Playwright’s Perspective: Noura
By Heather Raffo, Playwright
Noura was provoked by many things. From the fracturing of Iraq, to a shifting American identity. From the rise of polarizing ideologies to modern marriage and motherhood. It is at the explosive intersection of these issues that the characters of Noura attempt to balance their individual pursuits with a search for community. I believe it is a balance with which many of us struggle.
Beginning in 2013, I was working with Epic Theatre Ensemble to lead a series of workshops with Arab American women in New York City. These women, like me, were attempting to bridge two distinct cultures: American culture that prides itself on rugged individualism and Middle Eastern culture that prides itself on the deeply interwoven social fabric of community. After a year of work writing their own personal narratives, challenging cultural taboos, and fearlessly articulating their many harrowing stories of leaving home, we read A Doll’s House. They then began to consider the many Nora Helmers in their own lives.
“A different conflict between individualism and community was playing out before my eyes, not just as an Arab American but also as modern wife and mother.”
I worked with these young women over a three-year period, and ultimately, I realized I’d been sitting on my own aggravation in relation to the play. I was as tired of watching Nora Helmer be the beacon of feminist thought as I was watching Torvald stand in for a husband. The women I know don’t run around acting smaller than they are, sneaking chocolates and barely parenting their children. Yet women all around me, in strong marriages, with truly great husbands, were drowning. A different conflict between individualism and community was playing out before my eyes, not just as an Arab American but also as modern wife and mother.
My father was born in Mosul. I visited the house where he was born and the churches my grandfathers had carved from marble. Although the Chaldean community in Iraq predates Christ, they were some of the first to convert to Christianity and therefore have existed as a connected community for almost 2,000 years. In villages surrounding Mosul, Christians still speak a dialect of Aramaic. Even through Iraq’s many wars, Iraqi Christians felt they had a home in their country, that they were part of an ancient melting pot of many ethnic and religious minorities. Even if they were living outside the country, Iraq was the home to which they might someday go back. I’m not sure that is true today. When ISIS overtook Mosul in 2014, many Christians felt Iraq was simply no longer a place they would belong. I had almost 100 family members in Iraq at the start of the 2003 war; I now have just two cousins living there. My family is scattered across the world. Yet through the war, because of my family’s strong connection to the country, I felt I had an identity that would still be part of the fabric of the place. I feel now that much of that identity is being abandoned; many of my links are being severed.
I am left to connect to Iraq on my own, through the many artists and students with whom I have met and collaborated. But not through my grandmother’s house, or through my grandfather’s churches. Not through a vast network of cousins or a community, because it no longer exists. And it may never come back.
I see Iraq as a bellwether for America. Iraq had a society with shifting tensions throughout its history, but communities managed to live side by side for centuries. They have gone from a society where Sunnis and Shia were often intermarried, where it was impolite to ask your neighbor what religion they were, to an Iraq almost completely segregated by neighborhood. Our divides in America are similarly increasing at an alarming rate. Many communities are becoming more isolated rather than more inclusive, defending our identity with hostility rather than seeing how our differences can dialogue with each other. How do we pursue a very necessary sense of belonging, but not at the expense of turning tribal? How can we embrace our own individuality while upholding a multi-faceted identity?
I am an artist, a mother, a wife and an American woman with Middle Eastern heritage. This play came out of the shifting awareness that unfolds when any one of a person’s many identities demands growth. As we strive to grow, sometimes one aspect of ourselves calls out above others. This play is not unrelated to the ever-present question I hear talked about in my Brooklyn parenting circles: Can women be fully realized in all of their roles? Can they belong equally in each? Or is it inevitable that having a career, being a wife, a mother, a daughter perhaps to aging parents — that one of these roles will become unsustainable? In the demand of playing roles for so many others, it is inevitable that we question who we really are ourselves?
“How do we pursue a very necessary sense of belonging, but not at the expense of turning tribal? How can we embrace our own individuality while upholding a multi-faceted identity?”
When I started writing Noura, we weren’t talking as publicly about the things I was feeling. There was the sense that a female president was possible, that women had achieved equality in workplaces. Now we are in a post-election, post-Harvey-Weinstein world, and conversations are moving from the secretive to the mainstream. Now we are growing increasingly aware of the many-faceted ways women are struggling to stay true to a multifaceted potential even while society won’t support anything but an individualist approach to achievement.
Noura is at the crossroads of wanting to do something entirely visionary. It might cost her everything. Do we — and does she — make a choice inspired by our calling, forging forth as the rugged individual? Or do we uphold the family unit, the social fabric of the country, and what might be best for all? What if we want to do both? We need an entirely new lens and framework, perhaps less vertical in vision — perhaps a more horizontal intersection between men and women, individual and community. But without that, for the moment we have Noura, an architect, a refugee, trying to construct a world where she can stop living in exile from herself.