“Can you look away?” Corinne Jaber asks at one point in her solo performance of Oh my sweet land, a play about the Syrian conflict. I cringe in my seat. I’ve been doing just that for the last year. Every time pictures of that devastated land appear on a news channel I switch off. If you watch, you feel helpless. You don’t know who is bombing whom and for what reason. If you don’t watch, you feel callous. In the last three years the civil war -- “There’s nothing civil about it,” says Jaber with grim humour -- has devoured the lives of two lakh people and rendered two million homeless. Ordinary people’s homes are now “so full of holes they look like lace, like concrete lingerie," says Jaber.
Amir Nizar Zuabi’s Oh my sweet land, was staged at the Prithvi Theatre festival on Monday. The setting is a kitchen in Paris. The kitchen is equipped with a large work table, pots and pans, a fridge and a cooking range. You wonder how this can be a suitable setting for a play about the worst humanitarian crisis of our times. But, as the play unfolds, you see how central it is to what the play is saying.
In this multi-layered play, the kitchen forms the core layer. This is little Syria in Paris. The German-Syrian narrator remembers the kubah her father used to make. She cooks kubah on the stage, turning the dumplings into a metaphor for the beloved homeland and equally, for the bloodshed that is happening there. The cooking involves slabs of meat being hacked and minced, and bulgar dough being pummeled and kneaded. Then follows the creative calm of moulding the dough skins thin, stuffing them with minced lamb and shaping them into oblong balls ready for frying. Jaber plays these processes off against the horrific stories she tells. The moulding and shaping is so mesmerising that you’re almost lulled into believing all is well with the world. But Jaber is still talking of blood and bombings.
The stories themselves form the second layer of the play. Occasionally, Jaber bangs the table or thrusts her arms out, fingers splayed, as though to ward off an attack. But otherwise, her gestures are restrained, picking up the undertones and overtones of her speech that ranges from an overall pitch of engaging communication to sotto voce muttering to, once, a barely audible whisper. This is the voice of the sympathiser, connected yet not connected, unable to stop the aggressor or help the victim. All that this woman (and we) can do is to listen with our hearts and minds to the stories people tell.
One woman tells Jaber that her husband was hacked down on the road, then attacked and killed in the hospital. But “I am better now,” she says. If you have lost everything but your life, the only way you can live is by telling yourself you are ‘better’. We call this resilience. A young girl feels better because she no longer has worms in her head wounds. An actor has been beaten to pulp by a representative of the State who likes neither his acting nor his political opinions. As he lies on the floor, bleeding, he sees a way out of the torture. He calls his tormentor’s attention to the blood that’s creeping into his beautiful shoes. The trick works. He is saved. A crazed farmer walks round and round the huge crater that a bomb has made in his field, asking repetitively, “But why did they bomb my field?”
A cover story that declares the power of love forms the outermost layer of the play. The narrator has fallen in love with Ashraf, a Syrian activist she has met in Paris. She helps him help others to flee their homeland with fake passports. For three months they are lovers. Then one day Ashraf disappears. Torn by anxiety, the narrator sets off on a journey through Jordan and Lebanon to Syria to find him. Finally, through a chain of contacts, she does. He is back with his wife and daughter. He is safe. Temporarily. That is all she wants to know.
The oil is now boiling on the stove ready for the kubah to be fried. Jaber steps forward. “Just listen to the oil sizzling in the pan and pray that the flying drops miss the whites of your eyes.” Her voice is chatty, but the quietness of the metaphor makes your blood run cold.
Published On : 12-11-2014