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Iraqi-American Playwright Serves as Cultural Bridge

After decades of bridging the two cultures through her plays, Heather Raffo is getting ready to teach her community about theater, writes Saideh Jamshidi.
BAGHDAD, IRAQ - MARCH 5:  Performers rehearse at the National Theatre for the Athoudron Festival, March 5, 2013 in Baghdad, Iraq.  Ten years after the regime of Saddam Hussein was toppled from power, Baghdad continues to show the scars of the war. In vast areas, infrastructure is fractured and basic services are lacking, however, some areas of the capital are showing promising signs of recovery.   (Photo by Ali Arkady/Metrography/Getty Images)

Heather Raffo, a blonde, Midwestern — and half-Iraqi — playwright and actor, was a fully assimilated American with little connection to her Iraqi heritage until she saw her father sob after watching the graphic details of the first Iraq war on the news.

“My dad would come back home after a long walk, his eyes were red and puffy,” Raffo told Al-Monitor.

She attended the University of Michigan during the war and as her fellow students cheered the troops and the war on television sets in bars, Raffo, worried that her family in Baghdad might not survive.

This was a turning point for Raffo, who began to grow into her Iraqi identity and use her art to bridge the two cultures. Her play "Nine Parts of Desire" earned her accolades on Broadway in 1994 and in September 2012, she staged "Fallujah," about the second Iraq war.

Most recently, in April, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation recognized her role as a conduit for the Arab-American community in New York City. Raffo, with the partnership of the Epic Theater Ensemble, was granted a three-year fund to organize, mentor and facilitate a series of workshops in storytelling, playwriting and the adaption of classics. She plans to study Arab-Americans’ relationship to the theater starting this fall.

“I will begin a study of what interests them,” she said, “why they do or don't go to the theater, and what would make it a more valuable art to their community.”

Two decades and two wars later, this grant proves how far Raffo has come since the first Iraq war, when she was perplexed by her complex emotions. She began to makes sense of them when she visited a modern-art museum in Baghdad in 1993. In a personal note on her website, she wrote:

When I was standing in the Saddam Art Center in Baghdad, I saw room after room of portraits of Saddam Hussein. I then wandered up some stairs into a back room and saw a haunting painting of a nude woman clinging to a barren tree. Her head was hanging, bowed, and there was a golden light behind her like a sun. I stood motionless in front of the painting.

That painting inspired Raffo to write a piece about the Iraqi psyche that would inform the images Americans, and Westerners in general, saw on television. She was motivated to create characters who were deeply engaged in circumstances unique to them as Iraqis, but whose passion also answered many questions for Westerners.

This approach resulted in her creation of "Nine Parts of Desire."

In the piece, Raffo channeled her emotions into a powerful one-woman play in which she detailed the extraordinary lives of a cross section of Iraqi women: a sexy painter, a radical communist, an exile, a wife and a lover.

“Getting the American audience to wrap their heads around the life-long ramification of Iraqi women who have been thrust into this situation was utterly difficult,” Raffo said. She used the power of theater to communicate with a wide range of audiences.

“I didn’t want the audience to walk out of the theater while viewing those Iraqi women as oppressed people. I wanted them to realize that those Iraqi women are complex and highly educated women that could be our sisters, our aunts or our neighbors.”

"Nine Parts of Desire" became a hit on Broadway and sold out shows for weeks in 1994. Raffo then toured with the play, putting those different women on stages across the United States and the globe. In 2009, she created a concert version of the play called "Sounds of Desire" for the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, with renowned Iraqi maqam musician Amir ElSaffar.

Now, after 20 years, Raffo is going back to Iraq this week to see the "Nine Parts of Desire" production at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimaniyah province.

Showing the gruesomeness of the Iraqi war became the signature work of her career. Then, in 2012, Raffo was invited by Christian Ellis, an American Marine and Iraq war veteran, to write another play related to war in Iraq. This time, the play would explain the use of chemical weapons, particularly the use of incendiary bombs, and alleged indiscriminate use of violence against civilians and children by the United States military in Fallujah. The main question Raffo tried to answer was "how to involve the audience in a conversation about the effect of war on human beings and their psyche,” she said

"Fallujah" was created as an opera. The story of the play is divided into two premises. The first premise is about a Marine who came back from the Iraq war. He attempted suicide several times and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The second premise of the play is that everyone in and around the war also has PTSD, from the Iraqi characters to the Marine’s mother.

The influences of the two Iraq wars on American soldiers and Iraqi civilians have been “insurmountable,” Raffo explained. “In theater, you condense things and make them really, really real.” Raffo believes she knows how to show the war’s gruesomeness in the theater in order to create a conversation between Iraqis and Americans.    

“Right now, I am on a mission with a vision to use my voice and heritage in the arts to expand the American consciousness of what it means to be from the Middle East,” Raffo said.

The performing arts are a unique medium to communicate this sort of message, Raffo explained. “If you are reading a novel or watching a movie, you are doing something personal and private,” she said. “It really doesn’t require anything other than you sitting there and reading or watching it.”

She went on to say that, culturally, Arab-Americans lean toward the written word, but with this grant, she hopes to “find ways to work with Arab-Americans and communicate with them about the power of theater, while working with them to see what kind of theater they want to create.”

Saideh Jamshidi is an American-Iranian journalist, filmmaker and editor covering Middle East news and Muslim women for the Global Press Institute and Chicagoistheworld.com. Saideh worked in major newspapers in Iran before settling in the US as a foreign correspondent.

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