Oh My Sweet Land

Red onion

I am aware of a putrid smell walking backstage at the Young Vic to meet the director of ‘Oh My Sweet Land,’ Amir Nizar Zuabi. It is, apparently, cooking onions mingling with fake blood – two props from two different shows.

‘Oh My Sweet Land’ is about one of the most brutal civil wars of this century, but it is the onions rather than the blood that feature in this piece. Here, horrors are recounted rather than performed. In this one-person play, a nameless woman (German-Syrian actor Corinne Jaber) prepares ‘Kubah,’ a traditional Syrian dish, live on stage, as she tells the stories of people she encountered while searching refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan – and finally Syria itself for the man she loves. The stories, gathered by Zuabi and Jaber themselves, are powerful and inevitably heart-breaking.

“After not sleeping for a week

I gave my children sleeping pills so they calm down

they were so anxious

They went to sleep and that’s when the airplanes attacked”

The play impressed critics for bridging the divide between reporting and theatre and personalising a conflict which is so often brought to us by faceless figures and understood as distant suffering.

Zuabi is accustomed to dealing with serious subject matter. His directorial debut on the international stage was ‘Alive from Palestine: Stories Under Occupation,’ which was created in 2001 during the violent Second Intifada in his native Ramallah.

“I was working in a theatre in Ramallah and it shut because of the situation. A group of actors and I insisted we open it. We said if we don’t open it now it might never open again. So we opened it and stood in the room and said, ‘OK – now what?’ Because you can’t rehearse for 3 months because the situation is so explosive – one day one actor arrives and then he doesn’t come again for a week because of clashes. So we created this loose structure of monologues. They’d come early in the morning. We’d write something, improvise around a theme. Slowly, slowly we had enough to create an evening.”

The performances became popular with audiences craving entertainment as a respite from the violence. ‘Alive from Palestine’ toured extensively to critical acclaim in London, Tokyo, Gothenburg and New York.

Zuabi was subsequently invited to guest direct the Sam Sheppard play When the World was Green at the Young Vic Theatre in 2002. In 2004 he was invited by the Teatro Collosseo in Rome to direct In Prigone con Wittgenstein by Mariano Apria and in 2005, Zuabi presented Jidariyya, a play based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, at the Palestinian National Theatre.

In 2009 Zuabi débuted Saint-Saëns’s Opera Samson and Delilah at the Vlamesse Opera house in Antwerp. It was also the year he founded Shiber Hur Theatre Company in Ramallah – Shiber Hur translating as ‘an inch of freedom’ – which has created original plays as well as producing modern day adaptations of Kafka and Chekhov, works that find discomforting resonance in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Backstage at a London theatre, miles from the Middle East, I discover a warm, thoughtful man, with a gentle voice and slight accent who was generous with the time he had. Despite a long list of politically charged plays to his name, and a theatre company named ‘an inch of freedom,’ he says emphatically he does not believe in the power of art.

“Fear is fear, violence is violence and theatre is theatre. There is no comparison, there never is.”

“On the contrary! That is why I ask for only an inch. What it is, is a free space. We are not tied to any one source of income. Everyone who works for the company gets most of their income from elsewhere. Of course, we are very political but it is not what it is about. It is an inch to create good art, which is not easy back home.”

“Fear is fear, violence is violence and theatre is theatre. There is no comparison, there never is.”

Coming from a neighbouring country with a shared history he felt guilty for not writing about Syria. He believes theatre is an art form with unique immediacy, and this ability to “react” to fast-moving political events comes with responsibility.

The play was envisioned as a larger piece, complete with several actors and even dancers. Limited funds prohibited this, but, motivated by the responsibility to react, they did what they could.

The result is pacy, absorbing and brimming with humanity. Jaber plays a woman with a nervous mind and traumatised heart with affecting rawness.  It does not lack other performers as she almost seems to channel the people whose stories she tells. Her compulsion to share what she has seen infects the audience with the compulsion to listen.

