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Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire

Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire

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by Heather Raffo

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Winner, 2007 Chicago Book Clinic Crystal Book Award for Excellence in Design

As topical as today's newspaper headlines, these rich monologues bring to life nine distinct Iraqi women whose very different stories convey the complex and harrowing reality of being female in modern-day Iraq. Their monologues quickly become a series of overlapping conversations leading


Winner, 2007 Chicago Book Clinic Crystal Book Award for Excellence in Design

As topical as today's newspaper headlines, these rich monologues bring to life nine distinct Iraqi women whose very different stories convey the complex and harrowing reality of being female in modern-day Iraq. Their monologues quickly become a series of overlapping conversations leading to a breakdown in communication as the chaos of Iraq intensifies. Layal is a sexy and impulsive painter favored by Saddam's regime, breezily bohemian one minute and defensive the next; another woman mourns the death of her family in a 1991 bunker, and another—a blond American of Iraqi descent—painfully recalls a telephone conversation with Baghdad relatives on the eve of the U. S. invasion. Other characters decry the savagery of Saddam Hussein in terrifying detail and express an ambivalent relief at the American presence; still others—like a Bedouin woman searching for love—transcend politics.

The title comes from the teachings of the seventh-century imam Ali ibn Abu Talib: "God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one part to men." Heather Raffo's monologues weave these nine parts into a finely textured, brilliantly colorful tapestry of feminine longing in dire times. This compassionate and heart-breaking work will forever change your view of Iraqi women and the people of the Middle East.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"The voices are a study in contrasts: vivid and subdued, sophisticated and naive, seductive and standoffish. But they cohere to form a powerful collective portrait of suffering and endurance in Nine Parts of Desire, Heather Raffo's impassioned theatrical documentary about the lives of contemporary Iraqi women."—Charles Isherwood, The New York Times

"An example of how art can remake the world and eloquently name pain. . . the play brings news of the psychic life of the brutalized and allows us to think about the unthinkable."—John Lahr, The New Yorker

"Heather Raffo. . .brings us closer to the inner life of Iraq than a thousand slick-surfaced TV reports. Yet her beautifully shaped one-woman play is a play, not a stodgily earnest piece of documentary theater, and therein lies its singular force. . ." — Terry Teachout, Wall Street Journal

Product Details

Northwestern University Press
Publication date:
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6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.40(d)

Read an Excerpt


A Play

By Heather Raffo
Northwestern University Press
Copyright © 2006

Heather Raffo
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8101-2416-5


For my family in Iraq


Mullaya Layal Amal Huda The Doctor Iraqi Girl Umm Ghada The American Nanna

Throughout the play the woman uses an abaya, a traditional black robelike garment, to move from character to character. Some characters wear the abaya traditionally; others use it as a prop. The Arabic words aa (yes) and la (no) are used throughout. Iraqi terms and lyrics to the songs can be found in the glossary (see page 73).

[The first sound we hear is the dawn call to prayer. In Muslim countries the call to prayer is heard five times a day: at dawn, at midday, in the afternoon, at sunset, and finally when the sky becomes dark and daytime is over. The call to prayer is heard five times in the course of this play. The MULLAYA walks onstage singing "Che Mali Wali," a traditional Iraqi song. She carries a great bundle on her head. She empties her load of shoes into the river. Traditionally, a MULLAYA is a woman in Arabic culture hired to lead call-and-response with women mourning at funerals. She is considered very good if she can bring the women to a crying frenzy with her improvised, heartbreaking verses about the dead. Mythic, celebratory, and inviting, this MULLAYA's mourning is part of her ritual ablutions.]

MULLAYA: Early in the morning I come to throw dead shoes into the river

without this river there would be no here there would be no beginning it is why I come.

Take off your slippers take off your sandals take off your boots

appease the hungry so I can sleep beneath the stars without fear of being consumed or

the river again will flood the river again will be damned the river again will be diverted today the river must eat.

