“9 Parts of Desire” by Mo’olelo
Surviving Iraqi devastation
By Don Braunagel
Posted on Sun, Oct 11th, 2009
Last updated Mon, Oct 12th, 2009
The title of this play by Heather Raffo comes from a proverb in the Koran: “God created sexual desire in 10 parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one part to men.” But sexual desire comprises only a minuscule part of this wrenching work, a mosaic of experiences of women terribly affected by the wars in Iraq.
Raffo, an American with an Iraqi father, wrote this play after years of interviewing Iraqi women. It was first produced in 2003, during the early stages of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and mostly concerned the 1990-91 Gulf War. Since then, Raffo has updated it to include newer atrocities, like the torturing at Abu Ghraib.
But “9 Parts” is not meant to be anti-American. It’s certainly anti-war, but mainly it’s a portrait of women and the protective methods they develop to survive amid desperation and devastation. Nine of them — composites of Raffo interviewees — get vividly personified by Lisel Gorell-Getz, Frances Anita Rivera and Dré Slaman.
Most prominent is Layal, an artist (based on actual painter Layla Attar), who refuses to leave Iraq despite the bombing all around her. She has attained favored status in the Saddam Hussein regime, partly because she paints nudes but also because she has no qualms about surrendering her body. (“I’ve been raped many times, and I want more.”) She also saw the consequences of offending the powerful: A friend was brutalized by Uday Hussein, then made the mistake of telling about it. She was recaptured, covered with honey and devoured by Dobermans.
Such atrocities, like Saddam’s massacre of thousands of his countrymen, are cited by another character, who’s previously been a pacifist but fully supports the overthrow of Saddam. Yet the resultant wars bring their own horrors. A Basra doctor, who says her hospital was the best in the Middle East, cites the vast increase in burn victims and genetic disorders. And another Basra resident shows the outline of a vaporized woman at the site where her whole family, along with hundreds of others, was wiped out by a U.S. “smart bomb.”
Even the lighter moments get tinged with sadness. A young Iraqi, who gushes over ‘N Sync and Justin Timberlake, also knows the make of U.S. tank that demolished much of her home. And she and her friends collect the different types of bullets and guns. A New Yorker with parents in Iraq watches the bombing on TV (lamenting that Americans “work out to the war”) and waits anxiously for word of her relatives’ safety.
One old woman goes to the river and soaks shoes, with the ironic pun that she’s saving “worn soles.” Another, who says she’s lived through 20 revolutions, seeks to survive by peddling anything, including what she says is a nude painting of herself by Layal.
The overall picture is heartbreaking, yet in the end, there’s a glimmer of optimism. Despite calamitous conditions, these women, in various ways, have learned to survive. And this cast, with credit to dialect coach Jan Gist, delivers that message sublimely, particularly Gorrell-Getz as Layal and Rivera, deftly switching from young to old. Director Janet Hayatshahi smoothes the transitions among the characters, and uses (or, in one instance, overuses) repetitions of dialog for emphasis.
David F. Weiner’s set, with Middle Eastern backdrops, features corner clusters of props necessary for each woman’s story. Running through them is the representation of a river filled with varied vessels, containers that also resemble a historical collection of Iraqi bowls. Alongside that river rest all types of shoes, sadly symbolizing all the people lost to war.
Jason Bieber’s lighting is almost like another character as it spotlights, underscores and teams with Paul Peterson’s subtle-to-vivid sound design to dramatize the terrible power of explosives. Charlotte Devaux’s simple but evocative costumes, particularly the familiar shrouding black robe, effectively define each character.