Shakespeare Theatre Company, Washington, DC
$44-$118, through March 11
Thanks to a moving new play at the Shakespeare Theatre, we in DC can check in on the Christians who escaped from ISIS-ravaged Mosul. Inspired by Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, Noura, written by and starring Heather Raffo and directed by Joanna Settle, can be seen in its world premiere through March 11. Whereas A Doll’s House is about a housewife in 19th-century Norwegian society who is overwhelmed by the restrictions it places on women, Noura is about an Iraqi Christian woman who struggles to balance the societal burdens placed on Iraqi women as she tries to keep Mosul’s Christian heritage alive in today’s United States.
Noura lives in New York City with her husband Tareq and their son Yazen, where she is regularly visited by her Muslim childhood friend Rafa‘a. She is preparing for a special Christmas gathering, where Maryam, a Christian orphan she sponsored in Mosul who came to the United States as a refugee after ISIS’s takeover, will meet Noura’s family. As the play’s poster describes, Maryam’s visit has the effect of “forcing them [Noura’s family] to confront where they are, where they’ve been, and who they have become.” During the course of an hour and a half, theatergoers experience how this group of refugees struggles with mourning the death of an ancient community and transplanting their identities to the new world (or creating them entirely anew).
Overall, the play is executed well, utilizing a plain stage that keeps your focus on the powerful dialogue. Noura’s secret cigarette-smoking sessions, in which she ruminates silently on what has happened to her family and city, allow the audience to digest the past scene before transitioning to the next. The occasional use of Syriac and Arabic Christmas chants help set a solemn mood, filling the theater with audible remnants of the city that these characters may never see again, yet that haunts them wherever they go.
This powerful and emotional story is particularly relevant as Mosul faces a massive rebuilding campaign, which involves many questions of post-ISIS trauma and Mouslawi identity—and which will no doubt involve the diaspora community of Iraqis to some extent. Additionally, it revisits with acute sensitivity the age-old problems of immigrants in American society, while recognizing the particular twists to these Iraqis’ stories.
Noura gives a powerful dramatization of the immigrant’s dilemma, in which the need to settle into a new country and culture must be balanced against the desire to preserve one’s heritage. Raffo (whose father was from Mosul) made a canny decision in choosing a woman as her protagonist; in Iraqi culture women are expected to uphold their family’s honor and be the guardians of community (through traditional cooking, language teaching, and so forth). To wonderful dramatic effect, Raffo contrasts Noura’s desire for preservation with another immigrant woman’s opposite experience.
Not long after arriving from her school in California, Maryam (convincingly played by Dahlia Azama) is revealed to be the antithesis of the traditional Mouslawi woman. As Noura puts it, she “didn’t even complement me once”—a shock since traditionally Mouslawi women greet each other with a heaping of compliments. Noura had hoped Maryam would be the embodiment of Mosul, but she seems to want nothing to do with the city and tells Noura that she “wouldn’t recognize it anymore.” The audience witnesses Maryam deciding her post-school career one minute and later on casually retelling her ISIS survival story. In an entirely different way, she too deals with a special burden on account of her gender, as she fled Iraq with full knowledge of the sexual violence that ISIS was inflicting on minority women—enduring horrors on her way, though not that horror in particular.
The playwright never answers which approach is better or more justified—remembering the old country or forgetting it; accepting the cultural burdens of womanhood or abandoning them when they become wrapped up in trauma. Instead, Raffo leaves it up to the audience to make the decision themselves.
The contrast between the two women is the most dramatic of the play, but it is complemented by two others—those between Noura and the two men closest to her, husband Tareq and friend Rafa‘a. Like Maryam, Tareq wishes to forget everything that went before. In one conversation between husband and wife, Noura expresses frustration at the Iraqi people’s own self-inflicted wounds, to which Tareq retorts “These people are not us!” He is fed up with the whole thing, passionately asserting that “We came here to forget!” Unlike Noura, he wants to use the new names the family listed on their passports: He is now Tim, while their son Yazen has become Alex.
