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In Kitchens Across New York, 'Oh My Sweet Land' Serves Up Stories Of Syria

Many plays have been called "kitchen sink" dramas because of their attempts at realism, but Oh My Sweet Land takes that to the extreme. It uses not just the sink but also the stove, the refrigerator, a chopping board and a very big knife — and it's being performed in kitchens across New York.

The kitchen that served as the play's stage in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, was clean and organized with baskets of lemons and rows of cooking oil sitting nearby. The production begins with music on a radio and actress Nadine Malouf puttering around the space — putting a package of meat in the fridge, sautéing pine nuts. "Since I came back, I make kubah again and again, as if I want to close a hole in my soul," she says. Malouf plays an unnamed Syrian-American who tells stories of Syria's civil war as she prepares that dish.

"I had to guarantee that the audience tears up, so there's a lot of onion cutting," jokes Amir Nizar Zuabi, the Palestinian playwright and director of Oh My Sweet Land.

He got the idea for the play several years ago when he traveled to Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. Zuabi adapted the stories he heard there and, since food and hospitality are a cornerstone of Arab culture, he included cooking. In one scene, Malouf's character shares a memory of her father shouting, "Tfadloo!" with a plate of food in his hand, inviting passers-by to come in and eat or have coffee.

"I didn't want to do a horror show," Zuabi says. "It's important to remember that this is an attack on a culture, not just the political situation; it's an attack on the way of life. And the loss in Syria is also ... the loss of normality, of just the ability to break bread together and meet."

The play's narrator tells the harrowing story of how she followed her lover, a Syrian exile, when he left Brooklyn to rescue his family in the Middle East. Malouf (an Australian of Middle Eastern and European descent) says processing the emotions of her character while cooking presented a challenge. "I've never done anything so difficult before. ... I have nicked myself a few times, I've burnt myself with oil. ... It was a little bit like, you know, rubbing your belly and tapping your head at the same time."

As the kitchen gets messier, so does the story. Moments of the narrator's traumatic trip to Lebanon, Jordan and Syria are replayed in vivid detail. In Tafas, Syria, she says, "Some of the buildings have been so heavily shelled, they seem to defy gravity. They look like lace, like concrete lingerie."

For the audience and the actress, Oh My Sweet Land is an almost painfully intimate experience. Malouf says, "You [can] tell immediately who doesn't want you to look at them. And I understand that because there's, you know, a safety in the audience being in the dark and the actors on the stage — that's very safe for both parties. Here, no one is safe."

After the show, audience members gathered on the sidewalk outside to chat and eat baklava. Allison Martin, a nurse practitioner, called the experience "incredibly visceral." "Being in the small space and [to] smell the onions midway through really brings the far away to right here in front of us."

And that's the point of Oh My Sweet Land — the onions, spices and stories linger long after the final bow.

Andrew Limbong and Rose Friedman produced and edited this story for broadcast, and Sydnee Monday and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

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Corrected: October 2, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
In a previous version of this Web story, Amir Nizar Zuabi's middle name was misspelled as Nazir.
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.