Last week, the audience in a New Delhi auditorium sat in front an unusual setting during a theatre show. The artist ended her performance. As she walked off the stage, she left the door of the refrigerator open, revealing big portions of meat that resembled a slaughterhouse.
The lights were dimmed. In another corner of the stage, a dish was being cooked on the gas. The sound of oil, spices and boiling meat grew increasingly louder and I wondered if the production crew was preparing us for a final burst before the show ended. There was no “staged blast”, but the sequence left the audience confused – and unusually quiet for a few moments – about whether the show had ended or not.
The show ended, it turned out, giving way to belated applause by a thin audience of ‘Oh My Sweet Land,’ a play about a half-Syrian woman’s unexpected journey into the Arabic country devastated by war, where she meets some of the refugees.
Back home, in Paris, she falls in love with Ashraf, a Syrian man who comes to her apartment to plan fellow Syrians’ escape from the war-torn country.
Ashraf and the woman make love at night because, according to her, it’s the only antidote to the man’s agony. During the day, they’re in Paris and at night the house transforms into an atmospheric Syria. One night, he takes her to a deserted Parisian street that ends in a cul-de-sac. It reminds him of his home, he says, of sweet and now bloody memories.
And, after a three-month long affair with her, he disappears.
The un-named woman, played by Syrian-German actress Corinne Jaber, then travels to Syria to look for the exiled Damascene medical worker she fell in love with. She recounts a journey of exploding water melon fields and burning houses, a funereal hospital, a bullet-riddled Mercedes that reminds her of her father, and a narrow escape from a seedy interrogation cell. There’s also the tragic-comic story of a journalist who stages his own funeral to evade arrest.
While cooking Syrian dish kebah, the woman narrates all these – and many more – incidents with a schizophrenic intensity that smells of war, a fractured past and an uncertain future. The performance is pervaded with silences and outbursts, and lot of unpalatable plainspeak too. Occasionally, in the background, a Syrian song plays, creating a nostalgic, but painful, local setting marred by turmoil.
For the woman, who performs multiple roles in ‘Oh My Sweet Land’, cooking a traditional Syrian dish becomes a way of connecting to her homeland she doesn’t know much about. She’s half-Syrian and half-German like Jaber herself, who was brought up unacquainted with Syrian culture and language. But the only Syrian element in her house was the local food, her strongest connection to the Arabic nation.
So, on the stage, the woman prepares kebah with a compulsiveness that makes her homecoming torturous and suffocating. The aroma of stirring spices and warm oil – mouth-watering as it is – during the performance creates a semblance of irony as she narrates stories of pain and horror. This peculiar juxtaposition compliments the show’s title – ‘Oh My Sweet Land’.
The show debuted about two years ago in Switzerland and the actress has given more than 60 performances so far.
Themes of displacement and a neurosis linked to one’s homeland are at the heart of this play. And it is no coincidence that it’s directed by Palestinian Amir Nizar Zuabi.
In his earlier show, ‘I am Yusuf and This is My Brother’, a young man recollects the loss of his ancestors after the British left Palestine in 1948. Even in ‘Oh My Sweet Land’, the lines between the personal and the performative blur as Jaber draws upon a self-conscious opaqueness about Syria. The main character – and all the roles that she plays – cannot escape Syria or be part of it, peacefully and entirely. The image of the cul-de-sac in a Parisian street reverberates throughout the performance.
The final image, the woman tells us, is from a TV screen showing corpses of children, covered in white cloth, placed next to each other. They were victims of a deadly chemical gas attack in Syria.
She walks out of the stage, leaving the door of the refrigerator open and the simmering kebah on the gas. The mutton – not beef, Jaber says in the interview – is seen inside the fridge.
The show was staged as part of the yearly Old World Theatre Festival organized in New Delhi and suburb Gurgaon last week.