Nabra Nelson: Salaam alaikum. Welcome to Kunafa and Shay, a podcast produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. Kunafa and Shay discusses and analyzes contemporary and historical Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, theatre from across the region.
Marina J Bergenstock: I’m Marina.
Nabra: And I’m Nabra.
Marina: And we’re your hosts.
Nabra: This season, we’ll be focusing on twenty-first-century MENA theatre, highlighting contemporary MENA plays and playwrights, spotlighting international community-engaged work in the Arab world, and pondering the present and future of MENA theatre in the US. Our name, Kunafa and Shay, invites you into the discussion in the best way we know how, with complex and delicious sweets like kunafa and perfectly warm tea or, in Arabic, shay.
Marina: Kunafa and Shay is a place to share experiences, ideas, and sometimes to engage with our differences. In each country in the Arab world, you’ll find kunafa made differently. In that way, we also lean into the diversity, complexity, and robust flavors of MENA theatre. We bring our own perspectives, research, and special guests in order to start a dialogue and encourage further learning and discussion.
Nabra: Yalla. Grab your tea. The shay is just right.
Marina: In today’s episode, we’re going to talk about food. You can’t talk about the MENA world without talking about food. It’s no coincidence that this podcast is called Kunafa and Shay. Food is an integral part of the MENA identity, personal expression, and community building. In this episode, we focus on plays where food is a central component, like Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader’s Food and Fadwa, Amir Nizar Zuabi’s This is Who I Am and Oh My Sweet Land, and Rohina Malik’s Unveiled.
I also want to mention something quickly that was said to me recently and was helpful in broadening my perspective here. I was giving a presentation on theatre in my Arabic class, and my ustedha, my professor, said something like, “I’m so glad you’re talking about culture in the Middle East outside of just food.” And I thought about that a lot. Food is an access point to many cultures. It can be seen as a neutral ground, and because people like certain cuisines, it can feel like they’ve gained insight into a culture.
However, the danger can come in when someone homogenizes all Middle Eastern food. Can you imagine someone saying that they like “United States food”? What a broad category. Even Southern food in the US is pretty broad. And something else to consider as we think about this is the fact that diaspora and mass migration influenced how food and cuisines changed over time. So refugees, immigrants, and diasporic peoples bring with them elements of their own culture, heritage, and food. Which is, of course, different than fusion foods, which sort of melds foods together in a different way, and we see that a lot in the United States. Then there are appropriated things we can talk about, like brownie batter hummus.
Nabra: Yes. Hummus, the Middle Eastern dish to appropriate, let me tell you. Let me just set the record straight, a little bit of a sidebar, but hummus just means chickpeas. So, if you’re claiming edamame hummus or something like that, it’s not actually hummus. And even if you have chickpeas in there, it doesn’t mean that you should add brownie batter or some nonsense, like why? I just wonder why. Is it actually better with the chickpeas? I just say, just eat brownies. So, that’s my sidebar about hummus specifically, it’s like the poster child for Middle Eastern cuisine appropriation, so very appropriate that you brought that up, Marina.
But to be real, I actually have mixed feelings when food is the only touchpoint someone has about Middle Eastern culture. When I tell someone that I’m Arab, often they’ll say something like, “Oh, I love falafel” or, “I love hummus.” And it’s such a weird response regardless, but I’m not always annoyed by it in reality. In some cases, I’m just glad people have tried our food and enjoy it, especially when they say something a bit more niche like, “I love shawarma,” or even better something specifically Egyptian, because I’m Egyptian, like, “I love koshari.” And then I’m like okay, you know we’re not a monolith, and you’re appreciating my culture through food? Yay. Come over for dinner sometime, I’ll cook you some real Egyptian food.
Our food is a point of pride for many of us, so I’m not always annoyed by the whole “I love koshari” situation that people do. Or even sometimes, “I love falafel.” I love that you love falafel. Come over, I’ll try to make you some. What annoys me is when that’s the only touchpoint a person has for Middle Eastern culture, and they’re reducing our culture to our food. Some people tokenize or exotify Arab culture through food by reducing our culture in their minds to the select foods you can find in the US, like falafel, and thinking that’s all we have to offer the world. Or by equating us to the delicious, exotic flavors of our food, that are just so unlike American flavors: “But I just love it, it’s so unique and exotic and oriental.” Both of these approaches are a reduction, a simplification. They’re taking the people out of the culture and making it all about the food, which is more digestible than our complex and diverse cultures, histories, and politics.
