Nora el Samahy prepares kibbeh, a traditional Syrian meatball dish, in “Oh My Sweet Land.” (Courtesy David Allen Studio)

‘Oh My Sweet Land’ details Syrians’ struggles, with food

“Oh My Sweet Land” is a sensitive, savory one-woman show about the plight of Syrians.

“The aroma of the food fills the performance space within minutes; you are kind of engulfed in the food whether you like it or not,” says Torange Yeghiazarian, director of the monologue and its presenter, Golden Thread Productions, a 21-year-Bay Area troupe dedicated to telling stories from the Middle East.

In “Oh My Sweet Land,” Nora el Samahy plays a woman, known as “the actress,” who prepares a traditional Syrian dish, kibbeh, as she tells a searing tale about encounters with Syrian victims of their country’s conflict and violence. (There’s nothing “civil” about the war, she says.)

The intimate piece by Palestinian playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi (which premiered in London in 2014) is being performed in a two-week run in 10 different kitchens or places where people eat; it’s a pilot program for more shows in varied locations slated for March 2018.

So far, it’s been at a home kitchen in Berkeley, and in a residential backyard in Orinda; it comes to the GLIDE cafeteria in The City this week in a presentation Yeghiazarian is particularly pleased to offer to a broader (perhaps less affluent) audience than the company’s typical patron: “Our goal was to experiment with as diverse settings as we possibly could find,” says Yeghiazarian.

The experiment also includes post-show community conversations during which audiences share their reactions to the piece (and learn more about 11 million Syrians on the run today and U.S. efforts to assist them) while sampling Syrian food made by an Oakland-based caterer from the country.

Appetites are whetted, too, because as the storyteller shares devastating details of death, destruction, abuse, torture and dislocation, she also goes about the detailed business of making the Middle Eastern meatballs. She chops and fries onions, measures spices, grinds meat, shapes the spheres, and gets ready to drop them in boiling oil, heated to the exact temperature that will result in perfectly crisped thin skin.

That thinness provides a contrast to the thick skin Syrians must have to survive, and it’s among the many metaphors and poetic images throughout “Oh My Sweet Land,” which Zuabi wrote based on interviews with Syrians he met in refugee camps in Jordan.

Their varied experiences meld into the tale told by the kibbeh maker, a woman of Syrian-German descent living in Europe, who falls for a Syrian man in Paris, who subsequently disappears.

As she searches for him, she meets Syrians who describe the seemingly endless shooting, bombs, burning, chemical attacks and devastation at home, and the lengths to which they went (one reporter faked his own death) to escape.

Still, there’s a modicum of hope. As she’s about to cook her meat morsels, she says, “Decent people can’t look away from what is happening if even now there can be mass destruction of women and children by gas. … Just listen to the oil sizzling in the pan and pray that the flying drops miss the white of your eyes.”

IF YOU GO

Oh My Sweet Land
Presented by Golden Thread Productions
Where: GLIDE, 330 Ellis St., S.F.
When: 2 p.m. Oct. 17
Admission: Free; registration requested
Contact: www.goldenthread.org for details about more performances/tickets ($45-$60).
Amir Nizar ZuabikibbehNora el SamahyOh My Sweet LandRefugeesSyriaTheaterTorange Yeghiazarian

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