One-Woman Play Captures Yearning for Home

by Jean Schiffman

“Oh My Sweet Land”—presented by Golden Thread Productions—poignantly addresses Syrian humanitarian crisis.

To write a play about a global issue the size and scope of the Syrian refugee crisis, and to personalize it, can seem like an insurmountable challenge, says Torange Yeghiazarian, founder/artistic director of San Francisco’s Golden Thread Productions. Yet playwright/director Amir Nizar Zuabi accomplished just that with his one-actor drama “Oh My Sweet Land,” conceived with (and initially performed by) actress Corinne Jaber. Now Yeghiazarian is directing the play’s West Coast premiere, performed by local actress Nora el Samahy.

In “Oh My Sweet Land,” a woman—like Jaber, part German, part Syrian, who lives in Paris—prepares a traditional Syrian dish, kubah, as she relates her journey to the Middle East in search of her lover, Ashraf. A Syrian who escaped to Paris after he was arrested by the Assad regime, Ashraf has suddenly disappeared. As she tells the stories of some of the refugees she meets on her dangerous quest, she is always, in real theatrical time, cooking.

“Oh My Sweet Land” is informed not only by the conversations that Jaber and Zuabi had
with Syrian refugees in camps in Jordan but also by stories Jaber heard when she continued on to Lebanon and by both Jaber’s and Zuabi’s background and memories—Zuabi, a Palestinian, lives in Haifa.

“The strength of the piece,” says Yeghiazarian, “is that it’s personal and intimate but maintains a larger vision and distance.” To emphasize the personal—and to keep the “distance” metaphorical and not literal—she is presenting “Oh My Sweet Land” in a series of Bay Area kitchens in both private homes and community centers. In the home kitchens, el Samahy will cook and perform with the audience of 10 to 20 seated in a semi-circle around her. Sound effects are actual sizzling, boiling, simmering, chopping, mincing, all slightly amplified. Yeghiazarian told el Samahy that the biggest challenge would be acting while frying onions.

“I may be delusional,” counters el Samahy, “but I’m not nervous about cooking. I love having a task as an actor—it’s so grounding.” 

Like the woman in “Oh My Sweet Land”—and like Yeghiazarian, who was born in Iran of Armenian heritage, the daughter of a Christian father and a Muslim mother—el Samahy has a dual cultural identity: She was born in Libya to an Egyptian father and an American mother, raised in Cairo and came to the U.S. for college. She speaks Arabic, has extended family in Egypt and can identify with her character’s feeling of being an outsider wherever she is. “The deep connection with the food is what ties her to her lineage, her heritage,” muses el Samahy. “In the Arab world, hospitality and nourishing your children and family and friends is paramount.”

Zuabi concurs. “Where I come from,” he says, “hospitality, feeding you, is a core value. Syrian cuisine is considered the best. For me it was a no-brainer that the play needs to do with food and the sensuality of food, because it’s about a culture that’s under attack [and food celebrates] what this culture is.” He chose kubah because it is simple but not too simple: “Your hand, your memory, your fingers, all work to make this perfect dish. The croquettes… the end result, is very gentle and beautiful.” 

In the play, the woman, seeking Ashraf, goes first into refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon then ventures into war-torn Syria itself. “Ashraf represents her connection to Syria,” el Samahy says. “[This character] wants to pay greater witness. During this period of time, she’s entrenched in a world so far from her daily life it swallows her up. She’s consumed by it, and by him. She needs to come face to face with it, see what she’s capable of.”

Suffused with rich sensorial detail, a dollop of mordant humor and an ineffable yearning for home, “Oh My Sweet Land” is about characters, says Yeghiazarian, who are driven by urgency, a need for protection and the need to protect. For el Samahy, the play is a way to “just be with this huge humanitarian crisis … to gather and address it through art.”

October 12 → 22 and February 26 → March 25

Golden Thread Productions

Various kitchens 626-4061