Of course, in these plays by MENA playwrights, food is an element through which they explore this complexity. It’s a vessel that holds histories, politics, family dynamics, and the fullness of their culture. When I serve you a plate of koshari that I made, I’m serving you a lifetime of cultural learnings in the kitchen and flavors that you could only taste in my koshari, because it was passed down to me from my grandmother and my mother. In serving you my koshari, I could tell you about how I first learned Arabic in the kitchen when my mom would ask me to get her the skeena instead of knife. I could tell you all about the differences between my koshari and the one you would get in the streets in Cairo. I could also tell you about how this is not a Nubian dish, and about the ways in which Egypt colonized Nubia, which is where my family’s from, and that’s why my family makes koshari. And that koshari was influenced by India and Italy anyways, and about Egypt’s history of being colonized.
That’s the depth that these plays introduce when they integrate food. Just serving a plate can have deep connotations and histories, and the act of making and serving food is a beautiful exchange that’s important to every culture in the world. Through food, we can engage in our commonalities and differences, digest complexities, and have fun doing it.
Marina: When Nabra and I were planning this episode, we talked about the sheer amount of dishes on the table that we had when we would eat together, especially in Egypt. So, my least favorite part of ordering food in the US is that you have to choose one or two dishes. But sharing dishes has felt much more common when I’ve eaten with friends in the MENA world, and it’s amazing because I’ve gotten to try a lot of different foods this way.
Nabra: Yeah. My family, we literally don’t order separately at restaurants. We’ve always, my whole life, consulted on what we’re ordering, because it’s for everyone. And you just can’t have one dish in a meal. And now that I live alone with just my partner, I have reduced... I can’t have like ten dishes on the table, unfortunately. That would be a little bit excessive. But I have weird rules for meals now, like everything on your plate can’t be the same color, because then it just feels like one dish. If you have chicken and potatoes, it just feels like it’s one thing. So, you have to have something else, preferably there will be a dip with the dish so you can change up the flavors. There’s always going to be a salad and a soup, especially when you’re eating with lots of people or during Ramadan.
And when you have people over, you just always have to cook a bunch of stuff, that’s just a given. Every time I have people over, my mom has people over, we have like ten different dishes, even if it’s just one guest, it’s like okay, we’re doing this. And I think this comes from almost like a— to borrow a different culture’s word, tapas-like culture in many places in parts of the Middle East. And it also kind of reminds me of Korean banchan, the side dishes that you’re served with every meal in Korea. And in Korea, I think they’re usually often the same, or maybe that was just at the restaurants I went to as a foreigner. I don’t know, you’ve got the kimchi of course, you’ve got the pickled radishes, the beansprouts, etc. But in Egypt it’s more like you just need to have a big diversity of dishes on the table to choose from. And I’m not really sure why that is, what the core of that is, but to me it just inherently makes a lot of sense.
Marina: Yes, so I love hearing you talk about that, Nabra, and it makes so much sense. I think that’s something that I really enjoyed, is just really feeling close to people as you are sharing food with them, and experiencing different plates and different tastes, and really seeing what it means to eat collectively in that way. Instead of saying, “This is mine, this is my food, and I will eat this.” There’s a different sharing that’s involved. And this is a really good time to give a shout out to Jamil Khoury of Silk Road Rising for the title of this episode, which is inspired by something he said during Play Co’s Zoom panel, which was called Story as Resistance: The Joys, the Heartbreak and the Food. This episode is called “Culinary Diplomacy” based on what Jamil was saying in that episode, and how food can be used to disarm people and bring them in, especially when these people think that you might have nothing in common, and food can become this bridge to help bridge the gaps between people.
And he gave some specific examples of where that’s happened in a diplomatic manner, which I think is really compelling, and his stories to tell. But I also think of being at Silk Road Rising and always having food there, there’s always food, people were always bringing food, the company was providing it. And it was a way that people could let down their guard and have moments together. And so he talks about this being a cultural and heritage asset, and I think that’s a really beautiful way to put it. I also think if you think back to the play Oslo, which we had some thoughts on, because the Oslo Accords notoriously have not worked. But in this play, there are big moments of diplomacy happening over food. So, I think that’s another interesting thing.
But that can lead us to talk about our favorite plays that use food as a way to bring people together, to create symbolic connections across time and space, and to highlight the beautiful moments that can be spent together, cooking and sharing in food. So, we’ll start with my personal favorite play Food and Fadwa by Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader. I directed this as my MFA thesis play at the University of Iowa and I think it was one of the most gorgeous plays.
Nabra: Food and Fadwa is set in occupied Palestine, where we see Fadwa Faranesh prepping for her little sister Dalal’s upcoming wedding. Fadwa is an incredible cook, and while she creates meals, she pretends that she’s on her own cooking show, called Ecklit el Hob, which means “Food of Love.” And this resonated for me deeply, because this is what I do when I cook. I always pretend I’m in a cooking show, and it’s a lot of fun, and I highly recommend it.