When the grandson of Genghis Khan burned all the books in Baghdad the river ran black with ink. What color is this river now? It runs the color of old shoes the color of distances the color of soles torn and worn this river is the color of worn soles.

This land between two rivers I only see the one- where is the other river more circular and slow? Why only this one straight and fast? Where is the other? And the other land? Where is anything they said there would be? We were promised so much the Garden of-

Let me tell you I have walked across it Qurna, Eridu, Ur the Garden of Eden was here

its roots and its rivers and before this Garden the chaos and the fighting loud and angry children- the dark sea lies beneath my country still as it has always done sweet and bitter water-children of Nammu. But our marshlands now are different they've been diverted, dammed, and dried I have walked from there to here from the flood to the highway of death collecting, carrying you can read the story here it is, read it all here on my sole.

My feet hurt I have holes in my shoes I have holes now even in my feet there are holes everywhere even in this story.

I don't want new shoes! I would rather swim than walk- bring me back the water I was created in the water in which I woke each morning and went to bed each night the water in which I swam to school and milked the buffalo and listened to the loud voices of frogs bring me back the marshes and the fishes reed man, reed woman

I would rather swim than walk- and now the river has developed an appetite for us its current runs back beneath Iraq to where Apsu and Tiamat are cradling still underneath my country there is no paradise of martyrs only water a great dark sea of desire and I will feed it my worn sole.

[LAYAL, an artist, wears the abaya loosely hanging off her shoulders like a dressing gown or painting smock. LAYAL is sexy and elegant, a resilient and fragile woman. She is a daredevil with a killer smile.]

LAYAL: Leave Iraq?

[She giggles oddly as she tries to imagine it.]

Well, I could move I suppose-

My sister wants me to come to London she has a house and an art studio there now- I could go I have the money.

I don't know maybe I feel guilty all of us here it's a shame if all the artists leave too- who will be left to inspire the people if all the

artists and intellectuals run? Most of them already have my sister included.

I don't judge I mean for most they feel they cannot express themselves because always it is life and death- even I should have been dead twice before I tell you but I'm not death is only teasing me. [She laughs.] Maybe that's it, maybe I stay because I feel lucky, I am charmed, what can touch me?

Besides what's to paint outside Iraq? Maybe I am not so good artist outside Iraq-

Here my work is well known. Hardly anyone will paint nudes anyway but this is us our bodies-isn't it? Deserted in a void and we are looking for something always I think it's light.

Always I am fighting to keep transparency because once it goes muddy I can't get it back. It's not oil, with oil you just paint over what you've done with oil, light it's the last thing you add but with watercolor, white is the space you leave empty from the beginning.

I think I help people maybe to be transcending but secretly. Always I paint them as me or as trees sometimes like I was telling you. I do not ever want to expose exactly another woman's body so I paint my body but her body, herself inside me. So it is not me alone it is all of us but I am the body that takes the experience. Your experience, yourself, I will take it only you and I will know who it is and the others let them say oh Layal, again she is obsessed with her body! [She laughs.]

I did a painting once of a woman eaten by Saddam's son that's how I describe it. A beautiful young student, from University of Baghdad- Uday he asked her out, and she couldn't refuse, he took her and beat her brutally, like is his way- and she went back to campus and her roommate saw the bruises and things and asked her "What happened?" And she so stupid, innocent girl told her the truth. Why she talks such things? Iraqis they know not to open their mouth not even for the dentist. Of course Uday, he took her back with his friends, they stripped her covered her in honey and watched his Dobermans eat her.

See in my painting she is the branch's blossom leaning over the barking dogs they cannot reach no matter how hungry they are not unless they learn to climb her but they are dogs, they never will.

You see, nobody knows the painting is her but I believe somewhere she sees.

