Amir Nizar Zuabi’s new play is pretty timely: the Syrian crisis now having produced millions of refugees, a death toll of over 150,000, and with Assad claiming to have defeated the rebels.
Oh My Sweet Land tells the story of Ashraf – a Syrian refugee who was forced to flee to Paris after being the subject of violent interrogation and threats against his daughter’s life. The narrator and sole performer, who remains nameless, describes how she encountered Ashraf and had a brief love affair with him – wishing to moderate his feelings of guilt and cowardice, having recently left Syria. After he leaves her, she sets out to find him again and ensure his safety – a voyage that leads her to the heart of war-torn Syria.
It’s a strange decision to make the focus of a play about Syria a tale of infidelity – stranger still that the object of the narrator’s desire should be someone who is clearly (although it is never expressly stated) involved in the Free Syrian Army. Indeed, references to faith – a central issue in the Syrian crisis – are scarce: a statement from a soldier in the FSA that ‘We have no one left but God’, and a lonesome ‘InshAllah’.
This is, I would suggest, reflective of the general tone of the Zuabi’s play. We hear nothing of the Assad regime, there is no allusion to sectarian strife, and outside interference is never mentioned. This is of course very likely to be the whole purpose of the piece – to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis, and not the deeply complex politics. But I think that this brings difficulties. Firstly the narrator’s removedness from what she describes (she has a Syrian father, but was brought up in Germany) doesn’t exactly empower the narrative as an emotional appeal. Secondly, the focus on the human story sometimes results in over-simplification: for example, it obviously makes sense if we’re trying to tug on the heartstrings to cast an archetypal villain in the form of Captain Ilad. But not only is such demonisation very likely to be unrepresentative of the complex reasons that terrible things are happening in Syria, but it also pretty unhelpful – it brings us no clearer to an understanding, and instead just fills us with impotent rage.
The staging decision to have Jaber’s narrator in a kitchen making a classic Syrian dish is not always as effective as it could be. The idea is that her cooking becomes charged with feeling as she recounts the story of Ashraf – so that, for instance, she aggressively dices a slab of meat. The reality is something that feels contrived, if not ridiculous. Jaber sustains the piece, and is an engaging performer – but the demands of the text (she has to re-enact multiple scenarios and play multiple roles) aren’t met by her intimate and too-subtle approach to the text.
This is undoubtedly a worthwhile production as an exercise in consciousness-raising. It’s hindered, however, by its apoliticism and tempered tone.