Istanbul (image credit: Behrooz Ghamari)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Play Review: "9 Parts of Desire"

"9 Parts of Desire" played at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts in October, 2013.  Several students of Dr. Dina Khamis attended and wrote the following review.

Ameer Al-Khudari, Sarah Bakir, Jessica Sciubba and Zachary Parker

As a class (composed of Americans, Arab- Americans, Arabs and Europeans) studying Gender and Nationalism in Twentieth-Century Arabic Literature with Professor Dina Khamis, we found Heather Raffo’s play, “9 Parts of Desire,” to be an interesting and relevant extension of our course curriculum. We believe that the themes it explores, specifically the experience of Iraqis during wartime, are universal in their appeal.

But “9 Parts of Desire” can muddled and confusing. The play is not comprised of a singular and cohesive narrative – instead, it carves nine windows into the lives of Iraqi women living in and between the first and second Gulf wars.  Raffo wants to show us that Iraqi women are far too complex to be represented in just one prototypical character with just one story.  There is no monolithic Iraqi woman, no quintessential female Iraqi life journey, Raffo argues. The Iraqi female perspective can only be given justice through the buildup of as many perspectives as possible, if it can be adequately explained at all.

This disjointedness, then, is a necessary cost that Raffo pays in service of a larger purpose. In juxtaposing these disparate stories, she hopes to disabuse her Western target audience of myths that restrict what an Iraqi woman can be. These nine characters are pulled from all parts of the spectrum—or as much of it as the time constraints of the play allow—of Iraqi women. In place of these myths, Raffo aims to equip the audience with a more holistic conception of Iraqi women—one that expands significantly on the impoverished and claustrophobically narrow stereotypes that Westerners have historically imposed on them.

The Iraqi woman, the viewer learns through Raffo’s characters, is not always a shabbily dressed and ghoulish-looking maid, who, as a prisoner in her own home, is subservient to the whims of her husband. She can be a jumpsuit-wearing, gym-going American, or a whiskey-drinking, foul-mouthed Londoner.  And the Iraqi woman’s spirit can also be manifested in the form of a fiercely independent, pugnacious Baghdad artist. The Iraqi woman, according to Raffo, can be anyone and anything. In Raffo’s world, Iraqi women have agency, regardless of their ethnic or religious background. In this respect, they are much like women everywhere else; they are veritable human beings, with all the attendant complexities, foibles and pathologies of peoplehood.

Contradictory to that commendable attempt at fleshing out the depth of the Iraqi female persona are the over-done accents that not only inhibit understanding, but also serve to reinforce stereotypes.  The broken and stilted English of many of the Iraqi characters awkwardly contrasts with the perfect grammar of Heather, the play’s sole Iraqi-American.  While these accents were likely used to give the play an authentic feel, the casting of actors did little to help—in short, the casting failed to portray the diversity of physical characteristics of Arabs.

However, Raffo’s ultimate goal of humanizing the Iraqi people and their experiences is not completely lost in translation. Audience members can still walk away from the play having recognized a familiar part of themselves in Raffo’s characters, and one step closer to realizing that just as there are no essential American women, the same is true of their Iraqi counterparts.

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