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Stories Of Iraqi Women In Mo’olelo’s New Play “9 Parts of Desire”

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Aired 10/8/09

USD graduate Heather Raffo has written a critically acclaimed play about the lives of Iraqi women. It's called "9 Parts of Desire" and Mo'olelo Performing Arts Company is staging the production through the end of October. We'll talk to members of the creative team behind this production.

"9 Parts of Desire" opens at Mo'olelo Performing Arts.
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Above: "9 Parts of Desire" opens at Mo'olelo Performing Arts.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The news headlines have moved away from Iraq and onto America's other war in Afghanistan. But the impact of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq is just beginning to be evaluated. No doubt, we'll be feeling the reverberations of the Iraqi conflict for years, both politically and culturally. One unique evaluation of that conflict has already been produced. Iraqi-American playwright and actress Heather Raffo has written a play called "9 Parts of Desire." It is presented in a series of monologues by nine Iraqi women, and the characters are separated by age, status, and location but connected by the deep truth of what they've experienced and what they love. Mo'olelo Performing Arts is presenting the play in San Diego, and here to tell us about the production are my guests. The director of the production, Janet Hayatshahi. Welcome, Janet.

JANET HAYATSHAHI (Director, “9 Parts of Desire”): Thank you for having us.

CAVANAUGH: Dr. Ghada Osman served as consultant for the production. She’s Director of the Center for Islamic and Arabic Studies at SDSU. Welcome back, Ghada.

GHADA OSMAN (Director, Center for Islamic and Arabic Studies, San Diego State University): Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: And Lisel Gorell-Getz is an actor in “9 Parts of Desire.” She’s going to be doing a reading for us just a little bit later. Welcome, Lisel.

LISEL GORELL-GETZ (Actress): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Now, playwright Heather Raffo graduated from the University of San Diego. What got her interested in this topic?

HAYATSHAHI: Well, she actually started the research for her thesis project when she was at USD. She visited Iraq. And she, in this visit, happened to visit the Saddam Hussein Art Center and she happened upon, after a myriad of paintings of Saddam to see a painting that was a portrait of a nude woman against a barren – a tree, and she was hugging this tree. And she was just very curious about the subject of this painting and the artist and started to do some research. And then through that research, she discovered dozens of stories, interviewed many women, and I think the process took about 11 years for her to conduct while she was doing this research. So she listened to these stories of these woman and based these women in the play on the stories that she heard.

CAVANAUGH: Now it was originally done as a one-woman production. You have three actors in this production portraying nine characters. What, Janet, as director, what do you see links these characters together in this production?

HAYATSHAHI: Well, I think the biggest thing that links them is their humanity, the fact that they are women, that they share stories that we all share, as women, as people, as, you know, any race, religion, sex, it doesn’t matter. We just – we all have these stories within us, and bringing those stories out through the humanity again, you know, we see something that is inherent in all of us. We see ourselves in these women, so the link is through the way that they tell their stories and that ability to bring us into their world so completely.

CAVANAUGH: Much of this play, though, does focus on how the experience of being in Iraq during this conflict or outside, living somewhere and watching very closely what’s happening in Iraq, as a woman is very – the idea of being a woman and experiencing this and the different reactions that the women characters have, it’s very much a part of this play.

HAYATSHAHI: Absolutely. I think that it does really paint a portrait of all the different lives that are – the nine characters that exist in this play and how they feed into that symbol of women. You know, the – there’s actually – “9 Parts of Desire” is based on – is taken from the teaching that – the saying that nine parts of desire is taken from the teachings of a 7th century Imam and it’s come – The actual quote is ‘God created sexual desire in ten parts. He gave nine parts to women, one to man. And I think that these women’s stories are so specific to their womanhood and they happen to be products of a culture that exists in a land that we maybe don’t know as much about but I think in hearing about these women, we see the connection and they sort of bring together this mosaic of sorts that gives us things that we can all link to, things that we understand. And in that process, we also see how they’re attached to Iraq and how that – the complex issues around them actually drive them and their journey.

