The conceit centered around this monologue lasting 68 minutes, is food. Not just any food, but a Syrian specialty, Kubah. It’s important because Kubah could have been Baklava for instance [which indeed gets a special mention] but it’s Kubah for a specific reason.
I would defy anyone watching Oh My Sweet Land to not think, initially, of a generic cookery program. The paralleling of such a thing, the import of such a Western daytime TV idea, is not as crude or as incongruous as it seems- the hard metallic kitchen table and utensils, all laid out, ready and waiting, the cooker set towards the back and disappearing into the darkness, the white tall fridge face on, all without the boundary of a set wall to give it some specific space, makes one think of a TV set. But the cold clinical aesthetic of it could remind one of the execution table too.
We begin with the actress in her modern day flat in Paris, trying to make Kubah. As she prepares her ingredients, she narrates a series of stories, reminiscing about her Syrian Grandmother cooking Kubah, ‘she took a piece of blood dripping meat’, living in Germany with her parents and driving around in an on loan white Mercedes Benz with red upholstery which ‘sticks to the skin of my legs’, until its driven to the Syrian border. We meet Ashraf, years later, whom she finds in Café Agate after the Syrian revolution and with whom she has an affair, bringing us up to date with the present Syrian conflict. He too, becomes a memory, a memory however, she chooses to pursue across the battle lands of Syria and so bringing her into contact with the common man; the Syrian civilian we don’t hear much about these days, the ordinary man trying to live his or her life teaching, or saving lives, trying to keep Syria’s social infrastructure intact whilst the rebels, soldiers and martyrs all vie for press coverage. All have stories of pain and loss to tell which are related to the audience.
The food motif serves a number of purposes. It draws the audience in like a communal group sitting around a campfire, or like a TV audience, ready for some storytelling, which is the form the play takes. It lulls one into a false sense of security and both celebrates Syrian culture and contrarily, gives a sense of a community being literally bombed and hacked out of existence. It serves to enhance the tension felt around the taking of life, the imminence of war, the stress of not being in control, of things ‘boiling over’ like the oil in the cooking pot.
The continual sense of tension watching this production comes from the act of the cooking itself. Time and again the food gets burnt as the actress details a refugee’s horrific story. Time and again one feels anxious that the oil will over run the cooking pot- a metaphor surely for Syrian ‘resilience? - Five families scattered under the trees, They’re eating dinner calmly, they look almost happy’. But the food is also violent. It both nourishes and becomes dangerous- as Corinne chops away at the meat to make it as thin as possible, she tells of a wife’s distress in Akkar over her husband’s death- ‘They slashed his belly and stabbed him in the throat with a knife’.. Corrine’s hand becomes stuck, over and over, stabbing at the table as she talks, the beat of the knife both emphasizing the women’s pain, the abusing soldier’s anger and the actresses own inability to help the woman. Exploding watermelons she comes across in a field, left out too long in the sun, are ‘violated, bleeding onto the charred soil’ like the people that tended them, like the burning people of Taffas, where its inhabitants ran ‘burning into the streets’.
The play is about pain. ‘I cringe every time I heard about Syria, or Kubah, or Arabs, Now I cringe because of Ashraf, Now I spend my days making Kubah, as if this can stifle the pain’. It’s also about post traumatic stress syndrome and a person being stuck in repetitive action, as if reliving the act of making Kubah time over, a ritual relating to her grandmother Teta Amina’s ‘meaty round face’, will cleanse her of her trauma and that of Syria’s. But the final words come with a warning- ‘Just listen to the oil sizzling in the pan and pray that the flying drops miss the white of your eyes..’ and who can forgot that lasting final image of the fridge door being thrown open to reveal its bloody meat carcasses- there to be used in show after a show, there to be used in Kubah after Kubah, there as a reminder of war after to war and death after death, until the fridge is empty.
Oh My Sweet Land continues at the Young Vic until 3 May 2014
Written & directed by Amir izar Zuabi
Conceived and performed by Corinne Jaber
Light by Jackie Shemesh
Sound by Alex Twiselton & Amy Bramma
Stage Manager Sarah Alford-Smith
Lighting Operator Rachel Bottomley