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Iraqi women touched by war become very familiar

If there's a moral to Heather Raffo's 9 Parts of Desire, it's that life in Iraq has been hell for a long time. It was hell under the murderous Saddam Hussein before the first Gulf War; it was hell after that war, when Saddam turned against the populace that had risen up against him; it was hell when the American embargo devastated the country and strengthened fundamentalism; and it's hell now, when American bombs are wiping out civilians, and crime and anarchy reign in the dangerous streets. Hearing the tales of various Iraqi women — all portrayed by the exceedingly talented Julie Rowe — you just have to wonder when the killing and torture will finally stop. Will the Iraqi people ever know what it means to live without fear for their lives?

Watch closely enough and you'll find another message too: What makes humans most civilized is their ability to love, and however foreign these Iraqi women may seem, they love just like we do, and are therefore our kin. Whether it's the painter Layal mournfully disguising a murdered woman as a blossom on a tree branch, or the Bedouin Amal wondering why her would-be-husband Saad finally rejected her, these women's hearts are no different from our own or our neighbors'. These humans — who just happen to be Iraqi — worry about their spouses, grieve for their children and are outraged at the crimes against humanity perpetrated by foreigners and their own rulers. There is nothing essentially different about them. That we're not them is only an accident of geography.

Rowe is masterful at impersonating them all. Using merely an accent and an element of clothing (designed by Adrin E. Puente) to distinguish one from the other, she convinces us that we are indeed witnessing a swath of Iraqi womanhood from the most traditional to the most modern.

There's Hooda, a woman in her 70s living in exile in London. There's an unnamed doctor in Iraq who's shocked by how many children are being born with deformities. There's an Iraqi girl who thinks all the American soldiers look like Justin Timberlake and a woman who changed her name to Umm Gheda — "Mother of Gheda" — when her daughter was incinerated in a shelter by an American bomb.

On Scott Cooper's deliberately unattractive set — it could be a section of a bombed-out building or maybe Layal's artist studio in disarray — Rowe confides all her feelings about Saddam, the war, the growth of fundamentalism, the simple search for food. Not all the women's attitudes are what you might guess. Even while regretting the ravages of war, some of them make it clear that they despised Saddam and welcomed his departure.

The old woman Nanna wonders if the war isn't God's punishment of Iraq for not having deposed Saddam earlier, and an Iraqi woman in America is so stressed by the TV news that she wonders whether she should take a yoga class. Hooda remembers the horrors of prison, the rape and the torture, and blames America and the Arab states for treating Saddam "like a king" before turning against him.

The Iraqi-American, shouting into a phone as she speaks to her family in the Middle East, can't stop saying "I love you," and the leader of ritual chants called "The Mulaya" remarks that "I have too much existence. I have lived through 7,000 revolutions."

The play is not so much anti-Bush's-war as it is anti-Anyone's-war — Bush's or Saddam's or any general's or potentate's. As for good guys and bad guys, the message is All War Is Civil War: Human life is beautiful and fragile, and deserves better than Saddam or Bush.

Two women are the most memorable. The first is the artist Layal, whom you wouldn't be surprised to find in New York or Paris. As played by Rowe, she's a modern sensualist who feels that it's a shame so many artists and intellectuals have left Iraq because of the war. Having cheated death twice — once when her husband shot her for committing adultery — she wonders, "What's to paint outside Iraq?"

As committed as she is to staying in the country, though, she has no illusions about the horrors to which Iraq has been witness. Her most horrific story is about a beautiful young woman student from the University of Baghdad who was noticed by Saddam's son Uday and asked on a date. Uday "took her and beat her brutally, like is his way." Then, after she told someone about her ordeal, Uday found her again, "stripped her, covered her in honey and watched his Dobermans eat her." Such stories "are living through me," says Layal.

The other unforgettable figure is Umm Gheda, who wonders, "I am hard to understand why I survive and my children dead." She is fixated on a bombing during the first Gulf War when her daughter and the other inhabitants of the Amiriya bomb shelter were all killed by American bombs. "Two bombs from U.S. airplane come to this point of the roof," she explains. "The first bomb is drilling bomb: drilled this hole. Second one come inside exactly same spot and exploded in fires. The U.S. said they thought this is communication center for military. Myself, I think they were testing bomb — these bomb had never been use before. But it is special two-bomb design for breaking only a bomb shelter. It is very purpose. It is very purpose."

And then she points to what she says is a silhouette of a woman "vaporized from heat. This huge room became an oven, and they pressed to the walls to escape from the flames." Now she has renamed herself in memory of her murdered daughter; as for her real name, it died with her children.

If it seems that 9 Parts of Desire must be a somber, depressing play, I should say here that it's not. Thanks to actress Rowe's inspired performances, one leaves the theater aware that these strangely-garbed Iraqi women aren't really strange at all: Their responses to the war, to tragedy and chaos sound reasonable, even familiar.

Most Iraqis, the play suggests, aren't like the fanatics and suicide bombers in the news; most Iraqis are as recognizable as our families, friends, selves. So don't be put off. As Americans debate the correct attitude toward our present involvement in Gulf War II, it doesn't hurt to have the evidence offered by this important, all-too-relevant play.

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