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Corine Jaber wanted to make a play on Syria, when she arrived in Lebanon in 2013 to interview refugees. An hour north of Beirut, living in a shack by a roadside, she met a family of grandparents and two grandchildren who had escaped Syria. As Jaber prepares to present the play, Oh My Sweet Land, as part of the Old World Theatre Festival in Delhi on October 14 and 15, she is
reminded of them.
“The grandparents were probably not old but looked incredibly old. Their daughter had been killed or abducted on a street and their son-in-law had gone looking for her. The old couple had to flee, so they took the two grandchildren and came to Lebanon. At this point, the little girl began to cry and the grandmother simply lifted up her djellaba and gave her old, shrivelled dried-up breast to this little girl,” says Jaber. “There was a little girl drinking from her grandmother’s breast though there was nothing to give in that breast. Everything that is wrong in the world was in that image for me,” she adds.
The incident did not make it into the play, but many others that Jaber and Israeli playwright-director Amir Nizar Zuabi encountered while creating the production have. Oh My Sweet Land is a love story of a woman cooking in her kitchen, frantically and obsessively, one particular dish, as she tells the audience the story of how she met and fell in love with a Syrian man called Ashraf who has disappeared. She travels to Jordan, Lebanon and Syria and, along the way, meets some of Syria’s four million refugees who open a political window for her.
The unnamed woman in the kitchen is, like Jaber, of Syrian and German descent and, as the political unrest in the Middle-East stirs her deep ancestral memories, she tries to play a role in the changing political landscape. “My father was Syrian and my mother is German, both of them refugees in different ways, and they met in the late 1960s in Germany. My father had left because he didn’t want to do his military service,” says Jaber, who was brought up in Germany and Canada and now lives in Paris.
Jaber’s personal stories intermingle with her protagonist’s in this hour-long solo show. Both “need to do something” — “I decided to do theatre because I know how to do theatre. She does other things — she gets involved, falls in love and goes on a journey,” says Jaber. Ashraf is based on a young activist that Jaber had met.
Kebbe, the dish that the protagonist cooks in the memory of Ashraf, is made of meat and looks like little hand grenades. “Audiences love cooking on stage, the smells of the onions frying and spices is intoxicating. People get drawn into the kitchen, which is good because they should be with me in the kitchen, metaphorically,” says Jaber. The outer crust of the kebbe is meat and ground wheat, and the stuffing is pine nuts, meat and spices. “Women cook this dish only on special occasions because it is a lot of hard work. You have to make sure the crust does not crack while frying,” says Jaber, who is in her forties and was fed kebbe by her grandmother.
The chopping, kneading and frying make for an active visual representation on stage and, intellectually, the audience is aware of the dish being in the shape of a weapon. But, after the play was staged in France (in French) and at the Young Vic theatre in London and in India in its English translation, nobody from the audience wanted to eat the dish after the play. “Throughout the play, the dish takes away something from the brutality and the harshness of the subject and, in the real sense of the word, sweetens the story,” says Jaber, “After digesting the content, nobody wants to taste the dish.”
The play, Jaber’s first solo in 25 years of acting (she was also part of Peter Brook’s The Mahabharata), has affected her personally. Her forte has been the grand women of classical and contemporary tragedy, such as Catherine of Aragon in Henry VIII, but now, she is in the mood for some comedy. One of the last times she worked on comedies was with a company from another war-torn region, Afghanistan. “Oh My Sweet Land is an incredibly, sadly so, repetitive story of human beings caught in a situation much bigger than themselves. It is a situation that they can do very little about and the very little they try to do about this makes up the play. It is about people trying to survive, to keep up hope, to maintain dignity, to eat, to feed, to laugh, to love, to be joyful, to resist in their own way,” she says.