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Heather Raffo in Nine Parts of Desire
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The press materials for Heather Raffo's brilliant one-woman show Nine Parts of Desire assert that the play "lifts the veil" on the lives of women in war-torn Iraq. It's an interesting turn of phrase that's used often to describe Arab and Muslim women who defy Western stereotypes. Do a quick search on Google and one of the first 10 hits is a Wall Street Journal review of Carmen bin Laden's book on womanhood, Saudi culture, and her provocative surname. What makes Americans so fascinated with the religious head coverings of Muslim women? One wouldn't expect to find, say, an exposé of Jewish men titled "Underneath the Yarmulke." When our president invokes Iraqi women as a cause for his re-election and even his opponents presume to speak on their behalf, it's clear that a proverbial veil obscures our vision on this matter.

Heather Raffo has an antidote: A culmination of 11 years of research and interviews, Nine Parts of Desire weaves together the stories of Iraqi-born women torn by persecution and the ravages of war. Some are veiled; some aren't. Most still live in the country but two live in London and New York. They're variously Muslim and Christian, Bedouin and bourgeois, pro- and anti-war. Their diversity of culture, politics, and lifestyle makes ridiculous the idea that any one voice can represent them, and their interconnected stories might convince the most hardened skeptic that this fractured society can be made whole. The play begins, appropriately enough, with a woman leading a funeral procession by throwing "worn soles" into a river -- both literal old shoes and the metaphorically tired souls of her unseen congregation -- as she gives an unorthodox sermon that crackles with poetry:

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

Genghis Khan's grandson, Hulagu, did in fact ransack the city in the middle of the 13th century, and Saddam Hussein has compared the first George Bush to the Mongol conqueror. However, the now-dethroned Butcher of Baghdad has also been known to burn books as well as to rape, murder, and torture indiscriminately. Right from the start, Raffo manages to capture this complicated history in a single, brutal image.

The writer-performer jumps from one memorable character to the next, each with a heartbreaking story and yet a surprising amount of humor. In one scene, the country's leading artist (who specializes in nudes) is getting over an air raid of her neighborhood when she one-lines, "How smart is this bomb if it bombs a painter?" Next, an Iraqi Bedouin tells a story about her short-lived marriage to an Israeli of her tribe without mentioning the hostilities between their two nations that an outsider might think would dominate every conversation. In London, a leftist activist who has protested everywhere from Chile to Beirut proclaims her support of the war after witnessing and facing torture under the Saddam regime, and an Iraqi-born Christian living in New York tries to find out whether her relatives are still alive by watching CNN. Back at the frontline, a doctor reports on a new breakout of cancer clusters among Iraqi children; a teenager watches an N'Sync video on satellite TV before explosions outside divert her attention; a woman hawks various goods from a recent looting; and a mother in mourning gives the audience a tour of a shelter that has been vaporized by bombs specifically designed to penetrate its surface.

Heather Raffo in Nine Parts of Desire
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Only a spin-meister like Karl Rove would accuse this play being in the mushy middle; it's comprehensive in its perspectives, but "mushy" it ain't. Supporters of the war might feel vindicated by one woman's monologue about a horrifying form of torture concocted by Uday Hussein, but they'd be harder pressed to answer an Iraqi reacting to the torturers at Abu Ghraib or to explain America's tolerance for and complicity in Saddam Hussein's rise to power. People sometimes use ambivalence as a synonym for hesitation; it actually means being pulled strongly in different directions. For example, the play ends with a woman who was a victim of Saddam's torture -- somebody whom Paul Bremer would count among the liberated -- reduced to hunger and penury and surrounded by violence. While acknowledging Saddam's atrocities, this image reminds us of the unmitigated disaster that the war and its aftermath have reaped.

Since this is a Manhattan Ensemble Theater show, all of the production elements are first rate. Antje Ellerman's set of Arabesque ruins is perhaps too beautiful for all of the destruction, but it's practical and impeccably rendered. The costumes (Mattie Ullrich), lighting (Peter West), and music (Obadiah Eaves) place each scene of the time-and location-jumping show flawlessly, and Joanna Settle directs with a steady hand.

Esteemed for its adaptations of such literary classics as The Idiot, The Castle, and Death in Venice, MET is firmly establishing its credentials as the socially aware voice of the Off-Broadway scene. It recently rented its space to Epic Theater Company for a timely staging of Hannah and Martin, which explored two of the most influential philosophers of the 20th century, and its wonderful, intelligent production of Golda's Balcony prompted mainstream theater audience members to consider issues they may long have ignored. Golda will be ending her Broadway run in January, but the company now has another powerful one-woman show that could continue this tradition.

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