In Kitchens Across New York, 'Oh My Sweet Land' Serves Up Stories Of Syria

Sep 20, 2017
Originally published on October 2, 2017 10:28 am

Many plays have been called "kitchen sink" dramas because of their attempts at realism, but Oh My Sweet Land takes that to the extreme. It uses not just the sink but also the stove, the refrigerator, a chopping board and a very big knife — and it's being performed in kitchens across New York.

The kitchen that served as the play's stage in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, was clean and organized with baskets of lemons and rows of cooking oil sitting nearby. The production begins with music on a radio and actress Nadine Malouf puttering around the space — putting a package of meat in the fridge, sautéing pine nuts. "Since I came back, I make kubah again and again, as if I want to close a hole in my soul," she says. Malouf plays an unnamed Syrian-American who tells stories of Syria's civil war as she prepares that dish.

"I had to guarantee that the audience tears up, so there's a lot of onion cutting," jokes Amir Nizar Zuabi, the Palestinian playwright and director of Oh My Sweet Land.

He got the idea for the play several years ago when he traveled to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. Zuabi adapted the stories he heard there and, since food and hospitality are a cornerstone of Arab culture, he included cooking. In one scene, Malouf's character shares a memory of her father shouting, "Tfadloo!" with a plate of food in his hand, inviting passers-by to come in and eat or have coffee.

"I didn't want to do a horror show," Zuabi says. "It's important to remember that this is an attack on a culture, not just the political situation; it's an attack on the way of life. And the loss in Syria is also ... the loss of normality, of just the ability to break bread together and meet."

The play's narrator tells the harrowing story of how she followed her lover, a Syrian exile, when he left Brooklyn to rescue his family in the Middle East. Malouf (an Australian of Middle Eastern and European descent) says processing the emotions of her character while cooking presented a challenge. "I've never done anything so difficult before. ... I have nicked myself a few times, I've burnt myself with oil. ... It was a little bit like, you know, rubbing your belly and tapping your head at the same time."

As the kitchen gets messier, so does the story. Moments of the narrator's traumatic trip to Lebanon, Jordan and Syria are replayed in vivid detail. In Tafas, Syria, she says, "Some of the buildings have been so heavily shelled, they seem to defy gravity. They look like lace, like concrete lingerie."

For the audience and the actress, Oh My Sweet Land is an almost painfully intimate experience. Malouf says, "You [can] tell immediately who doesn't want you to look at them. And I understand that because there's, you know, a safety in the audience being in the dark and the actors on the stage — that's very safe for both parties. Here, no one is safe."

After the show, audience members gathered on the sidewalk outside to chat and eat baklava. Allison Martin, a nurse practitioner, called the experience "incredibly visceral." "Being in the small space and [to] smell the onions midway through really brings the far away to right here in front of us."

And that's the point of Oh My Sweet Land — the onions, spices and stories linger long after the final bow.

Andrew Limbong and Rose Friedman produced and edited this story for broadcast, and Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Many plays have been called kitchen sink dramas because of their attempts at realism. A new play takes that to the extreme. "Oh My Sweet Land" uses not only the sink but the stove, refrigerator, food processor, a chopping board and a very big knife in kitchens all across New York. In these intimate settings, audiences watch an actress prepare a typical Syrian dish and tell stories about the civil war. Here's Jeff Lunden.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: The kitchen I went to in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, was clean and organized - baskets of lemons, rows of cooking oil. As music played on the radio, a woman with long, curly hair puttered around the kitchen, putting a package of meat in the fridge, sauteing pine nuts. Then she began to speak.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OH MY SWEET LAND")

NADINE MALOUF: (As character) Since I came back, I make kibbeh again and again as if I want to close a hole in my soul.

AMIR NIZAR ZUABI: I had to guarantee that the audience tears up, so there's a lot of onion cutting.

LUNDEN: That's Amir Nizar Zuabi, the playwright and director of "Oh My Sweet Land." A Palestinian, he got the idea for the play several years ago when he traveled to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. He adapted several of the stories he heard. And since food and hospitality are a cornerstone of Arab culture, he included cooking.

ZUABI: I didn't want to do a horror show. It's important to remember that this is an attack on a culture. Not just the political situation, it's an attack on the way of life. And the loss in Syria is also this. It's the loss of normality, of just the ability to break bread together and meet.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OH MY SWEET LAND")

MALOUF: (As character) I (laughter) remember my father standing at the window, shouting (foreign language spoken) to strangers when they walked by (laughter). Come in. Eat - people looking at the strange man holding a plate of food at the window, inviting passers-by in for coffee or food. (Foreign language spoken).

I had never done anything so difficult before (laughter).

LUNDEN: Actress Nadine Malouf not only tells the harrowing story of a woman who follows her Syrian lover to the Middle East but cooks kibbeh while she tells it.

MALOUF: I have nicked myself a few times. I've burnt myself with oil. I've - you know, wounds - war wounds.

LUNDEN: The Australian actress of Middle Eastern and European descent says dealing with the emotions and cooking...

MALOUF: It was a little bit like, you know, rubbing your belly and tapping your head at the same time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OH MY SWEET LAND")

MALOUF: (As character) All around us, Syrians argue loudly about politics.

LUNDEN: As the kitchen gets messier, so does the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OH MY SWEET LAND")

MALOUF: (As character) We arrive in Tafas. Some of the buildings have been so heavily shelled, they seem to defy gravity. They look like lace, like concrete lingerie.

LUNDEN: Watching the play in this setting becomes almost painfully intimate for both the audience and the actor, says Nadine Malouf.

MALOUF: You tell immediately, you know, like, who doesn't want you to look at them. And I understand that because there's, you know, a safety in the audience being in the dark and the actors on the stage. And that's very safe for both parties. Here, no one is safe (laughter).

LUNDEN: After the show, audience members stood outside to chat and eat a piece of baklava. Allison Martin, a nurse practitioner, called the experience incredibly visceral.

ALLISON MARTIN: Being in the small space and the smell of the onions midway through really brings the far away to right here in front of us.

LUNDEN: And that's the point of "Oh My Sweet Land." The onions, spices and stories linger long after the final bow. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOWERCASE NOISES' "THE HUNGRY YEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.