From a dramatic perspective, this gives the audience a narrator, of course, who can describe certain aspects of the food and culture to them, which is very useful. And this cooking show is also one of Fadwa’s ways of coping with the uncontrollable nature of life under occupation, and with her own love life, which has been put on hold because of her father’s illness. Baba, her father, is getting sicker with Alzheimer’s and is having trouble remembering to take his medication and is forgetting who other people in the household are.
Family visits from the United States for the wedding, creating tension in the house. Fadwa’s former lover, Youssif, returns with her cousin Hayat, who’s a famous chef in the United States. Youssif and Hayat are now an item, which creates more tension. This tension only intensifies when there’s a lockdown and everybody must stay home, except for Dalal’s fiancé, who wasn’t at home when the lockdown went into effect. And now, they aren’t sure where he is.
Marina: This summary doesn’t, of course, go through every detail of the play, but I’m hoping you will decide to read it to see how it ends. It’s one of the plays that makes me laugh and cry every time I read it.
Nabra: One of the themes of the piece is the struggle between Fadwa and Hayat, whose names mean sacrifice and life, respectively. Fadwa wants to stay in Palestine, first to take her of her father but, finally, because it’s where she feels like she belongs. Fadwa’s home cooking is contrasted with Hayat’s throughout the play. Hayat may be famous in the US, but her fame comes from creating fusion recipes that change the Palestinian ingredients to create flavors that will appeal to a wider audience, which sows further discord between the two. Hayat uses her mom’s last name for PR purposes, which is more ethnic, and is even featured in a magazine with the title “Ethnic Authentics We Love and Admire: Chef Hayat Faranesh.”
Marina: So, we’re going to you just a really quick clip from the play, and Nabra, you’ll play Hayat, and I’ll play Fadwa.
Nabra (as Hayat): Your mom was the reason I started cooking. I still make the date cookies she taught us how to make when we were kids, my favorites. I put the recipe in my cookbook, Aunt Lena’s Date Delights.
Marina (as Fadwa): But you changed the recipe.
Nabra (as Hayat): Oh, just a smidge. A few things here and there, but basically the same. I do it all the time, I love to play. You know, I’m happy to show you a few tricks for the wedding. I created this amazing recipe for tabouleh with currants and white truffle oil. It’s brilliant.
Marina: Yes. So that section I think is really fun, and Nabra had to actually stop me from quoting this play at length in this episode, just because I love it so much. But obviously this chunk of text infuriates Fadwa, who loves the food as is and doesn’t think it needs anything special to be added to it, to be valid.
Nabra: And I will say that I always am skeptical about fusion restaurants. Some of the times they’re real good, but a lot of times they’re just appropriating culture or kind of watering it down.
Marina: A very fair point. And we can talk at length more on... Yeah, there are just some cooking show nonsense things that we could also talk about, but different time and place. So, because she moved to the US when she was little, Hayat provides a more Americanized perspective, never quite understanding why Fadwa would want to stay in a place where she is treated like a second-class citizen. The playwrights skillfully use this to help the audience understand aspects of the occupation that they might not know, by having the characters explain them to Hayat.
In what might be the funniest scene of the play, Emir and Youssif explain the system of checkpoints, permits, passports, and that occupied Palestine is divided into three areas: area A, B, and C. They use food on the table to draw a little map and use other pieces of food as prompts to explain it. There is so much physical comedy involved. The whole section ends with another funny zinger when Hayat asks, “Oh, wait, what about Gaza?” To which Emir responds, “Gaza? Different menu.” It’s short, sweet, and sadly quite true, because if you’re explaining to someone how the occupied West Bank works, it functions very differently than Gaza, which has been under siege for quite some time. But yeah, so while I was directing this piece, I found that whole section to be brilliant. Because to explain how movement is limited in Palestine in a way that is both humorous, truthful, and makes an audience understand without them feeling preached to, that is skill.
As Fadwa preps for the food for Dalal’s wedding, she tells beautiful stories in her kitchen. One of my favorites is about baba ghanoush. She lets the audience know that the name itself, baba ghanoush, means spoiled old daddy, and that the dish was created because the original chef had to mash eggplant to feed her father, because he was old and didn’t have any teeth. But he was so picky that to him, boring mashed eggplant was not food. So she began her, “Culinary wizardry. A touch of tahini for creamy robustness, a squeeze of zesty lemon, a clove of garlic for bite and spice, and voila, transformed from this plain eggplant into a smoky sensation that he loved. Spoiled old man.” I don’t know if any of that’s true, but I love the story.
