In August 2020, Theatre Unmasked and Art2Action hosted a live online Reading of 9 Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo, which reunited the cast of the 2015 USF co-production, part of THIS Bridge programming. As a result of revisiting the script and their process together, these young artists re-defined their project: to perform 9 Parts of Desire together again every five years. Community partner and performer in the play, Malak Fakhoury, writes part 3 of our blog series on the experience and the impact of this play, then and now.
9 Parts, 5 Years
By Malak Fakhoury
There are some experiences in life so remarkable, they would be regarded as once in a lifetime. Then there are those that get unexpectedly repeated half a decade after their inception, and are even more fulfilling than the initial event which proceeded them. A time marked by discovery, college serves as a vehicle for individuals to interact with different worlds and so become influenced by them, for better or worse. Thankfully, in my case, the former was true.
In my entire undergraduate career, not once did I participate in any dimension of USF’s theater department—until I auditioned for 9 Parts of Desire during my senior year. Being a person who is drawn to meaningful stories, I immediately was captured by the words of the script, and most absorbed in the lines of Umm Ghada. Without bias, she struck me with the greatest impact, independent of being cast as her character. An elderly woman who was the sole survivor of a double bombing dedicates her life to living outside the once-standing bomb shelter, in order to collect the signatures of witnesses from around the world, ensuring her family and friends are not forgotten or slain in vain. Through her slightly broken English, she recounts the normalcy that surrounded them just prior to the explosions that would separate her from the children she was laughing with. Although living in a war zone, being in a bomb shelter offers some sense of relaxation and peace of mind, since it is clearly designated as an untouchable place of refuge and built to withstand nearby crossfire. That is, until the United States drops two bombs on it, one to drill a hole and a second to destroy whatever life was happening beneath it.
Through her tour of Amriyya Bomb Shelter, Umm Ghada explicitly describes the horrors of what happened to everyone—except her. As I spoke her vivid words to the audience, I would get chills imagining the charred handprints and footprints. The hair and skin stuck to the walls. When I followed up with personal research, I literally shivered seeing footage of the actual demolished shelter, frozen in time, replaying the speech of Umm Ghada in my head. I could not look at the pictures of those who were barbarically and savagely murdered there. Such sights cannot be unseen. They live with you, for your lifetime. Perhaps the most striking part of the monologue, that pulls at the heart the most, is the end when she speaks of the wild greens growing around the hole and life taking root in the massive grave. It is at that moment she translates Umm Ghada as Mother of Tomorrow. In fact, it was this line that I was the proudest to say. It speaks volumes of the resilience of our older generation who have been subjected to unspeakable traumas, but find the strength to keep going. Those who, despite what horrors they have encountered, still continue to notice what is innocent, pure, and beautiful around them.
That is Umm Ghada. That is the dignified woman I had the honor of sharing with hundreds of audience members. To be honest, and not at all to minimize the weight of what she conveyed, I found playing her to be quite easy. When I think of this figure in relation to me, I wonder why she is so familiar. Firstly, I was one of two Muslim cast members and the only one who was Middle Eastern, giving me an exclusive experience with the content. Secondly, my connection to the Middle East comes from Palestine—a country beaten and battered by occupational forces who spread their evil and corruption through the Holy Land night and day. When I realized every fiber in me is tied to the struggle of exposing the truth and wanting people to know the reality even if it makes them uncomfortable, I understood why subconsciously I could connect to Umm Ghada so quickly. She is the equivalent of the older Sittoos (grandmothers), who I saw sit at the doors of the Al-Aqsa Mosque with their swollen feet and dusty abayas refusing to move for the Israeli soldiers who had no right to enter their place of worship. I love Umm Ghada because I recognize her. I see her every time I go to my homeland.
As years went, by she did not fade in my mind, or heart. Now and then I would find myself reviewing her lines in accent, with no apparent trigger. For this reason, being asked to perform as her again was all the more meaningful. Playing the role twice was very much like establishing and strengthening a relationship with a friend. The first part of the journey was the introduction, and the second part was the reunion. Although the physical experience of the play was much more enjoyable the initial time, I still appreciated the raw nature of zoom to share this material again, despite the difficulty of our circumstances. A thing that did not change from the two times was the fact that I was frequently referenced for questions. Being given the authority to answer gave me a deeper connection to the content, because I felt as though my peers regarded me as knowledgeable with this subject which increased my investment in and affinity towards it.
Undoubtedly the greatest element that has bonded me to Umm Ghada is having the blessing of becoming Umm Ayah. Surprisingly, the aspect that made me respect her most is something that did not happen until just recently, and that is my personal entrance into and journey through motherhood. Prior to the birth of my baby daughter, I was debating names since the kunya (nickname given to mom and dad based off name of eldest child), as my character mentions, is a joy and an honor for a parent. Although it is a tradition reserved for the older generation, people still use it with me jokingly and it warms my heart. To me, it embodies the selfless nature of a parent, in which they forgo their own identity to merge it with their child’s. Assuredly, that love transcends the title and envelopes the entire relationship—a relationship I did not know until April 2020. My life is now a constant exchange of enjoying the present and dreaming about the future. Having now experienced this intimate love, there is no fathomable way I could imagine a separation from it. With this feeling, internalizing the loss and pain of Umm Ghada brings me to a level of her character I could not appreciate as a single college girl.
I try to live every piece of my life intentionally. From the moment I lift my head off my pillow in the morning to the moment I lay it back down in the evening, I try to be conscious of all my actions and make sure they are aligned with my values and standards. I believe everything should have a beneficial purpose, even entertainment. That is why it meant so much to me to experience and deliver the role of Umm Ghada, as she is a woman wrapped in mindfulness. On a mission to honor her beloved family and friends, she sacrificed any potential new chapter in her life to live in a trailer, tell the horrific story of Amriyya bomb shelter, and collect signatures from the witnesses. Instead of choosing a future, she decided and insisted to stay in the past. Standing as the sole survivor of an incomprehensible catastrophe did not break her. It did not make her bitter. It increased her faith toward God, solidified her unique position, empowered the calling she alone was given, and made her a voice for the voiceless. I am in awe of her composure, resilience, selflessness, and determination.
She has taught me so much, and as the years continue to pass and I continue to say her lines, I hope to gain even more from the Mother of Tomorrow.
Above: The cast of the 2015 Art2Action & USF co-production of 9 Parts of Desire by Heather Raffo. For a complete list of performers and bios, visit our 2020 Virtual Program.
Malak Fakhoury graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of South Florida. She is currently pursuing a Masters in Counseling and resides in Southern California with her beloved husband. Formerly she was teaching Religion to elementary and middle school students but has since paused her educational career to focus fully on the first child she was recently blessed with.
For more reflections on this project, please visit our 9 Parts blog series!