CAVANAUGH: For our listeners, Janet, just tell us the range of characters we’re talking…

HAYATSHAHI: Sure.

CAVANAUGH: …about here.

HAYATSHAHI: Yes, there’s a young girl. She’s about eight years old. There’s a doctor who works in Iraq. There’s an ex-patriot living in London who has left Iraq. There’s a artist. There’s a mullaya. There’s a beggar. An American, an American-Iraqi. A survivor, and a Bedouin. And they – all nine of these women, again, bring together this sort of mosaic, this sort of picture that represents the different lives that are portrayed.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Dr. Ghada Osman, you consulted on this project, and I’m – wonder if you could talk just a little bit about your role and the kind of insight that you provided for this production.

OSMAN: Absolutely. The play focuses on the lives of these nine women and, as Janet mentioned, they are in a context that’s unfamiliar and it was unfamiliar also to those reading the play for the first time and so I provided some contextualization in terms of the history of Iraq, in terms, also, of the characters of the nine women, how perhaps we can come to understand each of them if we take into account certain context cues that may not be as clear from the play, the text of the play itself. And then I also worked on providing a history of relevant activities or relevant events in the – for the audience that will be coming to the play, and also helped with the Arabic that’s in the play.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder if you could give us an example of the kind of context and cues that you would provide to the people who were reading this play?

OSMAN: Well, I think some of the context of the women, for example, understanding what would be the normal role for one of these women. So looking, for example, at the Bedouin character, the Bedouin character, we were actually just talking before we came in, is probably one of the characters that might be the least accessible to an average audience member and understanding the type of background she comes from, the village that she may come from, her religious background, which is one of the interesting pieces in the play, that the women come from different religious backgrounds. What might be the norm for her? She’s a character that has traveled a lot, and how that might affect her compared to others of her background.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Now, Lisel, you play a character named Umm Ghada, is that correct?

GORELL-GETZ: Yes, that’s correct.

CAVANAUGH: Well, tell us a little bit about her.

GORELL-GETZ: Well, she is based on an actual person who is in Baghdad right now. And she actually is a survivor of the bombing of the Amiriya bomb shelter, which was in February of 1991. And she lost her family members in that bombing and she tells her story in this play—Heather bases this character on her—she tells her story in this play as sort of a leader of a tour who is taking a tour through the bomb shelter, showing the tour what happened and basically witnessing the event.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder if you would do a reading from the play for us, Lisel.

GORELL-GETZ: Certainly.

CAVANAUGH: And this is Lisel Gorell-Getz and she is reading us a part from the play “9 Parts of Desire.”

GORELL-GETZ: I named my daughter Ghada. Ghada means tomorrow, so I am Umm Ghada, mother of Ghada. It is a sign of joy and respect to call a parent by their cunya (sp). In Baghdad, I am famous now as Umm Ghada because I do live here in yellow trailer outside Amiriya bomb shelter, since the bombing, 13 February, 1991. Yes, I was inside with nine from my family, talking, laughing, then such a pounding, shaking. Everything is fire. I couldn’t find my children. I couldn’t find my way out but somehow I did. In the whole day later, I am searching, searching. Charred bodies, bodies they were fused together. The only body I did recognize is my daughter Ghada, so I did take her name. I am Umm Ghada, mother of Ghada. I am hard to understand why I survive and my children dead. I ask to Allah why? Why you make me alive? That night all people died, 403 people and there’s nothing we can do. They are dead. This trailer is my witness stand. All photos on this wall and here are me with emissaries from the world who come to Amiriya shelter to look what really happened here, not what they read in papers or see in the CNN. Here is a guest book they all sign. Your name will be witness, too. La, I must show it to you first. Ta.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. That was Lisel Gorell-Getz and she was performing from the play “9 Parts of Desire.” That’s being produced by Mo’olelo Productions here in San Diego. I’m wondering, hearing Lisel use that accent, is that another thing that you consulted about, Dr. Osman?

OSMAN: A little bit but there was also guidance from other sources on that.

