Stirring up Syrian tales of survival in Bay Area kitchens

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You’re in the kitchen, listening to a Syrian-German woman talk about her harrowing trip to search for her missing friend and lover in war-torn Syria and in Syrian refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. While she talks she cooks kibbeh, a Syrian delicacy.

Although you are in fact in a kitchen and she is in fact cooking, this is a performance of a play. Nora el Samahy plays the nameless narrator and the many refugees whose stories she hears in Golden Thread Productions’ West Coast premiere of Palestinian playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi’s solo show “Oh My Sweet Land,” performed in the kitchens of various homes and community spaces around the Bay Area. There are 10 performances this October, to be followed by another 20 performances in March.

“The way that this play has been written — it’s poetic, it’s personal, it’s intimate, it’s very vulnerable,” says Golden Thread founder Torange Yeghiazarian, who directs the play. “The storyteller opens herself up and shares intimate details that I hope will entice the audience to also open up and make themselves vulnerable. That’s why we’re having post-play conversations and sharing food. I feel like as a society we’re hungry for that kind of intimate and vulnerable conversation.”

The story is based on conversations that Zuabi and the play’s original performer Corinne Jaber had with Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan. The U.S. premiere production is also running right now on the East Coast, produced by the Play Company in New York City kitchens. Although cooking has always been part of it, the play hasn’t always been performed in such an intimate setting. The original production with Jaber toured traditional theaters in Europe.

In fact, Yeghiazarian initially also intended to stage it in a theater. “Our decision to perform in it kitchens was a consequence of not being able to secure a venue initially,” she says. “I was sitting there frustrated, and then I thought, why not actually perform it in kitchens instead of building a kitchen in a theater?”

“The Arab world has a long history of great storytelling that predates any kind of theatrical experience,” says el Samahy. “I love that this is one long story. I really love poetic playwriting. I appreciate that it’s so rooted in that, because Arabic is a language full of metaphors, from ‘Good morning’ to ‘Can I get you something to drink?’ It’s in your blood. From a personal perspective, it’s very satisfying to play a character of mixed heritage. I get that. I don’t have to dig deep for that.”

El Samahy herself was born in Libya and raised in Egypt, with an Egyptian father and a Caucasian American mother.

“I can relate to so much of what she talks about with cooking,” she says of the character she plays. “There’s this concept of hospitality in that part of the world that is beyond anything I’ve experienced in any other culture, honestly. I love that there’s this deep generosity in the piece about sharing these stories. And these characters you meet are not monolithic. They’re not tragic. The situation has been tragic, but these are full people.”

In addition to the challenge of weaving in and out of all these people’s stories of the horrors they witnessed and endured is the technical challenge of cooking the whole time.

“Our last few rehearsals have made me a lot less terrified,” el Samahy says. “People are not going to actually eat what I’m making, so I’m not so stressed about that. It’s a health code issue; we can’t do that. The cooking is actually comforting, because I’m not just standing there talking for an hour. All the action feeds the next thing I say or allows me to pull back. I think of it like a conversation. Because there’s no other actor to play off of, the food is my partner on stage.”

Contact Sam Hurwitt at shurwitt@gmail.com, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.

 


‘OH MY SWEET LAND’

By Amir Nizar Zuabi, presented by Golden Thread Productions

When: Oct. 12-22

Where: Bay Area kitchens

Tickets: $45-$65; www.goldenthread.org





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