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A new solo show fills you with food, information, and empathy
During a run-through of Amir Nizar Zuabi's one-woman play Oh My Sweet Land, star Nadine Malouf was stirring a sizzling pan of meat and onions when it suddenly slid off the stove. "I managed to catch the pan with the spoon I was using!" she says. Why was she cooking when she should have been acting you may wonder? Because Zuabi's script calls for her to prepare kibbeh, a traditional Middle Eastern dish, while relating real-life tales of the ongoing Syrian civil war.
As Malouf has learned, cooking while performing is not for the faint of heart. "I've definitely cut myself, I've burned myself," she says. But that sense of danger feeds into her character, an unnamed Syrian-American woman who travels to the Middle East in search of her lover and speaks to many refugees along the way. She shares their harrowing stories while making the meal, not in a theatre but in actual kitchens of New Yorkers who volunteered to host this immersive Play Company production.
Oh My Sweet Land had its world premiere in 2014 at London's Young Vic, but for its American debut, playwright-director Zuabi opted for this more visceral staging. "I wanted it to be very up close and personal," he says. It's a presentation that befits its inspiration: a 2013 trip Zuabi took to a refugee camp in Irbid, Jordan with actress Corinne Jaber, the star of the original production. Over 10 days, they interviewed more than 100 Syrian refugees, and Zuabi was struck by their largesse despite the trauma they had experienced.
"There wasn't a place we entered where we weren't fed," he recalls "Whatever they had, if it was an orange, immediately it would be peeled and offered. And these people went through hell. This warmth and generosity is in the core of the Arab culture," says Zuabi, a Palestinian who currently lives in Haifa, Israel.
As a symbol of that bigheartedness, Zuabi made food integral to the show. He chose kibbeh, a croquette that has variations in many Middle Eastern countries. It is through the methodical tasks of chopping, mincing, and frying that Malouf tells the stories of the refugees Zuabi encountered. "'Let me tell you what's happening to us so you can tell other people' -- I heard that a lot in the refugee camp," he recalls. "'Tell the world.'"
And that's exactly what Zuabi and Malouf are doing with this play, which provides an intimate look at the humans behind the headlines. In an era when leaders are debating whether or not to allow Syrian refugees into their countries, the show is an urgent plea for empathy. "The whole world really needs to open its doors to the people who are fleeing this conflict," says Malouf, who has Syrian, Italian, French, Greek, and Lebanese heritage. "It's so devastating to feel that these people have nowhere to go."
While Zuabi realizes Oh My Sweet Land won't impact foreign policy, he hopes it will inspire viewers to take action in their own small ways. "For some, it's to think of it from a different perspective," he says. "For some, it's to get into an argument with a neighbor who refuses refugees. For someone else, it will be about how do we treat others in our community who are Syrian? I just think in today's world, we need to understand that we are one tissue. We have the resources to make changes around the world, and Syria is one of many horrible tragedies that are happening."
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Top image: Nadine Malouf in Oh My Sweet Land. Photos by Pavel Antonov
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