She also gives useful insight into Palestinian Christian weddings. This wedding was supposed to be in Bethlehem, obviously it doesn’t happen in quite the way they had hoped in the play. She says that there’s a party every day, for days leading up to the wedding, and every party has to have food. If there is not food, you’re not going to have any respect. And if the food is bad, your reputation in the neighborhood will be very bad. You could end up as the laughing stock of Bethlehem. This is a theme in many cultures where weddings are multiple day affairs. I actually have a favorite TikTok right now where these two women of color are talking about their first PWOC wedding—which is “people without color wedding”—parodying how confused white people act about weddings in other countries with other cultures. One of the lines is something like, “And it lasts only one day? Less than a day, a few hours?” The surprise in his video parodies that of people in the United States, when they hear that a wedding in Palestine, for example, could last multiple days.
Nabra: And I relate to that so much as well. I grew up mostly in Egypt. I had gone to PWOC weddings, or white weddings, as a young child. But the first time I went to one when I moved back to America, and as a person who could remember things, I was so confused by a lot of the traditions, even though that’s now thought of as like the stereotypical wedding, what you see in a lot of film and TV and movies and stuff. That’s not what I was used to at all. I was used to these many-day-long, or even many-month-long, Egyptian and Nubian weddings, with a whole bunch of different events. And that’s actually translating into my wedding, which I’m planning for this summer and kind of the whole year, because we’re doing a whole bunch of different ceremonies, like in the Egyptian style, but we’re doing them in a more American way.
So, I’ve been trying to explain to my friends and family what we’re actually doing, and what they’re invited to, and all the different elements that different people are invited to, and how this is going to span six months to a year. And I remember explaining this to my Egyptian friends and they were like, “Oh yeah, that makes perfect sense,” and it’s been this struggle to explain it to my American family. But to us who are used to these long, involved weddings, it’s totally normal, and I’m putting this kind of Egyptian American spin on it for mine.
Marina: And a quick side note, when I was in Palestine a bunch of years ago, I was actually doing research for Food and Fadwa, which I was slated to direct later that same year. And so, I was visiting a friend in a Christian village which was about forty-five minutes from Ramallah. And she said, “Hey, my cousin is getting married in Bethlehem later today, and my husband is traveling.” So essentially, “Do you want his place? Do you want to come with us?” And that’s how I ended up at a Christian wedding in Bethlehem, when I was prepping to direct a play about a Christian wedding in Bethlehem. It was amazing.
I also randomly ended up at Nabra’s cousin’s wedding in Egypt. We were all at Nabra’s grandma’s house, and I thought we were getting ready to head home. And I was told, “Yeah, we are. But on the way home, we’re going to go to so-and-so’s wedding,” and we did. It was gorgeous, but also how does this keep happening to me? Ironically, I couldn’t attend a wedding in Lebanon that I was invited to, and I’m hoping to go to Jordan next summer, so if any of you know anyone getting married there, I would like to keep this recent to tradition alive. Let me know.
Nabra: To be fair however, I also didn’t really know this cousin, but I’m used to going to weddings of people I’m related to but have never actually met. So, you were really thrown into something, but we were not in too dramatic of a different position at the time. We were both a little bit confused. You go in, you kiss the bride, they’re like, “Who is this person?” It’s fine, I only know 30 percent of the people here.” You dance, you leave, and it’s fun.
Marina: It was fun. Well, and speaking of weddings, back to Food and Fadwa. Hayat talks about Dalal’s wedding favors at one point, which to me sounded like they’re described as Jordanian almonds, candied almonds in a white mesh sack. Fadwa lets her know the symbolism behind it is “hard bitterness shelled in sweetness, like marriage.” Which I thought was fascinating because I remember growing up in the United States, I thought this was very common to see as a wedding favor, but really haven’t seen it much since Pinterest and other social media trends have started to make weddings more, I don’t know, photographable? It feels less common stateside now.
Nabra: We keep going on these interjections, but we have a lot to say about food and weddings. Fadwa continues to cook for the wedding, and we get other stories that involve insight into how one should cook and behave in their life, like with parsley. So, she chops the parsley slowly because when cooking Palestinian food, one cannot be lazy. And if you go too quickly, you can end up “betraying the parsley with your own agenda.”
She also addresses the seasonal nature of food and what it symbolizes. And says, “Parsley is so strong that it can grow in bitter cold, and then sprouts in the early spring when everything else is still asleep. Because of this, it is thought to be a symbol of new beginnings. Parsley is an amazing gift from nature.” People in the US are often told that it’s more sustainable to eat seasonally because the food is fresher and less expensive, but that doesn’t always happen, it’s not always practical, and here Fadwa phrases what some may see as a limitation as a beautiful gift.
