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Women of Iraq

The purpose of 9 Parts of Desire is to get us thinking about Iraqis not in sectarian or sociological terms but as individuals. Thinking about them this way, coming face to face with the fucked-up lives of civilians caught between the most astonishing military machine ever created and an evil dictator or a violent ideology, we are to be humbled, horrified, shamed. These feelings are engendered by both specific situations — the dark predations of Uday Hussein, the death of 400 civilians in the Amiriyah bomb shelter — and by the powerlessness those situations represent and call to mind. It is powerlessness that is ultimately the subject of 9 Parts of Desire: the inability of ordinary people to influence the indifferent currents of history and to avoid getting swept up in them.

9 Parts of Desire is a one-woman show, written and originally performed by Heather Raffo. The thing is cobbled together from a series of interviews Raffo conducted with Iraqi women over the course of 11 years, mostly before the removal of Saddam Hussein. The characters are many and varied: a little girl who interrupts her dancing to 'NSync to tell us she's "smart" because she can tell the difference between various armored vehicles based on the sounds of their engines and treads; a mad, ancient street vendor who's lived through "23 revolutions"; a doctor, trying to remain calm as she describes sudden spikes in the number of childhood cancer patients and genetic mutations; a lovesick Bedouin trying to lose weight; a sick old revolutionary chugging Johnny Walker Red in a London flat and spitting vitriol at the Baathists; the steely eyed Umm Greyda, guiding Westerners through the wreck of the Amiriyah shelter, where she lost nine children (eight, according to most sources, but we'll forgive Raffo a little fuzzy math).

It falls to Pilar Uribe to make sense of these characters, and it's a daunting undertaking. One-person shows are always difficult, and 9 Parts demands constant virtuosity while tackling subject matter so grimly serious that any hint of grandstanding will render the whole performance tacky. Given the tightrope she's walking, Uribe's performance is a minor miracle. She accentuates characters' tiny quirks to help us differentiate them quickly, exaggerating head movements and vocal swoops just enough to allow audiences their bearings and distinguish who they're looking at. Her physical and vocal exaggerations are theatrical, but they are never overcooked: They merely serve to more easily afford us a look at great passion, profound desperation, hope, hope transmogrified into bitterness, and terror, all blazing together in a pressure cooker of a country where such emotions — and maybe all emotions, save the anger of aggressors — are inconsequential, and giving voice to them invites only disappointment at best and torture and death at worst.

The most able mouthpiece among 9 Parts' assembled phantoms is a painter, a self-described whore named Layal who serves as an allegory for Raffo herself. Not that Raffo is a whore. But within her circumscribed world as a brush slinger for hire, Layal has learned a technique of subtle and quintessentially human subversion. She has painted for Saddam, for Americans — she'll paint whatever for whomever, to ensure her survival — but within her paintings, she hides the bodies of women she has known, taking into herself their unheralded lives and deaths and then releasing them on canvas, ensuring that their stories will linger in perpetuity beneath the eyes of the very men who ended them.

It is not a painless process, and it's easy to think Raffo was trying to tell us something about herself in giving Layal as much stage time as she did. While Layal could find catharsis on a canvas, Raffo inhabited her collected women again and again, on stage in Edinburgh, in London, in New York. Uribe was spared the trauma of collecting these stories herself, but she transmits that trauma nevertheless. As Layal, she recalls a girlfriend from college who went on a date with Uday Hussein and was subsequently fed to hungry Dobermans. As the aging revolutionary in London, she recalls a political prisoner whose baby was placed in a bag with starving cats. As the little girl listening to 'NSync, she explains, haltingly, little-girl throat closing around little-girl sentences filled with monstrous grown-up portent, how repeating one of Daddy's dinnertime remarks about the Baathists at school led to his removal from the home the following day, never to be seen again. As Umm Greyda, she makes all present bear witness to white imprints on the walls of the Amiriyah shelter, the silhouettes of people who were flash-fried holding their children; she tells us of pipes bursting when the bomb drilled through the roof, of water superheating, of families boiled alive.

Uribe returns to Layal again and again, and we are able to develop an extraordinarily detailed vision of her inner life. As a whore, a creature of survival, she is free. She tells us: "Getting recognized as what you are: That's freedom." It's as good a working definition as any. The one American to make an appearance in 9 Parts is a college-aged girl of Iraqi descent, desperately afraid for her family in Baghdad. Obsessed with the television coverage of the war, she needs distraction. Maybe she should eat something; maybe she should go exercise or take a yoga class. Nothing will satisfy. Watching events unfold a world away, this modern, metropolitan girl seems infinitely less free than Layal, who anticipated all of this and set everybody — Americans, Iraqis, everybody — on equal footing. At the play's opening, she says, "I don't care if you're a prisoner... a soldier, a child, a minister, a Christian, a Kurd, a dog, a man... even loving, just the simple act of loving, can make you suffer so deeply." It's a sentiment that could come from some pessimistic existentialist, but Layal is no pessimist. It's bad news, then, that she is not given the final word.

At the play's end, Layal is nowhere to be found, and her painting is being hawked on the street, along with all the other sacred objects of the old, lost Iraq, valuable only if they can be traded for food. The woman selling it is the ancient vendor who's lived through "23 revolutions." Suddenly, she is more ancient still, standing up, hungry no more. She is the voice of the entire country then, a witness to "7,000 revolutions," a ghost of a conscience, and an unfulfilled promise, which turns always back to this hardscrabble life and naked will to live, the ebb of a cycle so slow we cannot fathom it, even as we watch it begin again.

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Brandon K. Thorp