A decade ago, Ni Qasey, an Iraqi who identifies as queer, was working as an interpreter for the US military in her war weary homeland. Her family received death threats and was targeted by kidnappers. Now she is an American citizen and cast member in a Washington stage production.
“I never thought I would arrive at a point where I could write about things that I thought I would never tell a soul,” she says quietly, sitting beside mentor Heather Raffo in a dressing room beneath the Lansburgh Theatre. “Heather brought some parts of my soul I thought were dead and really brought to life parts of me I thought would never be alive. There were things I didn’t imagine I would even tell my sisters or anybody in my family, let alone actually put in writing and make public.”
Ni’s stories of life in a conservative, unravelling society emerged in a series of workshops for Arab American women that Raffo led in New York. The workshops inspired Raffo to write and star in Noura, a play about middle class Iraqi immigrants full of the melancholic yearning for which the Portuguese word saudade was invented. Currently receiving its world premiere in Washington, it is a 90-minute piece about loss, displacement and the breakdown of communities.
Ni and other women who took part in the writing workshops, Raffo reflects, are struggling to balance western and eastern cultures. “The absolute stereotype is that women in Iraq are oppressed by men and Ni and I both know that to not be true. It can be true in instances and in many ways but we know so many absolutely fierce, brave, strong Iraqi women, so that stereotype drives us up the wall.
“On the flipside, when I would try to say that it’s hard to be a woman in America, before the #MeToo movement people would roll their eyes. Come on! There’s a bunch of stuff we’re not talking about in both cultures. So I think I was trying to flip the stereotype on both and showing how absolutely strong and with quite feminist leanings many Iraqi women and their partners can be.”
The 47-year-old author continues: “And yet I’m a woman in a fabulous marriage in Brooklyn, so I have as much ‘freedom’ as anyone could and I know that most of the mothers around me are drowning all the time. It’s just an impossible situation to bridge the kinds of things we’re demanded to bridge if we’re trying to keep thriving careers going and be good mothers.”
Raffo’s own mother is from Battle Creek, Michigan. Her father was born in Mosul, Iraq and came to the US in the 1960s, gaining a master’s degree. The couple, both Catholics, became engaged within six months and married within a year. They recently celebrated their golden anniversary. “What’s interesting is right now,” Raffo muses, “if you were a woman from Michigan in your 20s who had never left the state of Michigan and you brought home an Iraqi man, your parents would have questions.”
Raffo has visited the house in Mosul where her father was born and the churches that her grandfathers carved from marble. Even through Iraq’s many conflicts, she notes, Iraqi Christians felt they had a home in its ancient melting pot of ethnic and religious minorities. But when the Islamic State militant group erupted in 2014, many Christians fled. Raffo had nearly a hundred family members in Iraq when George W Bush waged war on Saddam Hussein in 2003; now she has just two cousins there.
Ni, 33, who came to the US in 2009 through a special immigrant visa programme for Iraqi and Afghan military interpreters, is now similarly rootless. “I would say we carry our home with us, especially if you’re a refugee or an immigrant, once you learn that you don’t belong even in your native land,” she says. “When a conflict arrives and you don’t belong anymore, that moment hits you.”
Raffo, who last visited Iraq in 2013 and yearns to do so again some day, adds: “When I asked my dad, who’s now in his 80s, what he remembers about Mosul, he said: ‘Oh, it was beautiful and everybody lived together.’ And because I was celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary and looking at the wedding photos, sure enough there’s an Iraqi Christian and an Iraqi Muslim who stood up for him at his wedding. For a young generation now, that is anathema.
“The thing that most disturbed me over the last decade since the invasion is watching the fabric of society or identity – really very personal identities – become fractured. I know how the people used to be and see how deeply it’s changed and that’s something I’m watching acutely here in America. If the minority communities really are gone and the majority communities in Iraq are that split up now in ways they hadn’t been, it doesn’t bode well for where we’re going as Americans. I just think we do have to be vigilant because people used to see themselves as part of a holistic identity and now they don’t.”
Raffo does, indeed, regard Iraq as a bellwether for the US. “We all watched it unfold in Iraq. Neighborhoods with T-wall [concrete blast walls], neighborhoods completely changed, minority communities completely gone. It has a longer and more successful history of minority communities living side-by-side in a melting pot for thousands of years, not a couple of hundred. So if we don’t use that as a wake-up call, I don’t know what will work.”
The election of Donald Trump exposed and exacerbated fissures across class, gender and race, leading some to suggest that America is more polarised that at any time since the Vietnam war. “What’s worst is the inability to see somebody as your fellow countryman,” Raffo continues. “It’s the fact that we’re now seeing other people as the ‘other’ rather than one of us from a different kind of community. We’re in a very ungenerous place. We’re scared. We’re fearful.”
Hailing from Michigan, a crucial state that went in Trump’s favour in the 2016 presidential election, Raffo has some family members who voted for him and some who opposed him. She was not surprised by the outcome, “but I am surprised at how blatantly he throws gasoline on fires, like he wants it to go up racially or on class”, she says. “It’s like he wants to incite. So in my opinion, the play is me being very vigilant as an artist to make the conversations happen that don’t incite us but get us talking across divides. We we have to get in there and get comfortable talking with people who think really differently from us.”
Raffo has already staged a reading of Noura in Dearborn, Michigan, for a mostly Muslim audience, and in Kansas City (the Washington production will move on to Abu Dhabi in May and New York in November). “The primary response is, ‘This play is about us’, which I thought was beautiful. The white Kansas City woman and the Latino immigrant in Kansas City and the Muslim man in Dearborn all thought the play was about them and talked exactly to their experiences – ‘This is my story, this is my story,’ in tears.”
Experiences like this allow Raffo to retain a sense of optimism. “The reason why America offers great hope is because it actually does offer the potential of true belonging to immigrants and refugees in ways few other countries can,” she insists. “America is a great experiment where we are forever forging and re-imagining how we belong to and are responsible for each other in this democracy. In the end, isn’t it about how we welcome our neighbours into our lives?
“We as Americans have the potential to make the people living next door – whether they be here for generations or are new immigrants or refugees – feel like they fundamentally belong to the fabric of this nation both in our policy and in our personal interactions.”
For her part, Ni became a US citizen in 2015 and has already fallen foul of the US healthcare system, running up a debt of thousands of dollars in a single hospital visit because she was uninsured. She provided recorded voices and translation for the production of Noura and is refining monologues and scenes that resulted from the workshops. She too remains hopeful. “You know this country is very rich and we have so much opportunity and we have so much freedom. I just hope that we realise what we have and use it before we lose it.”
- The Shakespeare Theatre Company presents Noura as part of the second Women’s Voices Theater Festival at the Lansburgh Theatre in Washington until 11 March.