And when Fadwa makes mulukhiyah, she drops some Egyptian knowledge too, which obviously appeals to me. Apparently, it was once thought to be a sexual stimulant and was even banned by an Egyptian ruler in the tenth century for its passion-inducing effects. And for those who don’t know, mulukhiyah is a stew made from this special type of leaf, I believe. I never really knew what exactly it was, but I’ll look it up. Mulukhiyah, delicious.
And she also reminds the viewers of her cooking show that food is impressionable, it takes on the qualities that the preparer brings to it. So, if one is happy or anxious, the food tends to absorb those feelings. She suggests talking to your food for best results. There’s something really appealing about the way that Fadwa describes food too. It almost feels like the English is trying to emulate the beauty of Arabic when she say it says things like, “Mana’eesh is like a warm bath, and a fireplace, and a hug all rolled into one savory delicious bite.” The poeticism that MENA folks bring to their food is really quite unique and lovely.
Marina: Yes. On the mulukhiyah front, I’ve heard people call it Egyptian spinach. I don’t know if that’s true, but the only place I can ever find it is in local Middle Eastern stores, but in the freezer section, so you can get a frozen bag. I don’t know if that’s—
Nabra: Yes. That’s where I get it. I don’t know, I think once in Egypt we made it from the actual leaves, but you just get it frozen, add some chicken stock, delish.
Marina: Good. I’m going to need your recipe because I have some in my freezer.
Nabra: I got you.
Marina: Okay. So then, the character Fadwa also has things to say about our patron sweet here at Kunafa and Shay—“kunafi” as the Palestinians would say. Or “kunafa” as the Egyptians would say. And I alternate between them depending on who I’m with. So in the play, they also talk about how a poet once said, “To eat the pastries of Arabs is to make a person’s life serene and happy, and to keep away evil.” And then Fadwa also talks about how you will never not walk into an Arab home and not find pastries, it would be absolutely terrible for that to happen. She said there’s always some in the freezer ready for baking, and then she talks about how the pan that she is cooking was created eight months ago, and now it’s perfect, and you got to keep it in the freezer in case guests show up.
They end up needing to ration food in the play too, because of the lockdown that they’re under. So Fadwa ends up giving advice about rationing too, calling it a pretty valuable skill. Which also leads to a little Arabic lesson on the word of “Bethlehem,” where she’s living. And she says something like: “Do you know what that means? It comes from Bayt Laḥm in Arabic, which means ‘house of meat.’ And in Aramaic and Hebrew, the same words mean ‘house of bread.’ So, the house of bread and meat, living inside of a sandwich.”
Nabra: I love that. One of the foods most likely to be talked about in a play with MENA characters seems like it might be olive oil. A lot of us use olive oil, and olives are a big part of a lot of our cultures. So, this play spends time talking about olive trees, olive oils, and of course the olives themselves. In Palestine, olive groves have become a symbol of fighting the occupation. The olive branch has long been a sign of peace, but with the occupation, families have often been cut off from their groves by the occupation wall, or fields have been set ablaze or plowed over on purpose. It’s especially sad because not only are the groves a source of income and sustenance for families, they also date back generations, so when they’re destroyed, it’s often a family’s legacy that’s demolished.
Fadwa’s father used to spend hours in the grove picking olives before his fields were destroyed during the occupation. He has a strong connection to olive oil, he even puts some on the leaves of the olive trees to help them grow and on his temples to help his memory. And again, this is the thing that resonates with me, because olive oil was the go-to cure for everything or use for everything in my family. My mom would put olive oil, of course, on your skin to moisturize it, put it on your hair to help your hair grow long. If you’re sick, you got to rub it on your chest and neck to keep that area warm, in order to break down the phlegm if you’re having a cold. So, there are lots and lots of uses of olive oil. Just rub it all over you, and you’ll be perfectly healthy forever.
When they are running out of food, everyone in the family drinks some as well. Someone describes the flavor as, “Buttery yet fruity, with notes of almond and strife.” While Baba tells several stories about the importance of the olive tree, saying,
To appreciate God’s great bounty, simply look, Fadwa, at the blessed olive tree. Its very branches a symbol for peace, it’s fruit a holy gift. You see, there’s a wide sort of tube that runs down the length of the trunk. It contracts and expands, pumping sap through the trunk and the branches, giving the tree life. Do you understand, Foo Foo? The tree has a heart. The tube serves as its heart. What is a heart but the center of a man’s compassion and capacity for love? A tree loves. It has compassion for man, it gives us its breath so that we may live, teaches us to be rooted and steadfast, and give shelter to all who seek it.
That’s a really lovely, touching story and quote, and explains all the healing and useful properties of olive oil, from a physical but also philosophical level. And of course, this serves to symbolize a rootedness to the land, but it’s, again, such a poetic take on the connection between body, food, and land. Palestinians are often denied discussion of their humanities in Western media and in this play at least there’s this sense of rootedness, it can be really explored and celebrated.
