Voices from beyond the map

Anyone with even a passing knowledge of current affairs would be aware of the trauma the people of Iraq have been facing, pre and post the Gulf War, pre and post Saddam Hussein’s death, pre and post the American invasion. But as it always happens with the news from papers, TV or the net, it registers for a while and then slips right out of the mind.

Playing parts: The play, 9 Parts of Desire, takes its title from the words of an Islamic leader, Ali ibn Abu Taleb, who said that “God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.”

To people in India, what has been happening in Iraq, is so far removed from their own daily struggles, that they can’t really bring themselves to care. That’s why it is brave of Lillete Dubey to pick Heather Raffo’s play 9 Parts of Desire to direct. This comes a few months after Akarsh Khurana’s award-winning play Baghdad Wedding, by Iraqi playwright, Hassan Abdulrazzak. Both plays belong to another part of the globe, but pull the audience into watching, empathising and understanding, not just with a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ feeling, but a sense of belonging to an unbroken chain of humanity. In today’s world, it’s hard to be indifferent, what happens on one corner of the globe affects all.

It is obvious, that women and children are the biggest casualties of war, or conflict conditions, and their suffering is hardly even acknowledged, leave aside ways of redress being found. Once the men have decided how to begin or end hostilities, women are left to deal with their anguish in their own way. That’s why Heather Raffo’s play is so important, and resonates with an audience in another city.

The play takes its title from the words of an Islamic leader, Ali ibn Abu Taleb, who said that “God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” The Iraqi women in the play -- Raffo is half American, half Iraqi, that allows her to see both sides -- have lost their children, their homes, their men, their freedom, their rights and, in one case, artistic integrity. The woman who is angry because she is forced to paint portraits to the hated Saddam, as a compromise for her creative survival belong to the same suffocating milieu where a woman stoically takes tourists around a bomb shelter where she lost nine family members, or the seemingly comfortable exile in London, who can recall with suppressed rage, the torment women were put through to torture the men -- rape was routine and one woman had to hear her newborn child being thrown to hungry cats. It is not possible to even imagine such cruelty or horror, but men inflict it on their own people.

Iraqis suffered the atrocities of the Saddam Hussein regime, and then, the Americans, who came as liberators, made their lives even worse. Running away does not solve anything -- one woman in the play keeps watching news of her country in CNN and wondering what her loved ones are going through.

Heather Raffo has performed the play herself, and won awards for playwriting and acting; Lillete Dubey has cast daughter Ira, who plays multiple parts with confidence and a remarkable emotional depth. It must be both physically and mentally exhausting to portray that degree of pain, yet avoid making any of the women look pathetic. They don’t demand pity or sympathy. they just demand to be heard… to not be ignored. Raffo wrote about the process of creating the play, “I intended to write a piece about the Iraqi psyche, something that would inform and enlighten the images we see on TV. However, the play is equally about the American psyche. It is a dialogue between east and west. The characters are deeply engaged in circumstances unique to them as Iraqis and yet through their passions seem to answer the concerns of the west…With rare exception, none of the stories are told verbatim. Most are composites and although based in fact, I consider all the women in my play to be dramatised characters in a poetic story. I liken it to song writing -- I listened deeply to what each woman said, what she wanted to say but couldn’t, and what she never knew how to say. Then I wrote her song.”

The earlier play Baghdad Wedding, is an Iraqi tragedy on a much larger scale, wrapping in families, relationships, loyalty into its narrative of the larger socio-political reality of the Iraqi experience.

The distorted images filtered through television or cinema are somewhat corrected through the immediacy of theatre. Audience will form their own opinions about what they see on stage, but there isn’t a single person who says, “This is happening in Iraq…what’s this got to do with us?” Art sometimes obliterates maps. 

Deepa Gahlot is an award-winning film and theatre critic and an arts administrator

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