'Noura' and 'Mimi’s Suitcase' Explore the Iranian and Iraqi Diasporas

Maya Nazzal and Denmo Ibrahim in Marin Theatre Company's production of Noura, by Heather Raffo. (Kevin Berne)

Barely before this month’s New Year’s revelry had quieted, news of the extrajudicial killing of Iran’s Qasem Soleimani by U.S. airstrike dominated the news cycle, and the Middle East was thrust one more into unwelcome focus. And even though the immediate crisis of escalation and threat of war seems to have been brought under some control, there’s no doubt that the reverberations of that action will resonate for years to come: in Iran, Iraq, and worldwide.

It’s reverberations such as these that two plays opening this month in the Bay Area are already intricately familiar with. Both Noura, by Heather Raffo, at Marin Theatre Company, and Mimi’s Suitcase, by Ana Bayat, at NOH Space, deal explicitly with the long-term effects of immigration on ordinary citizens from the Middle East. Beyond describing reasons to leave, both Noura and Mimi’s Suitcase delve into what it means to survive the process of re-routing, and re-rooting, as immigrants, women, and artists.

The cast of Marin Theatre Company's production of 'Noura,' by Heather Raffo. (Kevin Berne)

Noura, which opened in previews on Jan. 9, explores the Iraqi-American experience through a quotidian, domestic lens. With a hat-tip to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, the play takes place over the Christmas holiday, revolving around an Iraqi refugee family who has just received American citizenship after eight years of waiting. Members of a displaced Christian minority, they’ve settled in New York (where playwright Heather Raffo also lives). As the play progresses, as do the complexities of their relationship to each other, to their selves, and to their adopted home.

Having performed the role of Noura in the play’s world premiere in 2018, Raffo’s understanding of the character extends beyond the lived experience of growing up with an Iraqi parent. By birthing the role as well as the play, she’s in a unique position of being able to explore Noura’s philosophical layers with a keen familiarity. Through the character, she’s been able to wrestle with her own struggles with the “rugged individualism...of Western American feminism,” and speak to a yearning to use female liberation as a platform for more than self-actualization. Her Noura, an architect, not only juggles the imperative to create with the demands of the domestic, but also the eternal inner conflict of reconciling with a turbulent, dangerous past.

Denmo Ibrahim and Valentino Bertolucci Herrera in Marin Theatre Company's production of 'Noura,' by Heather Raffo. (Kevin Berne)

“I really wanted to reframe the play (A Doll’s House) in what does it mean to be actually very attached?” she explains over the phone. “The question I’m facing in my life isn’t ‘I will just up and leave my family so I can live my life as a full human being’....I can’t do that...most of us wouldn’t want to do that. In this play they are all Nora Helmer, all post-door slam, all living together, going these are the different ways they’ve chosen to move on, and now what?”

Sponsored

Not only is Ana Bayat’s solo show Mimi’s Suitcase a bit of a travelogue, but it’s also well-traveled, having first launched at New York’s United Solo, and following up with appearances at festivals across Europe—including the 70th edition of the Edinburgh Fringe. In the play we first encounter the protagonist as a teenage girl living in Tehran. With shades of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Bayat describes the tension and violence of a suppressive state, and its psychological effects on a young woman who'd previously lived in the much more permissive Barcelona.

Ana Bayat in her solo show, 'Mimi's Suitcase.' (Diaspora Arts Connection)

As a solo performer, Bayat plays over 25 characters in four languages, including family members, close friends, Republican guards, and immigration officers. Although the action focuses on the time period from 1984 to 2000, as Bayat ruefully notes, the topics of immigration and diaspora that she explores are “very much present in our everyday lives.”

With repercussions of 2017’s so-called “Muslim travel ban” still reverberating worldwide, the protagonist’s struggle to obtain a precious student visa feels as urgent as it must have in 2007, when Bayat first began working on the piece as part of W. Kamau Bell’s notable Solo Performance Workshop. And her lived experience as a child trapped within the borders of a repressive regime gives a singular view into a family that has run out of choices. Her protagonist’s decision to leave Iran emphasizes the divergence of choice between those who can obtain a visa and those who cannot. Or as Bayat elegantly puts it, “sometimes what you choose is not necessarily what you can have.”

“Political upheaval is not theoretical,” Torange Yeghiazarian of Golden Thread Productions, who is consulting on Noura, points out. And the undercurrent of the very real dangers faced by their respective protagonists in their home countries gives Noura and Mimi’s Suitcase a vital kinship. But beyond the Middle Eastern diaspora stories illuminated by Noura and Mimi’s Suitcase are larger themes of immigration, family, and home, with broad, cross-cultural implications. In both works we find protagonists who love their families, value themselves, and mourn for their lost opportunities and former homelands, while laying claim to their future—all in the context of an immigration narrative.

“Ultimately I believe this is a universal story,” asserts Bayat about Mimi’s Suitcase. “I’m hoping it humanizes immigrants so we don’t go about life othering. That we realize that at the end of the day...that we have so much in common.”

'Noura' has been extended at Marin Theatre Company through Feb. 9. Details here.

'Mimi’s Suitcase' plays at NOHspace, Jan. 23-25. Tickets and info here.