‘Noura’ is a heartrending tale of loss, rebirth in an Iraqi American family

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It’s often challenging to fully grasp the feeling of estrangement that an individual can experience when leaving their home country. The closest written expression of the sensation in Arabic would perhaps be “الغربة”(al-ghorba), the word for feeling like a stranger in one’s adopted country. Nevertheless, Heather Raffo, a playwright of Iraqi American descent, captures this phenomenon poignantly in her latest play, “Noura,” which is onstage at the Marin Theatre Company until Feb. 2. 

“Noura” follows the events leading up to an Iraqi American family’s celebration of Christmas. As Chaldean Catholics, the holiday is of great importance to them, but especially to the mother of the household, Noura (Denmo Ibrahim). Christmas also calls for the celebration of their recently attained American citizenship — a subject of great happiness for Noura’s husband, Tareq (Mattico David), but also one of reflection and regret for Noura, who laments the things she left behind. For this celebration, the family is joined by a special guest, Maryam (Maya Nazzal), an Iraqi refugee from Mosul whom Noura has been sponsoring. The storyline, following the dynamic between these two headstrong characters who are more alike than they could imagine, is both cathartic and bittersweet.

The visual production of “Noura” beautifully portrays the nature of its protagonist, with everything taking place within her home. As an architect, Noura is a woman impassioned by edifices and buildings; however, she is also an individual who constructs façades and labyrinths within her own mind. Kate Boyd’s lighting design reflects the iridescence and fluctuations of Noura’s inner monologue, while scenic designer Adam Rigg’s choice of minimalistic furniture in the house portrays Noura’s inability to confidently plant roots in the United States.

The use of sound and silence demonstrates the manner in which Noura’s mind seems to simultaneously chatter yet hold back. As Noura stands in the snow, cigarette in hand, she admits that silence can be a source of solace, but that it’s also a path toward repression and pain. Sound designer Nihan Yesil incorporates vague whispers and traces of memories into the production, representing the flashbacks Noura experienced and the clamor of emotions in her head. The audience could hear fragments of Arabic and English, an amalgamation of memories and thoughts left behind during the war. 

The acting and direction of the play also demonstrate the strength and resilience of Arab women. Ibrahim captures the nuance of Noura’s character beautifully, reflecting the conflicted psyche of a woman eager to hold onto her traditional roots but also yearning to break free from the shame and confusion that overcomes her. Ibrahim’s performance is strong in its command of emotions — she amazingly portrays the survivor’s guilt that many Middle Eastern immigrants face while they’re living safely in another country, watching their beloved homeland and loved ones suffer. 

 Nazzal, a young and extremely talented Palestinian American actress, balances Maryam’s defiance and fragility keenly with her body language and tone. She captures the fiery nature of her character, personifying the new generation in Iraq. Abraham Makany similarly delivers a performance filled with warmth, humor and empathy as Rafa’a, Noura’s longtime friend from Mosul. David performs the role of the traditional yet tender husband with grace, while ​Valentino Bertolucci Herrera is charming as Noura’s cheekily loveable son, Yazen. 

Torange Yeghiazarian, the cultural consultant of the play, deserves special recognition for maintaining historical accuracy and conveying the nuances and details of Iraqi culture. As the founding artistic director for the Middle East-focused production company Golden Thread Productions, it’s evident that Yeghiazarian has a devotion to preserving the authenticity of Middle Eastern culture and providing much-needed representation in theater. 

Noura can only step into the future when she decides that she cannot survive anymore — she must live with regret, happiness and everything in between. As “Noura” intimately reveals to us, living as an immigrant is neither holding on nor letting go — it’s living with what was once your past while immersing yourself in the present, despite any pain that may arrive.

Luna Khalil covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected].