Iraqi American Actress Heather Raffo Holds Workshop for Women in Dearborn
BY: Weam Namou/Ambassador Blogger
Award-winning Iraqi American playwright and performer Heather Raffo, who is famous for her one-woman play 9 Parts of Desire, spent the first week of October in Michigan. On October 4, she offered a free theatrical storytelling workshop, entitled Places of Pilgrimage: Identity and Belonging in America, at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn.
On Friday, October 7, Raffo and her crew did a staged reading of the play Noura, which has not yet received its first production. The reading was done for development purposes, and the director, Joanna Settle, highly encouraged audience feedback.
The play examines the story of an Iraqi refugee family living in New York, highlighting a deeply important emerging of identity that tackles the notions of shame, violence, assimilation, exile, and love. Although Noura’s family is Chaldean (Christian Iraqi) in the play, they refer to themselves as Arabs, despite awareness by Raffo, whose father is of Chaldean origin, of the divisions between Arabs, Iraqi Christians, and other minorities in the Arab world.
“This is one of the many identity issues I am tackling directly,” Raffo said. “Interestingly, what I have found is that there is a certain subset of Iraqi Christians that grew up in Mosul or Baghdad, or like Noura, first in Mosul, then later lived in Baghdad, that considered themselves Arabs culturally. And only now – because of the conflicts in Iraq and now ISIL – Iraqi Christians are considering that maybe they are not Arabs.”
The play came out of a three-year grant, where Raffo did writing workshops with Middle Eastern women in New York. The women were of various backgrounds and religions, and during the first year, she worked on the telling of their own stories. In the second year, she worked with them on reinterpreting A Doll’s House, a classic drama by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen that was published in 1879. Raffo was then inspired to do a story inspired by the women she worked with.
“For Noura, this divide is a crisis,” said Raffo. “That she once saw herself as Iraqi, as one with her whole country and country people. And now, her identity is fragmented from how she was raised.”
Raffo is aware that most Iraqi Christians are raised fiercely Chaldean or Assyrian, and don’t want to associate with being Arab. The actress knows of others who thought they were Arab, or assumed there was some inter-marriage in their DNA. At the very least, Raffo thought some Iraqi Christians would consider themselves culturally Arab and beginning to question their identities.
“I think the key is to understand how isolated Noura and her family are in New York City,” the actress said. “They are not living in a big Middle Eastern community. They are not living amongst other Chaldeans or other Iraqis, only their best friend from back home, Rafa’a, who is Muslim. And like many Christian/Muslim friendships… what is happening back home is providing new challenges in their relationship in America.”
She added, “As you know, in addition to the Arab/Chaldean divide is a greater Christian/Muslim divide. I know Iraqis that were friends with Muslims back home, but now won’t associate with the same Muslim friends in America. I know that most Chaldean/Assyrian communities don’t identify with families like Noura’s, but it is precisely that isolation that I’m hoping to tackle.”
One of the main reasons that Raffo wanted to do the writing workshop in Michigan was in hopes of having Chaldeans, Assyrians, other Arab Christians, Iraqi Muslims, and other Muslims from the greater Arab world all in the same room to see how these subtleties of identity would play out; to see how each community would identify or not with the play; to see if it might bridge some dialogue; or to see if a particular community would reject it outright.
In the workshops she led, participants found commonality through their shared storytelling.
“Participants became very open to each other and quite bonded,” she said. “Most are trying to continue their work together and to collectively make their voices and their communities stronger and more connected.”
The audience loved the play, whether they were of Iraqi descent or another Middle Eastern background. Many audience members saw themselves in the performance, and some hoped that the community in Michigan would be as united as the characters were in Noura.
“This is why hearing from the audience after the play was so key,” Raffo emphasized.
Weam Namou is an award-winning author, journalist and filmmaker. You can learn more about her work by visiting www.weamnamou.com