And this whole thing also reminds me of a short film called “Ibrahim’s Tree” that Jen Marlowe, from our episode on verbatim theatre, produced through her company Donkeysaddle Projects. And I really recommend it to better understand the importance an olive tree can have to a Palestinian family, from the family themselves.
Marina: Definitely. Another beautiful story about olive oil, which Fadwa calls the most important ingredient in an Arab kitchen— collectively her and her father tell a story about how olive oil was thought to be able to cure any illness that wasn’t death. He used to tell a story growing up about Adam of Adam and Eve, who was obviously distressed after being kicked out of the Garden of Eden. And, of course, Baba describes him as a bit of a whiner. So, God sent the Archangel Gabriel to help Adam, and he descended to Palestine with the most magnificent offering that he could, an olive tree, which he gave to Adam with instructions for how to plant and harvest it.
I love this story, but for all I know it could easily be an invention of the play. The olive branch does appear a few times in the Bible, and there are other olive tree origin stories, like the Ancient Egyptians believed it was a gift from Isis. Maybe the most famous biblical reference is when the dove appears after the great flood with an olive branch, potentially signifying that it was the first thing to grow after the flood. And in Greek mythology, Poseidon and Athena have an olive tree battle of sorts. So, I love all of these ways that we can look at olive oil and olive trees, and really just stop and think about it as we use it to cook.
One of the themes that we see in Food and Fadwa, in addition to what Nabra had already mentioned earlier, is that food empowers. And this is a theme we often see in women cooking, like in the movie Soufra, which has women in a refugee camp in Lebanon cooking as a way to help support and sustain their families. And because this food takes a very long time to make, it can often be a source of pride and love too.
Nabra: So, the next two plays we’re going to talk about are by Amir Nizar Zuabi. The first is Oh My Sweet Land, which is a one-person show that originated in London and has had productions in the Bay Area and New York. Zuabi was inspired to write Oh My Sweet Land after conducting a series of interviews with Syrian refugees in Jordan. What’s amazing about this play is that it happens in many different kitchens. The actor is actually making kibbeh throughout, as she tells the audience the story. And kibbeh is like a meat ball.
Marina: Like a meat croquette.
Nabra: Croquette, yes. In this play, a Syrian American woman goes searching for her married lover, Ashraf, who is a prisoner and knows he must leave Syria when the secret police brings Ashraf’s daughter to the jail. The captain tickles her and gives her chocolates, posing a definite threat. He flees Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Ashraf finds shelter for his wife and daughter in Lebanon, and then resettles himself in America where he meets the woman, who’s the narrator, at a cafe. She invites him home to eat kibbeh, those little meatball, meat pies. For three months, they’re entangled physically and emotionally, while guilt gnaws away at him. But one morning, he’s gone. So the woman boards a plane to Lebanon, Jordan, and then Syria.
Marina: Yes. And so, Nabra mentioned that this play was done in different kitchens, and we truly mean that. Different people would volunteer their home kitchen for this to be done there. And so, because each kitchen that the actor had to act in was different, the actor’s relationship with the audience would always change too. The actor who played this role in the Bay Area, her name is Nora, and it was really interesting to hear her talk about the rehearsal process for this. In order to prep for the role, she wanted to make sure that she could cook seamlessly and still relay a story to the audience, so she ended up doing cooking-skill drills with a professional chef friend to make sure that her knife work would not be a hindrance to her. And I totally relate to that, because I cannot cut things and talk at the same time in the kitchen. I mean, I can, but probably not with that many people watching.
There’s actually a line in the play about how “the skill is in the memory of the hand.” This reminds me of how people who don’t use recipes tell other people how to cook. Nabra’s grandma, her Mamaseto, did something similar when she was teaching us her basbousa recipe. She would talk about the baking powder, and she would show us what a pinch was, but it wasn’t just a pinch. It was— she took my fingers and she literally put it in the baking powder, and then put it into the recipe. And I was like okay, got to remember how that felt, because that’s now the measurements that I have to use. Which is really interesting, but it’s the memory of the hand.
There’s also another quote from the play, “Take an onion. What kind of onion? Big, small? An onion is not a unit of measurement.” And this also reminds me of the same recipe of Mamaseto, which is her basbousa, because it actually does have some measurements on it, but it just says to cook at the end. There is no heat, I don’t know what temperature for the oven, how much time do I put it in? I don’t know. But you have to figure out what this unit of measurement is, which I think is interesting. And when someone knows the recipe, of course, these things are second nature.
