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One woman, nine stories: Abby Ahmad in Nine Parts of Desire.

Histories Connect

By Meisha Rosenberg

Nine Parts of Desire

By Heather Raffo, directed by Melanie Dryer

Capital Repertory Theatre Through Nov. 11


Heather Raffo, an American of Iraqi descent, interviewed Iraqi women over the course of 10 years in order to write Nine Parts of Desire, a one-woman play performed by the young, energetic Abby Ahmad. Nine Parts of Desire, which premiered in Edinburgh in 2003, feels current, alive, and provocative. It may not be a great play, but it is a necessary play—the type of global-minded work I hope to see more of in the Capital Region.

Nine Parts of Desire gives voice to nine Iraqi women whose lives are disrupted by the Gulf wars and Saddam Hussein’s regime. At its best, the play allows audiences to experience the suffering of Iraq’s people in a more intimate form than the daily media. A political play often risks portraying victims as flat characters. The character with the most depth is Layal, an artist who confesses to a voracious appetite for the men she has affairs with, some of whom are connected with Saddam Hussein. “I am afraid to be alone,” she states. She doesn’t want the kind of American freedom that cuts people off from one another. The contrast between her situation and that of her audience turns the play into a complex dialogue between East and West.

Another compelling character who similarly engages her audience is an American living in New York City who listens to the news, worrying about her family in Iraq. Perhaps the most convincing of all the characters—we sense that she is the closest to the author’s own experience—she asks questions the audience might well ask. How can people here go to the gym and “work out to the war on three channels?” Why do we not hear about the numbers of Iraqi dead?

The title of the play comes from a book of the same name by Geraldine Brooks that refers to a saying attributed to a seventh-century Imam: “God created sexual desire in 10 parts; then he gave nine parts to women, and one part to men.” This statement imagines endless sexual needs for Muslim women, yet the reality is that these women’s most basic needs remain unmet.

Most of the women are Westernized. A Bedouin is upset when a romantic interest rejects her, making her think she is fat. A teenager talks about Oprah and struggles with learning math. Unlike a typical teenager, though, she can identify the various types of bombs and wonders if she will ever see her father again. This teenager modulates her voice like an American; here, as in other places, Ahmad’s accent isn’t convincing.

Ahmad is not a gifted mimic in the way of Eric Bogosian in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, Lily Tomlin in Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, or Nilaja Sun with No Child, all of whom are adept at the one-actor play. However, she doesn’t have to be: The testimony of the characters is enough to take our breath away. The doctor explains that she births babies who have two heads due to uranium exposure.

This is not to excuse the sometimes heavy-handed symbolism of the play. Mullaya brings empty shoes to the river, saying, “It runs . . . the color of soles torn and worn.” In case you don’t get the ‘soles’=‘souls’ analogy, she repeats it a few more times.

Yet this heavy-handedness is born of the simplicity of tragedy and is echoed by the set: An L-shaped river of shoes serves as the main set décor. The shifting of a chador, the traditional cloak worn by Muslim women, is the main visual marker for character changes. Despite some flaws, Nine Parts of Desire goes a long way toward restoring the humanity of the Iraqi people. As this play admirably shows, their history is our history now.

 


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