That is me, [laughing] my philosophy! These stories are living inside of me each woman I meet her or I hear about her and I cannot separate myself from them I am so compassionate to them, so attached-la, la, it's the opposite maybe I do feel separate, so separate from the women here I am always trying to be part of them. I feel I could have been anybody if I looked different-

Some other artists more senior than myself would have hoped to be curator of Saddam Art Center these jobs they are hard to come by and it takes a lot to get them. Always they make a rumor of me that I got this position because I was having an affair at that time they said with Saddam's cousin- they can believe what they like I don't care what people say. Anyway he's dead now of course this cousin a mysterious plane crash you see.

If- If I'd had an affair with him how would that have made my life any easier? Isn't everything in this country a matter of survival? I don't care if you are with the government or a prisoner of it. Even loving just the simple act of loving can make you suffer so deeply.

So if I am now in a position of grace, favor, rumor so be it I don't care I am still trying to be revealing something in my trees, my nudes, my portraits of Saddam-

I fear it here and I love it here I cannot stop what I am here I am obsessed by it by these things that we all are but we are not saying. "Either I shall die"-how does it go? Oh my favorite, Shahrazad! [An aching giggle.] "Either I shall die or I shall live a ransom for all the virgin daughters of Muslims and the cause of their deliverance from his hands to life!"

Well, I am not a person of great sacrifice I have sacrificed in my life, sure, but nothing like what I see around me. Anyway that is life. You cannot compare, only be compassionate. I try to have understanding of all sides, and I have compassion just not enough.

I'm a good artist.

I'm an OK mother.

I'm a miserable wife.

I've loved yes, many but not enough.

But I am good at being naked that's what I do, in secret.

[Bright, festive, and robust, AMAL is a woman of thirty-eight who looks so intently at whomever she is talking to you would swear her eyes never blinked. She asks many questions; she really thinks there is an answer out there for her. AMAL wears the abaya fastened behind her head and flowing voluptuously about her body.]

AMAL: I see with my heart not with my eyes. I am Bedouin I cannot tell you if a man is fat or if a man is handsome only I can tell you if I love this man or not. And I think you see with your heart like a Bedouin.

I do, I very much feel this void and I have no peace always I am looking for peace. Do you know peace? I think only mens have real peace womans she cannot have peace what you think?

My mother when I come home she is so happy to see me, she sing to me she sing, "Amal my beautiful girl Amal whose hair is black like night Amal whose eyes are black like deep coal Amal my daughter whose body is strong for her love"- and my voice, I have to sing to my mother, "I am home again!" But never I think I am different we in our village we believe our mothers. I have tis'ah-nine brothers and five sisters- and nobody make me feel fat. But I learn now I am big. So don't you think I am fat? La, la, I am very big but I am diet now and my childrens too both they are diet. Aa, aa I have two childrens fourteen and eight.

My husband, first husband, he was Saudi, he is now in London on this big road they call it where all the big plastic surgeons are.

Aa, aa, I was there with him I like London very much I study there I like to walk with my friends in this Portobello market and-

I left him. I was feeding my daughter, Tala, at the time and driving my son Omar to school I forgot some papers for Omar so I drove back home to get them and I saw my husband in bed with my very close friend and really I am shock because he is Bedouin, but Saudi Bedouin. And even he would say to me when I talked, during our relations, he'd say, "Don't say these things they are dirty things." I wanted to enjoy myself with him but he- and then he goes and-

So I didn't say anything I told a friend go into my house and get my passport and the children's passport and I left I never told him why I left.

I came back to Iraq but I didn't like to live in our town it's too small, I don't feel free even always my brothers looking out for me I feel too much closed and so I come- not here, la, I-

I went to Israel first.

You see, our very close tribesman came to visit because my father he is the sheikh.

This tribesman, he is of the same Bedouin tribe as me but born Israeli- and always when I was a girl I thinking oh to marry one from my tribe we have the same accent, same eyes, same nature, very big heart! This tribesman he never feel the woman his enemy he feel sorry for her and feel only to keep her happy and the woman she feels him very man- we are very special together so I marry him, my second marriage, and I went to his village in Israel.

