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They came from Damascus, from Halab, from Banias where the bombs fall day and night and the wounded children look like sleeping angels. Now they live in camps and abandoned buildings in Lebanon or Jordan. Now Syria is just a distant memory, a home forever lost.
A Syrian-German woman, played by Corinne Jaber, prepares a traditional dish in her kitchen, whilst telling us about her vanished lover. As she cooks the raw meat and the oil starts to sizzle, the tenderness of the meat merges with the moving stories and the smells of the dish stir deep memories of this ancient land – which is now being torn apart by this cruel war. Oh My Sweet Land is written and directed by Amir Nizar Zuabi, rising star of the Palestinian theatre.
How do you put the pressing situation in Syria on stage? The German-Syrian theatre maker and actress Corinne Jaber and the Palestinian writer-director Amir Nizar Zuabi approach the subject from a personal perspective. Jaber plays a woman of mixed Syrian and German parentage, like Jaber is herself. Making a traditional Syrian meat dish in her Parisian kitchen, she tells us about her search for her vanished Syrian lover Ashraf and the moving stories from the countless Syrian refugees she meets on her journey.
Initiated by Jaber, Oh My Sweet Land attempts to tell the story of the Syrian refugees in a way which stands apart from the political stories in the newspapers, to talk about the events on an intimate, human level. Raised in Germany and Canada as the daughter of a Syrian father and a German mother, Syria was always far removed from Jaber: the only connection with her country of birth was her father's cooking. However, after the civil war had broken out in Syria, she started listening to Syrian activists and refugees in her environment. Stirred by this renewed connection with her fatherland, very different from her connection through Syrian cooking, she decided to travel to the Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon to record the stories of some of the 2 million refugees. David Lan, artistic director of The Young Vic, then advised the actress to ask the Palestinian director and writer Amir Niza Zuabi to write and direct the play. After meeting up in Jordan, halfway between Syria and Israel, where they interviewed some more refugees, they worked together for a month in Haifa, the home of Zuabi, writing the script.
Based on true events and experiences, Oh My Sweet Land tells the story of a woman who is half German half Syrian, just like Jaber herself. In her Paris kitchen she's making kibbeh, a classic Syrian meat dish, the smells of which evoke memories of Syria. Whilst preparing the meal, she tells the audience of her encounter with Ashraf, an exiled medical worker from Damascus. Through Skype she helped him to organise the escape of a number of fellow Syrians. For three months the two of them were lovers. When Ashraf disappears, she goes on a labyrinthine journey in search of him, leading to encounters with some of Syria's 2 million refugees. In a Beirut cafe she meets a Syrian actor who had been imprisoned by the Assad regime for political activism. In Amman, she encounters a reporter who evaded captivity by staging his own funeral. Venturing into Syria itself, the people who have stayed behind tell her how their revolution has been hijacked and turned into a bitter sectarian war. As the bombs fall day and night in Damascus, Halab and Banias, for those who fled and now stay in the refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, Syria is just a distant memory, a home forever lost.
'Stunning reportage that gives Syria conflict human face,' read the headline of the British newspaper The Guardian after the premiere in London in April 2014. The Observer wrote that the stories remind us of the infinite human ability to adapt to our circumstances, even in the middle of a war zone. When, at the end of the play, the meal is ready, there won't be anyone in the audience who's still interested in food.