’s family was there, and I felt this heightened sense of politics. I thought, ‘I am of that other place.’ I had to go back after the war.”
She heard stories from both inside Iraq and out; the most graphic accounts of torture came from Iraqi expats living in London and elsewhere. The idea for Nine Parts grew out of a 20-minute performance she did for her MFA acting thesis while at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. “Something worked, or enough of it worked,” she says of that performance. “It wasn’t good, or formed, but it was just enough.” And for Raffo, it was also the right moment to expand the project she’d technically begun in ’93.
“In 2001 I said, Bush got re-elected, now it’s time,” she says. “I was so emotionally pitched. I could protest or write letters, but my family, again, was in danger. I had way too much knowledge now to not do anything.” She likens putting together a show of characters, her first playwriting endeavor, to arranging music. “It’s like songwriting — you share yourself with someone, walk away, then you write and write,” says Raffo. “And then you get into the character’s space and write from them.”
Raffo calls her show a “living memoir” — more impressionistic than journalistic. One character is often a composite of several people, one story a pastiche of several that she heard over the course of years in her travels. She recorded only one character on tape, Hooda, who speaks verbatim in the show, at least partly. Hooda has captivated critics to the same degree she captivated Raffo when they met. “She invited me to her house for this splendid meal, but she didn’t eat — she smoked, asked questions,” recalls Raffo. “She started telling me about her being in prison, about her husband dying. She was very matter-of-fact. She told me, ‘You need to put this in your book.’ ”
For all its passion, Nine Parts is not a message play. This will disappoint some, particularly given that Iraq contains a growing set of issues that Americans are in desperate need of clarifying. Though Raffo is full of opinions, she is more interested in the audience forming its own; it is the gray areas and the paradoxes of human behavior and motivation, not propaganda, that most interest her. “This play is not a documentary, though I know it’s more comfortable for the audience to feel that way [about it],” she muses. “They want to feel it’s ‘authentic.’ ” But Raffo says the play more than passes muster with the people it sought to capture. “Iraqis have come to the show and said, ‘Ah, that’s it! That’s what we meant! How did she know?’ ”
Traveling to Iraq a dozen years ago wasn’t easy. Neither the American nor the Iraqi embassy was keen on it, and once in the country, Raffo was more or less on her own. She did not speak the language (though she calls herself an expert in the nuances of broken English). But being a stranger in the land of her ancestors made for some profoundly spiritual encounters that helped illuminate dimensions of herself that had lain in shadow for her whole life. “When I got to the border, a man looked at me — I didn’t know what to think — and he said, ‘Welcome to your father’s country. Be at home. Know that our people are not our government.’ Basically, I took a bus across the desert,” she continues, her eyes widening again at the memory. “I met cousins and relatives, and we first stared at each other, checking out cheekbones and faces. Many of them said, ‘You’re my daughter while you’re here.’ ” Gratifying as that was, Raffo was confounded by aspects of life in Iraq, which was constrained under the rule of Saddam Hussein, but constrained even further by the U.N. sanctions.
“Most of my family were professionals, doctors, people like that, who couldn’t get a loaf of bread,” she says. “In three years the psyche changed from a middle-class people sick of Saddam to a middle class that dissolved, and violence and crime skyrocketed.” Yet the endurance of the people through centuries of dictatorship, war, colonialism, oppression, civil strife and political turmoil inspired her in a way that nothing had stateside. “I started thinking, ‘I’m so glad I’m from here,’ ” — meaning the U.S. — “but the [Iraqi] people here are so old,” she says. “And then I thought, ‘Why do they carry around 3,000 years of history in their blood and in their bodies?’ ”
Raffo is not sure of the fate of the Iraqis this time around, though she is certain that she’ll always share more than a bit of it. “The nine women in the play, they’re all pieces of me, in one body,” she says. “It’s like in one scene in the play, ‘Hammered in Najaf,’ a city of used-car lots where cars are made up of Chevy pieces, Ford parts. It’s like a Frankenstein thing. But it runs.”