In the winter of 1991, I was just another sophomore at the University of Michigan, majoring in literature and training to be an actor. My mother is American and my father Iraqi, but because of my blonde hair and Midwestern accent, no one would have guessed my heritage. For most of my life, my Iraqi half was more a nudging at my soul than an external day-to-day experience.
Then the first Gulf War began. While my fellow students excitedly watched the news coverage of our generation’s first major military conflict, I was sick in my gut. It seemed the entire world was poised to fire on Baghdad, where more than 50 of my close relatives still lived. They had already survived so much—the brutality of Saddam’s regime, an eight-year war with Iran. Because of the danger, I had not been able to visit them since I was 4. Iraq, in my childhood memory, was the magical place where I had spent time as a little girl, where I had slept under stars on the roof of my grandmother’s house. Watching the city in green-lit night footage on TV, I was ripped apart, on my knees in my apartment. In that moment, I felt not only American but also Iraqi-American, and something inside me insisted that I bridge the two cultures.
After the war was over and it was safe to go there, I went back to Baghdad. My father’s family called me daughter and fought over who would have the honor of cooking me dinner and whose home I would visit first. But I also saw the harder side of life in the crippled city: Next to my uncle’s house was a pile of rubble, the result of a stray bomb. Across town was the Amariya bomb shelter, where more than 400 people died when the building was hit.
Everywhere I went, people were hungry to tell me their stories. I began to understand the complexities of my father’s homeland and the heart of its people. I went to the Saddam Art Center, where I entered room after room filled with portraits of the dictator. Then, in a back room, I found a haunting portrait of a nude woman clinging to a barren tree. Her head was bowed, and there was a golden light behind her like a sun. I learned that the painting was done by a female artist who was killed during the war. It distilled so much of what I recognized in Iraqi women, and in myself.
Some years later, as America stood on the brink of a second war with Iraq, I started writing a play about the many passionate Iraqi women I had come to know. Their stories of resilience, determination, and love became my one-woman show, 9 Parts of Desire, which is touring the country. In the show, I play nine women, each searching for a personal sense of liberation. There is a mother who lost her entire family in the bombing of the Amariya shelter, an artist who painted nude women entwined with trees, and, of course, an Iraqi-American girl unable to tear herself away from the headlines. So in a way, my aha moment had happened over and over. It has been as simple and as devastating as acknowledging that I am an American with Iraqi heritage during this heart-wrenching moment in the two countries’ histories. A blonde girl—Midwestern—all the better to break down stereotypes, to be in the flesh a reminder of how completely we do embody the other.
Copyright: Heather Raffo