The protagonist, like the actress who plays her, is half Syrian. A chance encounter with a Syrian refugee in a café near her Paris home sets the story in motion. She falls in love with him, and they are together until he eventually, inevitably, disappears one night to return to Syria to help the family he left behind. So begins an intensely personal journey into Syria.

The experiences of the people she encounters are bizarre and theatrical – fitting, considering the medium; disturbing, considering they are true. In Amman, Jordan she meets a journalist who staged his own death to escape persecution by the regime. He complains of being somewhat disappointed by the attendance at his funeral. She tells us about an actor she meets in Beirut who after being beaten nearly to death by the regime is saved by pointing out how his blood was seeping into the soldier’s shoes – “you shouldn’t wear them to work-they’re too nice to ruin.”

When researching the play, the people that Zuabi and Jaber met were forthcoming with their stories and desperate to be heard, and it is no wonder that the play has been described by critics as a “stunning piece of reportage.” Zuabi wanted people to tell their own story, intent on reducing himself to “only a mouthpiece.”

Those that he chose to include are not the worst he heard. “We spent a long time talking to people. We handpicked the five or six stories that were not too gruesome to tell. Most of the stories that come out of Syria are hard to fathom and I didn’t want to write them because when something is too gruesome people shut down and you can lose the audience.”

This is echoed in the play:

“People want to talk to you

They need you to hear

They all thank you for listening

They all ask you to hand it on to others

But I can’t listen anymore…

How fast do we become numb to pain?”

“Horrors can, and do, happen everywhere. But in Syria now, all the barriers are down, all the taboos have been broken.

“Horrors can, and do, happen everywhere. But in Syria now, all the barriers are down, all the taboos have been broken. There is no violence that won’t be committed and there is nothing to protect anyone anymore.”

These are stories you don’t hear on the news. Precious little lives, fraught with mundane difficulties, rendered meaningless by horror:

“This is my husband, she says

It’s been three months

He was wounded in an attack on Al Rassatan

We wanted children, couldn’t have any

The doctor said it was because of him

I loved him very much

I saw him die

They slashed his belly and stabbed him in the throat with a knife”

In war, there is always a battle for the “truth.” In the play, reporters, lawyers, doctors all give her insight, but it is the civilians who we learn from the most. The lawyer explains to her how he has been gathering data on fatalities, a different pile of paper for each battle, until he loses track:  “the data has swallowed me up. It is a killing field.”

The audience is acutely aware of this engulfing, inescapable violence. “Be safe,” she says to a young girl she meets. The resigned little child looks up at her and says: “What happens to all will happen to us.”

Though harrowing, the play was not intended to be solely a ghastly list of violence. The protagonist prepares a traditional dish on stage, evoking the heritage of a country rich in culture. The audience smells the onions as they cook, at first awakening the appetite, but by the end of the performance, nobody feels like eating.

“The dish she makes on stage… in Syria, your pride is wrapped up in your ability to make this dish. It is a very luscious dish, not something you make on a daily basis. This is for guests. To make her cook something like that is complicated. It looks simple but it takes a lot of skill to get right. Which is part of the tragedy. Now in Syria they are eating cardboard out of hunger.”

After illuminating individual stories, the play returns us to more familiar territory. She talks about a news report she glimpses in Amman after a chemical attack that killed hundreds of children, who are once again, faceless, nameless, their bodies literally numbered. A doctor who treated them is interviewed:

“He’s exhausted by the effort and by what he has seen

With unbelievable determination he talks and talks and talks

until his voice disappears in the middle of a word

Deflated he says: I have nothing more to say”

“There is nothing more to say.”

If Zuabi doesn’t believe it can provoke or transform an international response to the crisis in Syria, this kind of theatre can at least remind us of our shared humanity. Perhaps, even when there is nothing more to say, there is something different to say.

After all, Zuabi has taken plays to audiences all over the world – from conflict zones to cosmopolitan cities and “they always react in the same way. They laugh in the same place, get emotional in the same place, get bored in the same place. The journey of an audience through a piece is the same, all over the world, which makes you feel we are more connected and more similar then we would like to admit.”

Photo by Christine Vaufrey