Amir Nizar Zuabi’s one-woman show Oh My Sweet Land is described as a love story from Syria. It explores the fortunes of a person of mixed Syrian-German parentage as she in turn describes the Syrian ‘civil war’, though she feels there is nothing civil about it.
The entire drama is set in a kitchen, but in this most poignant of hours, the woman, brilliantly played by Corrine Jaber, describes events that occur as she traverses several Middle Eastern countries. This said, food remains key as throughout she cooks the Syrian dish kubah, chopping up the ingredients before our eyes, and frying them in a pan in real time, as the gorgeous aromas pervade the air.
Cooking the classic dish, with its memories and associations, helps to fill a hole in her soul, and contained within this food are an abundance of metaphors. The pastry for kubah needs to be so thin that it resembles skin, which throughout the play is shown to be such a fragile protection for people. Similarly, the danger of hot oil splattering from the pan resembles the conflict in which anyone at any time could suddenly find themselves hit.
The woman begins her story as an ‘exile’ in Paris where she meets Ashraf who has also fled Syria. They share an imitate relationship, which helps her to feel an affinity with her ‘homeland’. When, however, she discovers him gone one morning she returns to the Middle East to find him. She eventually does so, but along the way she encounters myriads of people who have been affected by the war, and her descriptions of their stories, told in such heart rending detail, bring home the full horrors.
In this way, she also reveals how people who initially had no intention of fighting suddenly had no choice when (for example) children started to be shot. At the same time, she feels that what started as a revolution for freedom has been kidnapped by so many interested parties that no-one fighting can be classed as good anymore. This in turn has enabled the West to turn its back, dismissing everyone involved as being as bad as each other.
Yet while Oh My Sweet Land reveals a large-scale crisis, it is also a very personal story, albeit one that feels intrinsically tied up with the fate of a nation. The woman clearly loves Ashraf, and yet her love for him derives, initially at least, from a love for Syria. At the same time, had Ashraf not left Paris it is questionable whether she would have returned to the Middle East, and yet for all of her love for him she never has any intention of putting herself between him and his family, even when she finally meets them.
The play ends by describing the moment when the woman first sees images of gassed children, and challenges us by suggesting that, so long as we personally are not affected, we are not actually shocked. It is moments like these that make one realise that to review such a play in the traditional way, suggesting for example that a speech goes on too long when it is describing atrocities that are occurring under our very noses, is to miss the point. Indeed, to do so would be to come dangerously close to being that person the woman describes who isn’t shocked and doesn’t care. It is simply enough to say that Oh My Sweet Land is powerful, thought provoking and well worth a visit to the Young Vic to see.
Until 3 May 2014 at the Young Vic, 66 The Cut, Waterloo, London SE1 8LZ with start times of 2.45pm and 7.45pm. Tickets: 020 7922 2922 or visit the Young Vic website.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket from the Young Vic press team.