GEOFF BENNETT: Twenty years ago, after the U.S. invaded Iraq, Iraqi American playwright and actor Heather Raffo created and starred in an acclaimed play titled "Nine Parts of Desire" about the lives of Iraqi women.
Now she's returned to the subject, but on film and through a distinctly American lens, setting a new version of the work in Michigan.
Jeffrey Brown went there to see how this work lands for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
JEFFREY BROWN: The setting, a church on the Flint River in Michigan.
HEATHER RAFFO, Writer and Actress: The year ISIS took Mosul, dementia took my dad.
He spent 80 years carrying and six years forgetting money.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the midst of the pandemic, an Iraqi American woman mourning the loss of her father is visited by a series of women.
HEATHER RAFFO: We didn't know if our neighbor was Sunni or Shia.
It was offensive to ask.
But here now people demand to know what I am.
JEFFREY BROWN: Many lives.
HEATHER RAFFO: I have not been to school since America came.
JEFFREY BROWN: Many stories.
HEATHER RAFFO: We have you chained to the desert.
JEFFREY BROWN: All played and told by writer and actor Heather Raffo.
HEATHER RAFFO: Even my son, he said yesterday, he's like: "So, were they really there?"
JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.
HEATHER RAFFO: "Or were they all in her head?"
And he's like... JEFFREY BROWN: Right.
I mean, I was thinking the same thing, right?
HEATHER RAFFO: Right?
And he's like: "Well, did it happen or didn't it?"
And I'm like: "Well, I think that's just up to you, how you feel about that," because that's how I felt oftentimes during the pandemic.
Am I connected to my ancestors?
Am I connected in my grief to all these things that have happened across the world throughout time, or am I just isolated and alone?
And I think it's both, right?
There's a whole generation today, they want to think for themselves without Iran, without America.
JEFFREY BROWN: At Detroit Public Theatre recently, Raffo screened her new film, "Nine Parts," for family, friends and community members.
HEATHER RAFFO: This is absolutely meant to be in Michigan.
JEFFREY BROWN: It was a homecoming on several counts.
HEATHER RAFFO: Adapting it was wanting to be in conversation with my dad, was what the film was, and wanting to be in conversation with my country.
JEFFREY BROWN: She lives in New York now, but was raised in this area amid the largest Arab American population in the country.
And this was also a chance to mourn our own Iraqi-born father, a member of its minority question, or Chaldean, community, who died during the pandemic, when his family couldn't hold a public funeral.
HEATHER RAFFO: Who is going to be left to inspire the people?
JEFFREY BROWN: And the film itself is a kind of return to her critically acclaimed 2003 play, "Nine Parts of Desire," that explored the lives of Iraqi women through a decade of war and upheaval.
HEATHER RAFFO: The original impetus for "Nine Parts of Desire" the play was to reach Americans with the humanity of Iraqis.
JEFFREY BROWN: Which meant what?
HEATHER RAFFO: Which meant, they are real people.
JEFFREY BROWN: Right.
HEATHER RAFFO: They have deep and complicated feelings, both politically and personally, and that we can't pigeonhole them to one side of an issue.
And, of course, once the kind of civil strife started happening, it was just showing the huge diversity and depth of their thinking.
JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty years later, the impact of the American invasion continues to be felt in Iraq, a country still torn by sectarian divisions, beset by economic woes and political corruption.
An estimated nine million Iraqis are internally displaced or live abroad, including most of Raffo's extended family, many of whom left when ISIS took over Mosul in 2014 and targeted Iraqi Christians.
HEATHER RAFFO: I had about 100 family members living in Iraq in 2003.
I now have one cousin left in the country.
So that's a thousands-of-years-old family and community that has been displaced in less than 10.
MAN: There's a lot of talk about homeland.
And I have been struggling with that the older I get.
JEFFREY BROWN: The reverberations also continued to be filled in the Iraqi American community.
Among those attending the Detroit screening was 24-year-old Fatima Al-Rasool.
FATIMA AL-RASOOL, Public Programming Coordinator, Arab American National Museum: Watching the film just brought up so much emotion.
The struggles and the hardships that Iraqis go through and that Iraqi Americans feel and also go through are something that isn't talked about quite often.
I think that... JEFFREY BROWN: It isn't talked about even in your community, you and your friends and family?
FATIMA AL-RASOOL: It's talked about, but I think, with big traumas like that, things tend to be very deep.
JEFFREY BROWN: Al-Rasool, from a Muslim American family, came to the U.S. as an infant in the period just before the war.
Many relatives remain in Iraq.
She now straddles these worlds, in part through her work as public programming coordinator at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, which features exhibitions of both past and present, including showcasing the work of contemporary artists.
What's your sense of your friends, other people in your generation?
How important are the traditions and the history?
FATIMA AL-RASOOL: Because, for the most part, we were raised in America, we really try our hardest to keep in touch with our heritage, even further than just hearing the stories of our parents or visiting.
We really want to define being Arab American and what that means to us.
And I think the museum is a place that allows us to do that by uplifting Arab American stories, encouraging conversations through art.
HEATHER RAFFO: You a politician?
You know I hate politicians.
JEFFREY BROWN: Heather Raffo is now artist in residence at the museum, a chance to develop a new play that expands her canvas, looking at migration around the world, and featuring musicians and actors from a variety of countries.
HEATHER RAFFO: I very much feel this void.
I have no peace.
JEFFREY BROWN: But it is this country that seems most on her mind, especially by setting the new film version of "Nine Parts" here in Michigan in 2020, sectarian division and anger all around reminding her of Iraq's plight.
Now the Flint River and the city's ongoing water crisis stood in for the Tigris.
The pandemic brought epic loss of life on a scale of war.
HEATHER RAFFO: From a Michigan point of view, there were armed militias in our government buildings.
And the way the country was increasingly tense was something that almost every Arab American, but particularly Iraqi American, goes, OK, warning signs are really clear.
JEFFREY BROWN: You see that happening in the U.S., those kinds of divisions?
Are you red?
Are you blue?
HEATHER RAFFO: Are you red?
Are you blue?
How you going to talk to your family member over Thanksgiving, right?
How are you going to -- what are you going to say?
As an artist, we go toward the heat.
Can you ski without risk?
ACTRESS: I always land on my feet.
JEFFREY BROWN: Iraq, she says, could be a bellwether for the U.S. HEATHER RAFFO: Everything bounces back, the market, the weather.
It will all bounce back.
JEFFREY BROWN: Unless we address where we are 20 years later.
HEATHER RAFFO: Money doesn't move.
ACTRESS: Will a rock bounce back?
JEFFREY BROWN: For the "PBS NewsHour," Jeffrey Brown in Detroit.
GEOFF BENNETT: Heather Raffo's new play, "Tomorrow Will Be Sunday," opens at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center on April 13.