Actor Lea Hariri moments before the beginning of the Iraqi premiere of the play
Actor Lea Hariri moments before the beginning of the Iraqi premiere of the play “Nine Parts of Desire.”

Credit: Sasa Kralj/Jiwafoto

SULAIMANI, Iraq (WOMENSENEWS)–Images of faces rhythmically pound the wall projected as a visual drum. Lea Hariri calls out their names, one by one, all 46 of them, tears spilling down her face.

The 18-year-old was on stage for the first time playing the role of an American-Iraqi woman in New York, far from the 1991 bombing of Baghdad, evoking the names of her Iraqi family.

Hariri was one of five actors in the Iraqi premier on April 28 of “,” a play about Iraqi women by Heather Raffo. Characters told stories of a divorcée looking for love, a mother who lost her daughter in a bomb raid by U.S. forces, a doctor treating diseases linked to depleted uranium and an exiled politically-active intellectual.

Written in 2003, the play’s world premiere was in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was initially rejected by American theater companies due to the sensitivity of the issues until 2004, when it sold out for nine months in New York City. Since then it continues to be performed around the world.

In Iraq, such stories are not easy to hear, talk about or perform–by an all-female cast of Arabs and Kurds–in a patriarchal country marred by horrors from generations of war. But the play provided a powerful catharsis for the playwright and the cast.

Raffo sat in the front row of a theater for about 300 people to watch the young women appropriate the play in her country of origin. She laughed, cried and at times covered her face with her hands as if taming the maelstrom of emotions during the two performances.

Hariri’s tears were not part of the script. As she played her part she channeled her character’s grief at a deeply personal level, remembering the deaths of her own loved ones since 2003.

“It’s just that feeling of losing someone, or of not knowing what’s going to happen to them. It drives you crazy,” she said in an interview following the performance.

Three months of rehearsal, of living for the play and in the play, brought the cast closer to each other, to their pasts and complex identities, said the cast members, all students at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani.

‘Too Young to Remember’

They were still children in 2003 and too young to remember the trauma of sanctions and previous wars. But that didn’t matter to them.

“I feel like we’ve witnessed every war that happened to Iraq,” Hariri said.

Danger, violence and death became part of the cultural fiber, determining language patterns; when Hariri goes out in Baghdad, upon leaving her friends the words are always the same: “We don’t say ‘See you tomorrow.’ It’s always like ‘Call me when you get home.’ I still have that fear. I’m afraid I might lose my loved ones.”

Hariri grew up in Baghdad before starting college in Sulaimani. During the war she lived on Haifa Street, known as “the street of death,” where fresh corpses lying between buildings were a common sight.

The five women in the cast were themselves a microcosm of Iraq: Kurds, Arabs, a mixture. It can be an enriching or a combustible blend.

Cast member Mina Bassam Attar, 21, grew up in Baghdad but left when she was 10, just before 2003. Some of her fellow Kurds frown at her mingling with Arabs. “What happened was not because of Arabs. What happened was because of Saddam,” said a frustrated Bassam in reference to the systematic killings or deportations of Kurds during the former regime. “I think it would be better and nicer if people would learn to get along, because we have bigger problems to think about.”

Actors who lived in the much safer Kurdish area found themselves dealing with detachment from Baghdad-like realities. Kazho Muhsin, 20, said she hadn’t experienced the stories told in the play or even those recounted by her Kurdish family.

“Most people I know they’re like ‘Oh it brings back bad memories I don’t want to hear,'” Muhsin said. But for her, the play brought the stories to life and made her appreciate her relative good fortune and the hardships of so many women.

Sleepless Nights

Her character is based largely on an Iraqi female artist who painted thousands of portraits of Saddam Hussein but who was surrounded by rumors that numerous sexual affairs fueled her success.

“Whore” is one of the words Muhsin yells out on stage. That word alone caused her many sleepless nights. She feared she’d be ostracized for saying it aloud in public. But the audience understood; applause broke at the end of her powerful scene.

“They linked her bravery to me,” Muhsin said. “Her lines became part of me. She made me more powerful.”

For some of the actors, such as Minatullah Amer, the play helped her handle her own traumas. Amer’s Baghdad childhood dream was to go live in Disneyland where everything is “shiny” and happy. Though her parents tried to shield her as much as possible from the war, she felt the pressures, heard the sirens, nearly died in an explosion. The nightmare culminated when her brother was kidnapped. Though released after two days, he was scarred for life. The play brought the pain she’d always tried to escape, to the surface.

“I started accepting my past,” Amer, 20, said. “Even though we try to forget about it, we have to face it at some point. Acknowledge that that’s who we are.”

Actor Sahar Jamal, 22, said the play was a springboard for her to be a more active woman, to help facilitate dialogue: “The power of community will be derived from having all the genders, both genders, in the society working together.”

As the curtain fell and a loaded silence gave way to roaring applause, Raffo was pulled onto stage into a giant hug by her heroines-turned-students-again.

“What I have discovered here is their voices have been empowered,” Raffo said. “I feel like just ‘get out of the way.’ Let the process that I always dreamed could happen, happen. The process of Iraqis talking to each other.”

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