And this ties in with another beautiful piece of Zuabi’s text:
My fingers know what to do. My hands work as though they belong to someone else. The body has a memory. Maybe these movements entered my blood with my father, and I contain them, this dance of fingers. And maybe that is the problem, maybe that’s the whole problem. Maybe every invader to this land, every act of bloodshed, every wave of violence left a residue. And now the body has a memory of violence, but the body has many memories, like the smell of cumin, and onions getting clarified as they fry. We must be able to choose the memories we listen to.
Here, the description of memories, smells, and sights, and sounds of violence, all come together to create a world of conflict staged in this kitchen. It actually seems slightly overwhelming to me, and I wonder how I would react in the kitchen itself. Does the repetition of common kitchen sights and sounds provide comfort? What is the audience experience like?
Nabra: And I love this quote from the New York Times review by Alexis Soloski in 2017 that talks a little bit about that. She says,
You might feel like a bit of a monster (I did!) for noticing those countertops, for fretting about those onions, while Ms. Malouf describes people who have suffered torture and worse. Yet this is what makes Mr. Zuabi’s play so devastating. Because yes, it’s about kibbe and sex and stressful journeys across borders. But as you sit crammed together in that pleasant little kitchen, the play is also about our incomplete ability to wrap our heads around a war being fought half a world away, about our finite capacity for empathy.
And Zuabi uses oil, and other symbols, and foods, and pieces of the recipe as a way to make the audience complicit in what’s happening in some way, the way that many are complicit in their inaction. To explain this, another quote from the play. They say:
Now the oil is boiling, let it boil. It’s scalding hot, it’s dangerous. That’s when oil can splatter. A single drop can singe your eye, but no one can afford to look away. Decent people can’t look away from what is happening. If even now there can be mass destruction of children and women buy gas, the world’s come to an end. Now is the time to say nothing. There’s not even a need to pretend to be shocked. Just listen to the oil sizzling in the pan, and pray that the flying drops miss the white of your eyes.
And another similar image, in which the food the actress is making contrasts with devastation, is in one scene near the end of the play when she’s describing the home of a family killed by chemical weapons, and talks about a tray of baklaawa, or baklava, falling to the ground. And so, there’s this contrast between the sweet and delicious baklaawa and this devastation. This food, this sweet, should not fit into this scene, just as oil can be healing or burn.
The play provides such an interesting frame, to be in the kitchen with someone who’s telling these stories. It capitalizes on people’s interest in things like the Mediterranean diet or, like Whole Foods wrote in 2017, “Things like hummus, pita and falafel were tasty entry points, but now consumers are ready to explore the deep traditions, regional nuances and classic ingredients of Middle Eastern cultures, with Persian, Israeli, Moroccan, Syrian, and Lebanese influences rising to the top.” It seems like Zuabi really smartly acknowledges the entry point that most people have, kitchens, commonalities in cooking with oil and chopping things up, and then uses that to humanize the Syrian Civil War.
During the stay-at-home period, Marina and I have both been able to experience another Amir Nizar Zuabi play called This is Who I Am. We mentioned it a few episodes ago as well, and we watched it through Wooly Mammoth, and it’s about a father in Palestine cooking online with his son who is in the US, I think in New York. There’s some underlying tension between the two men, but there are many great moments of levity too as the younger man ribs his father, making fun of how seriously he talks about food and relates it to Palestinian politics. They’re making fteer, and it becomes clear that they’re coping with the death of the matriarch of the family, the wife and mother, who used to make fteer, which they call a dumping-like peasant dish. It was apparently the first thing she cooked for her husband and described it as a metaphor for herself. She says, “I am a pocket full of surprises.”
Marina: Olive trees come up again here, in two separate moments when both men reminisce about them and their meaning. The father says, “Don’t you miss those days just after the first rain, when everybody gathers together in the olive groves to beat the branches and harvest the olives? That sound of all olives falling from the tree, hitting the tarp. Olive rain, that is one of the best sounds ever.” And the younger one, his son, says, “Trees are drenched in blood. They live in a land that had so many people claim it, so many people die for it. You walk around those trees and you feel the reverence of history. I walk around those trees and I hear the shouts of slaughtered men that had to sacrifice themselves to keep it. I hear Roman legions marching, I hear Babylonian trumpets, I hear ancient Jews running, chased by Persians.”
The entire play is only about ninety minutes, and besides functioning really well as a virtual play, because it’s meant to be online, it’s the story of these two men cooking online together, it’s a really touching story about how cooking can serve to bring back memories, bridge gaps, and build or rebuild relationships. When we taste something we tasted as a child, something that maybe a loved one or a relative prepared, we can remember that person and experience that love again. And at the end of the play, they also gave the audience the recipe for fteer, and they gave it in both English and in Arabic, which is pretty neat.
