Iraqi-American playwright examines complex journeys
Washington - Heather Raffo came of age when the only country she had ever called home went to war with the nation of her forefathers. It was the first Iraq war in 1991 and she was a 20-year-old literature student at the University of Michigan.
“Everything before I was 20 was reading about war in textbooks. Then, suddenly, war was on CNN and people in Michigan around me were watching it in a bar, some cheering and some protesting. It was startling to me,” Raffo said.
She recently participated in an annual event in Washington that aims “to humanise” global politics by harnessing the power of performance. It is co-sponsored by Georgetown University and the Theater Communications Group, a New York-based organisation.
Raffo said that in the 1990s she could not have imagined that two decades later, after she had made a name for herself as a playwright, she would be asked by the City Opera of Vancouver to write an opera about a US Marine and his experiences while fighting in Iraq.
“I said: ‘This is not the story I want to write.’ I spent a good portion of my life not humanising the military,” she said. “My belief system and bias at the time was that people who go to war choose what they’re doing. If you signed up for it, then it’s what you wanted to do.”
Raffo credits the birth of her son, her second child now 5 years old, as the moment a switch was triggered in her mind: The birth of a boy made her realise that “this one could serve” in combat.
Raffo had established herself as a playwright after her one-woman show 9 Parts of Desire, which she started working on shortly before the attacks of September 11, 2001. In the play, Raffo animates nine different Iraqi women, each with a unique struggle and perspective on the war in Iraq.
The characters include a die-hard artist who vows never to leave, a Bedouin who laments matters of the heart and a doctor who attends to babies with birth defects after the US invasion. There is also Raffo’s alter ego, an Iraqi-American who becomes glued to the television, sick with worry about family in Iraq.
So when Raffo decided to get to know Christian Ellis, the US Marine and trained opera singer whose life is the premise for the opera she would write, she began a similar investigation into the human psyche. She ventured into the other side of her story, the “heart and minds of people who had served in combat”.
What she found shocked and enlightened her, a human complexity that shatters the simplistic narrative of good guy versus bad guy, an all-too-common viewpoint.
“Many who serve in the military feel they’re in a grey area. No wrong or right. It’s complicated and it’s difficult for a lot of them to be in the position they’re in,” she said. “It’s in the way that a person could deeply humanise an Iraqi, and deeply demonise an Iraqi. That a person could fantasise about killing and equally fantasise about humanising. When you’re actually in a war, it’s not a fantasy, it’s doing both.”
Perhaps this is why post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is really about moral injury, Raffo concluded. Perhaps nothing brings opposing sides together better than the recognition of mutual pain, a realisation that hit Raffo hard when her opera, titled Fallujah, had its debut in March at Long Beach Opera in California.
“First, I started crying as an American and, I thought, ‘Oh, I hadn’t given myself an inch to grieve as an American.’ I had been grieving as an Iraqi,” she said.
She said she was also aware of the irony that, as a blonde child born and raised in Michigan, she had never felt anything other than American, even as she wondered what lay beyond her white suburban community.
Fallujah, which begins touring in November in New York, opens with a scene inside a veterans’ hospital, where the Marine protagonist is on suicide watch. He refuses to let his mother into his room but allows his fellow Marines into his private world.
“In dealing with his demons, it prepares him to face his mother and you wait the whole opera for this duet,” said Raffo. “The opera is about what can’t be said.”
Fallujah is about the experiences of a US Marine as written by an Iraqi woman who opposed the war but captures the dynamics of other dialogues that may be unfolding today.
As Raffo sees it, Brexit, Donald Trump and the Syrian refugee crisis all raise a common question: “Can the arts crack people open to connect with each other and talk truths,” she said.
Raffo is working on another play, Noura, about a Christian Iraqi couple from Mosul who have settled in the United States, their struggles resembling those of so many before them and of millions of their Arab compatriots today. After initially believing that their displacement is only temporary, they come to the realisation that their home in Iraq is forever lost.
“But they survive because America is about survival,” said Raffo. “Yet, with survival no longer an everyday question for them, it’s now their internal survival that’s at stake.”