He promise me we would move and go to Europe somewheres or Canada but then we never move his wife didn't want- aa, his other wife, number one, she makes him stay. He would have taken both of us it could have been good but she was crazy really she was, I think they fight a lot. Number one, she would leave him to go to her father's house for six months at a time and I taking care of her eight childs. I mother one of her childs I fed her son-oh Koran, you must know it- if you feed for more than seven days, full feeding, that child is like your child and this child must never marry with your child because now they are brother and sister in the milk so it is haram, sin, because they have your blood inside them both. But wife, number one, she was very skinny, not well she would go away for such a long times-

we couldn't live together like this he is very jealousy man, very Bedouin and I am looking for this freedom and he says "No, we are not going to Canada." So I care very much for him, but again I left.

I come back to Iraq with my children but to Baghdad to be in city. I come here, and my family don't like they don't support me but-

I got some money. I got some money from a friend of my first ex-husband, his name's Sa'ad. And we start to talk on the phone, this friend, Sa'ad, he is in London, and me here. We talk for one year. I talk to him honest, I am very honest person I told him exactly I am thirty-eight, and this is how I look. I hide nothing from him I told him everything in my heart everything I hope and I felt peace. It is beautiful to talk so much because he he tells me from inside himself too very deep, very sincere for one year. I felt safe the first time in my life I felt myself with this man and I love him! [She laughs.]

We talk and we say we will get married, third marriage, oh! He says let us meet in Dubai because the war it was then and if he comes back home to Iraq they may keep him.

So I left my job, I left everything. I telephone to his family congratulations he telephone to my family and we go to meet in this hotel in Dubai we go to dinner he says after dinner "I am going I will call you later" and I waiting in my hotel room so happy to see this man I love. I telephone hims at two A.M. and he says, "No, not now I am drunk"- I say, "Let us talk I want to talk we spent one year on the phone talking everything finally we see each other my heart is so full to share"- he says, "No Amal, no," he says, "it is over do not talk to me anymore." I am crying really I don't understand what he means but he say, "You are too pure for me what you do with a man like me? I am twenty year older than you soon I will be very olds man and you will have to take care of me you are too good, too innocent for me." I don't understand hims say this thing because I love him, and he says, "No," "No," he says, "you are not the Amal I love."

What does this mean? I am not the Amal he love?

How he say this? Why can this be?

I am shamed to my family they think he slept with me that night we meet in Dubai and change his mind.

I don't have peace.

Always I am asking myself what he think of me? What he seed in me that change him? I see now I am fat. Now I look for the first time to dress myself more pretty I am doing my hair this way- but I don't see hims fat, I don't see hims old I see hims with my heart not with my eyes and never have I love a man this much. Even I love him. Even.

My ex-husband, first one, got us passports to bring the children to London so they will see their father on the weekends and have their schooling there la, la, I think I told you this already. But always I am thinking what if I run into Sa'ad when I go there I would shake with all of me on my face I don't know I can hide it I will have my freedom there

but not my peace maybe freedom is the better than peace?


I have never talked this before nobody here knows this thing about me I keep it in my heart only oh, I talk a lot!

I wish to be like this! [She laughs.]

I want to be like you this is the most free moment of my life really I mean this oh really I love you, like a sister I love you the most free moment of my life. Don't leave, stay with me oh I need to talk every day this way. Is this American way? Tell me what you think what should I do? I want to memorize what you say, so I can be this way freedom again.

But what do think he means, I am not the Amal he love?


Excerpted from HEATHER RAFFO'S 9 PARTS OF DESIRE by Heather Raffo Copyright © 2006 by Heather Raffo. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Actor and playwright Heather Raffo has performed Nine Parts of Desire to great acclaim both in London and across the United States, where it is currently in an open-ended run at the Manhattan Ensemble Theater. In March 2005, the play was awarded a special commendation from the Blackburn Prize. Originally from Michigan, Raffo now lives in New York. Her father is from Iraq and her mother is American.

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