Often overlooked in these times of strife, both domestic and abroad, is the power of storytelling. We watch our news and follow our feeds and converse with like-minded people to agree with each other and dismiss those who don’t share our views. Storytelling, for the most part, has become an escape from this stressful reality. Fantastic shows we follow weekly or watch in spurts. Stories rooted in real life are marginalized as a result, stifling our empathy as well as our impetus to act. A jolt from such complacency can be jarring. And welcome.
Oh My Sweet Land premiered in the US last week. It is a play written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, a Palestinian raised in the predominantly Arabic city of Nazareth in Israel. His play is a one-woman, one-setting wrecking-ball of narrative force, as over 65-minutes, the sole character, brilliantly portrayed by actress Nadine Malouf, recalls her upbringing in Denver as the daughter of a Syrian immigrant father, before cultural curiosity - spurred by the Syrian civil war - leads her as an adult to the Arabic cafes of Brooklyn where she begins an affair with a tormented exile named Ashraf, once active on the ground in the revolution and still logistically and emotionally connected. When Ashraf disappears without warning, Ms. Malouf’s unnamed character begins an odyssey of both memory and cultural exploration.
With emotions both raw and cured, Ms. Malouf’s character, back from her spontaneous (and first) travels to her ancestral homeland, makes kibbe (a traditional Middle Eastern croquette of spiced bulgur wheat stuffed with minced, browned meat and sauteed onions) and recalls memories of her Syrian father and the episodes of her recent adventure to Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria. To create intimacy and empathy, the play takes place in actual kitchens of actual homes around the greater New York area, with seating (as few as 11; as many as 40) determined by available space with proximity to the kitchen where Ms. Malouf expertly prepares kibbe from scratch: peeling and chopping onions for saute; dicing chop meat to be browned; mixing bulgur wheat with spices in a food processor - all to be combined into a conical shape of kibbe and eventually fried in a bath of hot oil. The kitchen/set is informed all along by the various stages of preparation, from the sounds and aromas, to the handling of knives and pans and lipids; the audience, privy to all the sensory action in the kitchen, is transfixed by the stories shared during the active cooking process, as Ms. Malouf - emotionally unsettled from the onset - laughs and cries and sweats and sniffs her way from her beloved father’s memories of Syria and her memories of him, to the more immediate recollections of her affair with the exile Ashraf, and - of most impact - the Arabs she meets on her journey through war torn Syria and its refugee-laden neighbors.
The characters she encounters include the stoic soldier who has lost everything yet carries on; the smiling young girl with worm-filled scars all over her head; the woman whose husband the government killed not once but twice; the once-famous actor who was tortured and made to share a cramped cell where each man was granted 16 square inches of individual space; a befuddled farmer asking Why? Why? Why? did they bomb his wheat field. And there is the memory of the moment when the character played by Ms. Malouf joins a crowd to watch the news report featuring images of supine children on the ground, marked by numbers written on their faces, killed by a chemical attack ordered by their own government.
Eventually, Ms. Malouf’s character finds Ashraf at home in Jordan, and joins his family for a cup of tea, before returning to New York to make kibbe and make sense of what she’s witnessed and how she’s forever changed. And while the narrative is full of unimaginable horrors inspired by war, there is also a sense of redemption in the kindness and warmth that so defines Arabic culture and perseveres in the face of such brutality: the love for fellow man, the welcoming of others, of strangers - in even the worst circumstances - to come and sit and eat. To try to enjoy life while it lasts.
One of the characters mentioned in Oh My Sweet Land, the disheartened soldier who has lost everything, wonders incessantly if God will forgive the people for what they’ve done to each other. If so, the play’s underlying spirit of humanity will be the reason why. And if the rest of the world will ever truly understand the Arabic people and offer our hand in welcome and in aid, powerful narratives such as Oh My Sweet Land will be why.
The play is produced by The Play Company (https://playco.org/) and runs through October in kitchens of the greater New York City area. The script is published by Bloomsbury.