REVIEW: Nine Parts of Desire

A shattering, stunning portrait of Iraq and its people

“God created sexual desire in 10 parts; then he gave nine to women and one to men.”

This hadith is the origin of Nine Parts of Desire‘s title, and the nine parts – nine women – are haunted, energised, completely overtaken by desire: desire to live, desire to change, desire to forget.

The women are diverse, and each provides a different perspective on life in Iraq under Saddam, both from within the country and without. The Iraqi Girl likes N-SYNC and can tell guns apart by the sound of their fire. Huda, an intellectual living in London, pours scotch from a crystal decanter as she recalls hearing the rape and torture of other women from a prison cell. The American watches war coverage on CNN, praying that none of her family is caught by her country’s bombs.

Maya Yousif as Huda, an intellectual kept for a time as a political prisoner in Iraq. (Image credit: Aman Sahota)

It’s not designed solely to haunt, however; humour and optimism weave their way among the devastation. Amal wears a startled smile after telling the stories of her past loves – she has never felt so free, she says. Heather Raffo’s 2003 play spans the time between the First Gulf War and the occupation, painting a full, complex picture of the beauty and pain of Iraq, through the collated stories of its women.

The nine parts are amalgamations of real women Raffo met and heard about, including, perhaps, the play’s most interesting figure – Layal, an artist supported by Saddam’s regime and the only artist allowed to paint nudes. Compelling and at times unsympathetic, the ambivalent Layal is based on Layla Al-Attar, an Iraqi painter killed by a missile ordered by Bill Clinton in 1993.

Zobia Haq as Layal, a brilliant artist protected and used by the regime. (Image credit: Aman Sahota)

Originally this play had just one actor – Raffo – play all nine parts, but CUADC opted for three in this production, which worked stunningly well, particularly in the denouement where the three women speak frenziedly over each other, and in the deeply touching physical theatre between scene-changes. The different energies of the three actors sets each character off beautifully.

Zobia Haq (Layal and The Doctor) turns deftly from the spellbinding, powerful yet weak Layal to the manically helpless, hard-eyed Doctor, who cannot even look at her disabled husband anymore: ‘He’s my death sentence.’ Leila Sackur (The American, The Iraqi Girl, Umm Ghada) has incredible grace and quiet strength as Umm Ghada, the survivor of a bomb strike who carries her dead daughter’s name, and is incredibly, humanly affecting as The American, wracked with guilt, unable to watch the television or to turn it off. Maya Yousif (The Mullaya, Huda, Amal, Nanna) is always powerful and sharp under the weight of experience, from mythic prophetess to the ancient bookseller who has lived through 23 revolutions; there is always so much to say, and it is necessary, though painful.

Leila Sackur as Umm Ghada, a survivor of the 1991 Amiriyah shelter bombing, which killed 408 civilians. (Image credit: Aman Sahota)

Staging is simple in this production, with only the amount of props needed to facilitate the actors, which is the point of the play: Layal’s artist-stand, Huda’s decanter, and the bathtub that anchors the centre of the stage, serving both as ruined domesticity and as river. The Iraqi music between each scene is atmospheric, though cut off a little abruptly at points, and the lights were used to better effect than I often see in Corpus Playroom (a certain blackout near the end in particular is perfectly done).

The production has a heavy, pensive atmosphere, which is likely the feeling you’ll come out with after the play, though it is also at times joyful and enlightening. It’s not a light show – if you are easily upset by traumatic content, be wary of it – but it is a necessary one, and plays that seriously consider countries like Iraq are underrepresented not only in Cambridge student theatre but in Western theatre in general.

If you know very little about Iraq, its conflicts, and its people, this is a rare opportunity to learn. Take it.

4.5/5 stars

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University of Cambridge 9 parts of desire BME Cambridge Desire heather raffo iraq nine parts Theatre