Another Iraq 

Heather Raffo's stories of war-weary women root out evil and make it squirm.

A Bedouin who has divorced two husbands, a gravel-voiced Iraqi expat in London drinking Scotch and explaining that Saddam had to go, an Iraqi-American glued to the television looking for family members and wondering if yoga will lessen her terrible despair. This is the Gulf War we haven't seen through the mess of unsmiling troops, suicide bombers, and green tracers looping sickly arcs in the night sky above Baghdad. It's a war we haven't seen not just because the images are of women, but because in Nine Parts of Desire writer Heather Raffo traces so many different lives, from that of a teenager in love with *NSYNC to a spookily poetic professional mourner throwing shoes into a river.

The Iraqi-American Raffo based her solo show on ten years of interviews with Iraqi women, weaving together stories that as likely to address love as conflict. "When you love this way, with everything," explains Layal the painter, "you love like an Iraqi woman." Layal also loves her safety so much she's prepared to make certain compromises that will stitch her tragedy in place; her story has the most complete arc of the nine that are told here. It would be nice to see more of the other characters, such as the Bedouin Amal, or the exhausted, puking doctor who talks about the rise of birth defects and cancer in areas where US troops used depleted uranium ammunition. "We had the best hospitals in the Middle East," she explains. "Look at us now, we're the experiment."

Some characters are more fully realized than others. The mourner who opens the show remains a cipher and is difficult to distinguish from the widow Umm Gheda, while Layal is virtually laid bare. Amal is a charming respite from mourning and explosions, grasping her bosom as she explains that nursing someone else's child makes them "brothers and sisters in the milk" with one's own. Hooda, the cynical Londoner, is the most political of the lot. She and the teenager Samura best capture the complexity of the Iraqi situation through their ambivalence. Hooda says "This war is against all my beliefs but I supported it," while Samura admits to shame when she sees the hated Saddam on television, smaller and weaker than she imagined. We see exactly how -- with a frightening fundamentalism on the rise -- women have less freedom than they did before the liberation of Iraq.

Mozhan Marnò is more present in some roles than others, although her ability to switch voices and physicalizations at the drop of an abaya is consistently excellent. Working as she is from someone else's text, it will be interesting to see how Marnò settles in over the course of the Berkeley run. Nine Parts is lavishly staged for a one-person show; Antje Ellerman's set is good enough to eat, with its crumbling tile mosaics, piles of dusty books, and the almost de rigueur Berkeley Rep water feature.

There are a few quite graphic stories and a few explosions; this might not be a suitable show for kids, young teenagers, or particularly sensitive folk. The descriptions of atrocities committed under Saddam's regime rival anything that has happened since; from rape to the incineration of people hiding in a bomb shelter, Raffo's script is pitiless. And yet this is also one of her work's great strengths, this fearlessness, this determination to bring the evil out of the shadows and watch it squirm. It's especially topical right now as Saddam tries to boycott his own trial. These women's stories make his posturing -- and ours -- a sham, and bring a thousand unseen facets of the conflict into view.


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