The Promise of Kibbeh: On Amir Nizar Zuabi’s “Oh My Sweet Land”

THERE ISN’T MUCH in the way of props on the set of Oh My Sweet Land, a solo show with no fixed address that’s been staged in kitchens around the globe — from San Francisco to Abu Dhabi and from London to Mumbai — in which a woman (skillfully portrayed by Nora el Samahy) prepares kibbeh, a traditional Levantine dish made of onions, bulgur, and some kind of meat, while narrating a story about the Syrian refugee crisis. Written by Amir Nizar Zuabi, and based on interviews he conducted with refugees, the play is both fairly straightforward and also complicated, like kibbeh, which, though it consists of only a few basic ingredients, involves a multi-step process that includes chopping, frying, kneading, and shaping. The framing narrative is the woman’s search for Ashraf, a Syrian refugee who was, briefly, her lover. Early in the play, the woman — who is never named, but who we learn is of mixed German and Syrian descent — recalls her first encounter with Ashraf, whom she met in Paris and lured back home with the promise of kibbeh, a promise she now uses to lure the audience.

Instead of an orchestra or other musical ensemble, this play is accompanied by the familiar rhythms of home-cooking, the sounds of chopping, frying, scraping. And because the cooking unfolds in real time, this performance incorporates not only visual and auditory effects but also the olfactory, with the aroma of frying onions wafting through the air, all clearly aimed at evoking a sense of intimacy, immediacy, and home. During its most recent run in the Bay Area, the show played in home kitchens and communal spaces all through the month of March, and sold out fairly quickly. I attended the show at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center in Foster City, which was set in a room that had the feel of a classroom, with folding chairs set out in rows facing the kitchen — nothing like home. In this way, the play evoked at one and the same time a sense of home and of homelessness, of what it means to have the status of a refugee seeking shelter in places that, even when they do provide the basic necessities, nevertheless feel nothing like home.

As she chops and fries, stirs and kneads, the woman tells of her early days with Ashraf, about how so much of his time was spent trying to save friends and family still stuck in Syria, to help them get out. But within a few months, Ashraf is gone, without a trace. The woman, desperate to see him again, or at least learn what’s become of him, tries to track him down. Her journey takes her to Lebanon, Jordan, and finally to war-ravaged Syria. Along the way she meets survivors and refugees, and those who offer them shelter. Always, there is kibbeh, a food that does more than simply nourish the bodies of those who are frightened, adrift, and in danger. It’s a food that brings people together, that establishes trust and a sense of intimacy.

The play is not without moments of sheer horror, as when the narrator recalls her encounter with a girl who reveals a head covered with wounds, which, she explains, conceal worms that lay buried underneath. In Syria, the woman comes upon homes riddled with bullets, these are the “houses of holes” or “concrete lingerie” that dot the landscape in a country wracked by war. But there are is also quite a bit of humor, a reminder that laughter is life-sustaining, like stories, like kibbeh, bringing people together in moments of shared pleasure. We learn of a man who staged his own funeral so that he could surreptitiously flee the country, but is disappointed by the low turnout. Early on in the play, as she assembles the ingredients for kibbeh, the woman wonders aloud: “In the recipes they say take an onion … What kind of an onion? Big? Small? An onion is not a unit of measurement! It’s just like saying Take a man. But which man?”

I saw this show a few weeks before Passover, and was struck by parallels with the seder, an intricate performance that incorporates both storytelling and food in the ritual recalling of a traumatic history. As in the Passover seder, the interweaving of texts with food is central in Oh My Sweet Land, a reminder of the importance of stories, which, like food, provide nourishment, a sense of communal belonging, and a way to access memories that may otherwise prove too painful to touch.

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Shoshana Olidort is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Stanford University. Her research focuses on poetry as a mode of performing identity through a consideration of five 20th-century Jewish women poets.

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Banner Image from Golden Thread production of Oh My Sweet Land.

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