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Voices from a war zone

Heather Raffo brings to life nine Iraqi women and gives insight into her father's country of birth in her solo show, 'Nine Parts of Desire.'

September 13, 2005|Don Shirley | Times Staff Writer

When Heather Raffo, an American daughter of an Iraqi-born father, entered Baghdad in 1993 for her first visit as an adult, a stern-looking border agent carefully examined her passport. His countenance wasn't surprising -- he was a representative of Saddam Hussein's government, two years after the United States bombed Baghdad in the first Gulf War.

But the blond Raffo, who doesn't speak Arabic and whose mother's family is Irish American, found his first words extremely surprising. "Welcome to your father's country," he said.

"I started crying on the spot," Raffo recalls.

Then he went on: "Know that our people are not our government. Be at home here, and when you return, tell your people about us." He surely had no idea of the extent to which Raffo would follow his advice.

"Nine Parts of Desire," Raffo's solo show about nine Iraqi women, opens Wednesday in a Geffen Playhouse production at the Brentwood Theatre.

Critics hailed the off-Broadway production last year. "A triumph of meticulous observation," wrote John Lahr in the New Yorker. "An indelible picture of the effects of the two Iraq wars on very different women," said Linda Winer in Newsday.

The title is taken from these words of Ali ibn Abu Taleb, Muhammad's son-in-law and the first leader of the Shia sect of Islam: "God created sexual desire in 10 parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men."

Yet while some of the women characters are thinking about sex, such as the Hussein-favored artist who painted nudes and a fat woman with husband trouble, the concerns of the characters go far beyond any single topic.

Although all of the women are at least partially Iraqi, not all are in Iraq. One of the characters is a young Iraqi American New Yorker who, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, is called by concerned Iraqi relatives. This character, Raffo says, "is loosely based on me but is not me."

She interviewed a number of Iraqis and Iraqi Americans -- and she had grown up hearing stories about Iraq. Her father, Georges Raffo, had grown up in Mosul. He was an engineer in Baghdad in 1963 when he applied to graduate schools in the United States. The only college that could accept him immediately was the University of North Dakota, where he arrived in the winter -- a big shock, he recalls in a telephone conversation. But he stuck it out. After obtaining his master's degree in 1965, he was immediately hired by the Michigan Department of Transportation.

He met and married fellow Catholic Lynne Lemon in 1967, still thinking they might return to Iraq. In the early '70s, he received an offer from the pre-Hussein Iraqi government to pay all his expenses if he would return and work in Iraq.

He took his family, including 4-year-old Heather and her 6-year-old brother, David, to Iraq in 1974 to consider the offer.

Young Heather was entranced. "I loved everything about it," she says now, recalling the layout of her grandmother's house, "the smells, the quality of the light. We could play outdoors at night, and being able to sleep on a roof was exciting."

But her father was not convinced. Iraqi political unrest in succeeding years, especially the war with Iran in the '80s, settled the matter for him, he says.

At home in Michigan, he began to teach his daughter Arabic but quickly gave up. Heather saw a few of her aunts and uncles during their visits to the U.S. And during the first Gulf War, when she was a student at the University of Michigan, the Iraqi half of her heritage suddenly hit home.

"I was glued to the TV," she says. "It was such a family issue for me." But for most of her fellow students, "it was a high-tech war on TV. Bombs would go off, and people cheered. It was a cool war to watch. Nobody knew much about Iraq. It was really jarring."

After college, she worked and traveled in Europe and found herself in Turkey, not far from Iraq. "I felt an intense need to see family," she says, "and communicate a feeling of 'I'm sorry' -- I'm not sure on behalf of what."

An Iraqi cousin met her in Jordan and accompanied her into Iraq, where she had her momentous encounter with the border agent. Her relatives also welcomed her warmly. "It was amazing how much they shared, but they didn't want to talk about the war. I had to beg to get those stories." She insisted on a visit to the bombed Amariya bomb shelter, which is the Iraqi "ground zero," she says. Part of her play is about a woman at that shelter.

During her visit, she kept a journal, which came in handy in 1998, when she was required to create a 20-minute solo show as a graduate student in acting at the University of San Diego. Some of the play's characters were born in those 20 minutes.

On election night in 2000, Raffo remembers telling her father, "We're going to war again in Iraq." At first, she says, "I felt I couldn't do anything but watch." But then she realized there was one thing she could do: "I wrote a play."

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