Yet the play softens Tareq by endowing him with some complexity; he too wants to keep some aspects of his homeland. He participates in dressing Yazen up as a “Chaldean king” for Christmas, and dreams of living in a group house with a garden alongside his many sisters, just as they would have in Iraq. Tareq seem to want to keep their Iraqi identities within the privacy of their home, while Noura is out seeking new recruits, in the form of Maryam—who of course rejects her. Tareq thus takes a sort of middle ground between the two women, an easier path for him, perhaps, because he has less of the cultural expectations placed on Noura or the trauma endured by Maryam. Raffo deals with him sympathetically, but again, she’ll never tell you who’s right.
The second male foil to Noura is the Muslim Rafa’a, whom the playwright uses to open up this drama to the wider tragedy of Iraq. Certainly, the Christian cataclysm is ever-present throughout the play, as the characters deal with the painful fact that Mosul’s ancient Christian community has gone extinct. In the years after 2008, when a wave of murders and kidnappings targeting Christians occurred in Mosul (including the murder of two nuns), 12,000 fled the city (approximately one-fourth to one-third of the population). Yet, as Raffo describes in the playbill, “[Before 2014] Christians still felt like they had a home in country and were part of an ancient melting pot of many ethnic and religious minorities. I’m not sure that is true today.”
For Iraq’s surviving Christians, the destruction of churches, graves, artifacts, and homes by ISIS severed a link many had with their country. This loss of identity, and Noura’s struggle to rebuild it in diaspora, is the central drama of the play. Yet Raffo does not tell a simple tale of Christians victimized by Muslims, but treats the destruction of Mosul as a tragedy for all, mainly through Noura’s heated arguments with Rafa‘a. At one point Noura lets her anger out with an impassioned reminder that ISIS burned their ancient books and buildings, to which Rafa‘a responds: “They burned our [Muslims’] books too!”
Rafa‘a (a powerful performance by Matthew David) continues to push back, telling her that Muslims around the world are ashamed of what has happened and feel the pressure to constantly disassociate themselves from extremism. During his lamentation over Iraq’s descent into tribalism and sectarianism, the audience is reminded that ISIS has not spared Muslims either. Whereas Maryam is trying to forget her past because she is a victim, Rafa’a wants to forget the brutalities perpetrated by other Muslims, despite his own innocence. The play does not force this contrast, making its point with admirable subtlety: The damage of Iraq’s tragedy carries over into the new world for all involved.
Indeed, Raffo is wise about how the Christian-Muslim interaction plays out in the diaspora. While living in the United States binds Christian and Muslim Iraqis more tightly together, as they share more with each other than the surrounding culture, they also have to struggle with social dynamics exclusive to diaspora life. We see Noura’s guilt in being treated a little better by immigration officials because of her religion, for example. In contrast, we also see Noura struggling to articulate to Rafa’a the pain she feels at Christians being uprooted from Iraq, to which Rafa’a reacts so strongly. Christians and Muslims face different challenges when dealing with each other outside of Iraq, but the cleansing power of American individualism doesn’t wash them away—even if some of the characters might like it to.
Noura is well worth your time. Its unique interpretation of the struggles of a middle-class Iraqi wife and mother is a rare and unexpected delight. Heather Raffo’s knowledge of Mosul, the Mouslawi Christian struggle, and the immigrant plight is clear. The individual parts of the play fit together harmoniously, balancing various themes and struggles within the life of a refugee family, without stooping to moralizing or easy answers.
To Raffo’s credit, the play does not signal how the characters should deal with the looming questions brought up within it. This, indeed, is the most genuine aspect of its depiction of the life of immigrants: Many people simply persist onward while carrying heavy burdens, some of which cannot be sufficiently resolved. It is difficult not to emerge from the play somewhat dispirited, since Iraq is still fractured, Mosul’s Christian community is gone, and anti-immigrant rhetoric is on the rise in the United States. Yet there are also reasons to be optimistic, because even though the play showcases the struggles of navigating between two cultures, it movingly portrays the love and perseverance of this family despite its hardships. I left reassured, too, that we have such sensitive artists as Raffo memorializing the immigrant experience for our enjoyment and reflection.