HAYATSHAHI: Umm-hmm. We had a wonderful accent coach, Jan Gist, who works primarily with the USD students and the Old Globe Theatre, and she came in and did several sessions with us and worked with the actors and she just did such a fabulous job, I think, of getting not just the general Iraqi dialect but the specifics because there’s – again, there’s the Bedouin character, there’s the doctor who trained in England who has to have a slightly different style or accent than those who have been living in Iraq all their lives. There’s the ex-patriot who lives in London, who is going to sound different than her, you know, counterpart in Iraq would. So she did a wonderful, wonderful job of bringing those voices together for us.

CAVANAUGH: Now the part that Lisel read for us…

HAYATSHAHI: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …is harrowing and terribly tragic, but that’s not the entirety of this play. There’s a great deal of humor in it, isn’t there?

HAYATSHAHI: There is. And actually one of the things that Heather Raffo really wanted to do with these voices was to not victimize the women of Iraq and not to make it seem that every story was this really, you know, horrible tale of disaster. This happens to be something that Ghada’s story is something that exists and something that she pulled from that actually is available to us historically and something we can reference. But some of the information is not taken verbatim. She’s used dramatic license. She’s allowed there to be a story that takes us – helps with the journey and storytelling onstage because having a documentary onstage is quite different than having this sort of storytelling, and this is by no means a documentary. It really is a play. It is a story, a journey that we go on, a way that we witness these different lives and theatrically go through that journey.

CAVANAUGH: Now many of these monologues read and sound like poetry, and I know that Heather Raffo uses a device where some dialogue is repeated by all the characters, despite their different lives and circumstances. What kind of effect does this have?

HAYATSHAHI: Well, again, it really paints into that portrait of all of these women feeding into each other and allowing for that mosaic to develop. We – actually because there are three women in this play—it was originally written by Heather as a one-person show and she performed it several times before it started making the circuit, you know, around in the theatre communities. We chose to do it with three different women and that sense, that sort of sensibility that gives us, is a – is, again, a really – I find it to be so fascinating to hear these voices come through three people as opposed to the one and the transformations that that one goes through. So I think in the repetition of lines, there really is this ability for the audience to witness how these three women are always part of that one universal story and that as storytellers, they are helping bring these women to life, that it’s not just the one person making these journeys and hitting each one of these characters but the three helping each other out. Oh, it’s your turn to do the Bedouin woman, or it’s your turn to get into the role for this and let me guide you, let me help you in that journey by repeating some text or by mirroring something that you’ve done, a gesture that you’ve done in the past; I’m going to bring that out. Or by giving you a certain type of focus that really helps the audience focus in and hone in on where the story is going.

CAVANAUGH: And, Dr. Osman, as – being consultant for this play, you got to know this text, you got to know this production very well. I’m wondering, you know, almost from – as – from an inside perspective but also from an outside perspective, what did you find most compelling about this production?

OSMAN: When I first read the text, it was maybe over a year ago when Janet and I and Seema Sueko discussed it, and one of the things that was very appealing to me was this universal element that Janet talks about. These characters, in a lot of ways, have been through so much but you also hear the humanity and the universality in all of them. It is a play where the more that you see it, the more you recognize certain elements, the more you realize how the characters are intertwined, how certain lines are intertwined. I think what it does, ultimately is it brings a very human face to the situation in Iraq that, unfortunately, we don’t tend to see very frequently day-to-day. And especially the fact that it focuses on women, and most of what we hear about on the news is men, and men involved in particular activities in a particular context. And so it shows this side that we barely get to see and it’s a chance for the audience to hear this very different perspective.

CAVANAUGH: I’m afraid we’re out of time but I think all of you have given a very compelling idea of what this play is about. I want to thank you Janet Hayatshahi, Dr. Ghada Osman, and Lisel Gorell-Getz. Thank you so much for coming in and talking about the play.

HAYATSHAHI: Thank you for having us.

GORELL-GETZ: Thank you.

OSMAN: Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: I want everyone to know Mo’olelo’s production of “9 Parts of Desire” opens tonight, runs through November first at the Tenth Avenue Theatre in downtown San Diego. Mo’olelo Performing Arts production. And you’ve been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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