Nabra: So, now on to our last playwright for today. Rohina Malik is a wonderful playwright who lives in Chicago, and actually recently started the Medina Theater Collective. Rohina’s play Unveiled is a series of vignettes that feature the stories of five different women: Maryam, Noor, Inez, Shabana and Layla. In each scene, there’s a drink and or food item that is featured. The drinks that are featured are chocolate chai, Moroccan mint tea, qahwa sada or plain coffee, a Kashmiri chai, and sage tea. There’s also an element of audience interaction in the in-person version of the play. At some performances, the audience is served chai and cookies, which I love. I also do this in a play that I wrote, because if you’re going to write a play that is set in your home and you’re inviting people in to tell your story, you should try to make that experience as real as possible. In going to see this play and drinking chai with the actress, you’re actually going into someone’s space and chatting with them over tea. That sense of intimacy and exchange is amplified when everyone is eating together.
We would send all of our listeners kunafa and tea to enjoy while you listen to this podcast, if we could. But even in the virtual format, the invitation to come drink tea sets up a certain tone that’s important to this podcast, and Rohina Malik’s play. I keep using this word “intimate,” and I just can’t think about a better way to describe that feeling. It just feels intimate, it’s an intimate and yet everyday, casual moment, which is the perfect intersection of what it feels like to eat with someone. You’re opening your mouth, sharing your preferences, doing a very body-focused thing, but it’s so everyday and a universal experience that that vulnerability feels casual and natural. This is a special place that we’re invited into as audience members when food is introduced into plays, and especially if we’re invited to join in.
But the food and tea are more than prompts that set the tone for the vignettes, they’re deeply metaphorical. This was very clear to me, even when I couldn’t fully grasp the metaphorical meaning of each type of tea. But one of the strongest examples that the character actually talks about specifically in one of the pieces, is the qahwa sada, or the black coffee or plain coffee. She talks about how in her culture, qahwa sada is drunk at funerals, so it immediately carries this gravity. And it informed both the vignette that came before it, which also had elements of death and grieving, as well as the vignette it is featured in, which is something I picked up on with several of the other teas and that I believe is probably true of each of them in some way or another. So, the teas and their metaphorical meanings create a throughline and a flow to the play as a whole, by connecting the vignettes to each other thematically.
Marina: What I love about the plays we’ve talked about, in addition to them being compelling in their own right, is that cultural and emotional barriers get in the way, but somehow through food, things can still get communicated. It really is about meeting each other in a place that’s beyond words. From the first time I went to the Middle East, a friend explained to me a concept that he called Arab hospitality, and told me I needed to be prepared for it: don’t turn down tea or coffee, always be prepared to eat at least one sweet, and the list went on from there. In different MENA countries, this has appeared to me in many different forms, but it’s always felt like the common thread of hospitality really comes through. I actually had to learn how to say in Arabic that I’m allergic to fruit juices, because I didn’t want to be perceived as being rude, but I really couldn’t drink any more juice.
And I can think of specific examples of— There’s a woman in Palestine who was in a pretty dire situation, but was most concerned with my comfort and my well-being in her presence, once I entered her home. And I think about her a lot. This seems to be something that is the case in many cultures though. A friend recently said something on Facebook about, “Well, you know that when you enter the home with a Puerto Rican grandma, you’re not going to go away hungry.” And I don’t have much experience with Puerto Rican grandmas, but it seemed to be a point of pride that this person was going to make sure that you were fed and well taken care of. And a Korean friend recently said to me that in Korean culture, asking, “Have you eaten yet today?” is more common than asking, “How are you?” Which seems like a beautiful way of really connecting over food and making sure someone is taken care of in this other way, as opposed to asking what might be a common question otherwise.
Nabra: And I’ve definitely bonded with other people of color over our brown grandmas, who always insist that we have to eat more food and put the seconds or the thirds on your plate. And that’s definitely true of my grandma and my mom, and also is becoming true of me as well. So, I have found that that’s something that I find is common between my culture and other cultures that I’ve interacted with.
But in all of these plays, there’s some type of opening up, and a vulnerability that happens around the dinner table, and even more within the kitchen. In Oh My Sweet Land and Unveiled, as an audience member you almost wonder why these people are opening up to you and sharing deep secrets and personal truths. But because they’re doing it while cooking with you or eating with you, it feels much more natural. Food is where humans connect and share. There is an exchange in the act of sharing a meal, as there is in theatre.
Marina: Thank you so much for having tea with us. This has been another episode of Kunafa and Shay. We’re your hosts, Marina and Nabra. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you loved this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode, along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com.
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Marina: Yalla, bye.
Nabra: Yalla, bye