The Trump Administration recently granted nearly 7,000 Syrians temporary permission to stay in the US for at least another 18 months. The civil war in Syria still rages, though you might not know it, given its absence from our news headlines here. How to stir up interest and compassion in the West? One San Francisco Bay Area theater company has an idea that involves two onions, a quarter cup of pine nuts and one pound of beef.
Like the Syrian refugees, Oh My Sweet Land has no fixed address. The one-woman show, written by Palestinian playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi, plays in kitchens, restaurants and community spaces, put on by Golden Thread Productions, a theatre company that focuses on Middle Eastern stories.
So it was that a few months ago, during the first run of the play in the Bay Area, two dozen people sat down in fold out chairs in the breakfast nook of a private home in Palo Alto home. Two feet away, on the other side of the kitchen counter, actress Nora el Samahy, began to cook kibbeh: fried bulgur wheat balls filled with meat and spices. (Recipes vary regionally, but they’re popular throughout the Middle East.)
"In the recipes, they say, take an onion. What kind of an onion? Big? Small? An onion is not a unit of measurement. It’s just like saying take a man. But which man?"
Right away, we're transported like Proust to intensely personal memories of watching someone else prepare dinner as we chat in the kitchen.
El Samahy plays a Syrian-German woman who relates the story of her affair with a Syrian refugee. The character never gives her name, but we learn a lot about kibbeh.
"Wheat, meat, heat: Syria!" she declares.
It’s the character’s reentry point back into the Syrian half of her heritage. She entices a handsome Syrian into her apartment with kibbeh. Later on, when she travels to Lebanon to look him up again … she finds that sharing food with guests is one way the people there cling to their humanity in the midst of a civil war.
Why Lebanon? According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, most of the five and a half million Syrians who fled their country settled just over the border in —Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. "Every vacant space is now a shelter for the refugees. Every shop or storage room has been rented out. Every room is now shared by many families," our unnamed character explains. "People spend all day waiting for something to happen."
El Samahy -- who by the way, is half Egyptian -- says she hopes Oh My Sweet Land encourages people to take action while it makes a difference.
"This is a way to generate conversation. I also have a kid, and is he going to ask me in 15 years, 'What did you do?' You know? I don’t have that answer. I mean, I donate money. We all have our causes, but I don't want to shut down. That’s why we do this work," el Samahy says.
"When you’re feeding people, they trust you — implicitly, because they’re going to eat your food! There’s a give and take that’s unspoken. It’s relaxing. It’s intimate. It’s all of that," says Torange Yeghiazarian, the play's director and artistic director for Golden Thread Productions.
Yeghiazarian adds, "Part of what we’re doing by going to people’s homes and workplaces is to say you’re not alone. We’re in this together and we can hold each other, and we talk about it, and possibly somebody will find a solution, you know?"
After the play, audience members are invited to hang out, eat Syrian food, and process what they’ve just seen. The smell of spices like cumin and sumac coming to life as they fry in sizzling oil has a way of transcending the walls people build between cultures. It’s also impossible to look away when el Samahy is two feet away, telling you about children killed in chemical weapons attacks.
"It’s just such a contrast -- the warmth and the security that we have, juxtaposed with what her characters have gone through. It’s visceral," says Jennifer Pien of Menlo Park.
The theatre company encourages those of a mind to donate time or money to consider doing so to the International Rescue Committee, one of a number of organizations that has been resettling Syrian refugees in California.
You might think the liberal San Francisco Bay Area already sympathizes with the plight of Syrian refugees, but most Syrian refugees in California are living in relatively conservative San Diego County and the Central Valley.
In part, that's due to the relative prices of real estate. But also, those organizations that settle refugees like to settle them near others from the same region. El Cajon in San Diego County, for instance, is home to a large and growing Arabic-speaking community, including many people from Iraq and Syria.
The second Bay Area run of Oh My Sweet Land plays in March, 2018. For more information, click here.