"Oh My Sweet Land": Bringing Cross-Cultural Cooking and Conversation to GLIDE's Kitchen

On Tuesday, October 17, GLIDE will host a free performance by Golden Thread theater company of Oh My Sweet Land, a play by Amir Nizar Zuabi that offers a personal take on the Syrian conflict and resulting refugee crisis from the perspective of its female protagonist (played by Nora El Samahy). Torange Yeghiazarian is the founding artistic director of Golden Thread, a San Francisco company devoted to plays written, directed and performed by artists of Middle Eastern heritage. Torange began the company a little over 20 years ago, and does the artistic programming, play selection, hiring of the artists and general running of the company along with two other full-time staff members. She kindly spoke to us about the play and her inspiration for having it performed here at GLIDE.

What is Oh My Sweet Land about?
The play is about a woman who travels back to Syria, Jordan and Lebanon in search of a friend, a Syrian refugee, whom she had met and befriended in Paris. Through that journey she learns more about her own heritage and cultural background. She is half Syrian and she learns more about the political situation in Syria through meeting and speaking with lot of Syrian refugees. As a result, the audience encounters the reality in Syria through her eyes.
Can you tell us why you chose this particular project?
The story is timely, the writing is beautiful and poetic. It deals with a global catastrophe from a very intimate and personal perspective. And I think it’s a great way for public audiences to get a sense of what’s happening in Syria beyond what the news is telling us. The play really personalizes this global catastrophe.
What are some of the challenges and joys that you experienced while directing this play?
The performance takes place in a kitchen so we have been rehearsing this in Nora’s kitchen. Rehearsing in her home is nice and convenient but it also means that we rehearse with her son in the room sometimes. I found telling this story in the presence of a child particularly moving because it’s so much about our shortcomings as adults and as human beings; the things that we do to each other and how we forget what’s actually important. And for him to be sitting there quietly watching, I found that really moving.
The actor must memorize a one-hour long monologue, so that’s really challenging in itself. She has to prepare a meal while she’s performing, so that’s another layer of challenge. And it’s a very moving story; I think it’s emotionally draining so that’s also difficult.
On the production side, we are basically a traveling kitchen at the moment, so I think for our production staff that has been difficult—the setup, the cleanup, the packing…it requires a little bit more preparation and coordination than your average production, where you load into a single theatre and run the show for a month. We have 10 performances at 10 different venues, and each venue will have its own specific needs, so that’s really been time- consuming for all of us. We must anticipate the needs of each new venue and adjust our setup. It’s like performing in 10 different theatres!

I thought it’d be great to share this story with folks from the neighborhood, folks who are maybe going through hard times in their own lives. I’m curious about sharing the story with them and seeing how they respond to it, and what they have to add, their perspective.

What is the role of food in the show, particularly the Syrian dish kibbeh?
I think the playwright talks about this beautifully, about how food is important in community and in Middle Eastern culture. It’s a way for community to gather and open up to each other around a meal. Typically kibbeh is a kind of deep-fried meatball, so it has a soft, juicy meaty inside, and then the crust is hard and grainy. So basically the writer has chosen a food item that is simple enough to prepare—you can actually prepare it in an hour—and then it has these two different elements: the hard outer crust that is earthy and grainy and the juicy soft center that is meaty and nutty. This balance is metaphoric of how humans seem to be. The outer crust is referred to as “skin.” In the play she talks about having a “thick skin,” and the challenge in making kibbeh is making the skin as thin as possible. But in life you really need a thick skin to get through.
So food is an opportunity to gather, a metaphoric literary tool and at a practical level it gives her something to do while she’s telling her story. For the character it’s a way to find connection to her heritage because she recalls her aunt making it.
Why did you choose GLIDE as one of the venues?
I had never been to GLIDE until I came to visit the folks to talk about this project. I had always heard about what an inclusive community it is and how serving food to the needy is at the center of the organization. I thought it’d be great to share this story with folks from the neighborhood, folks who are maybe going through hard times in their own lives. I’m curious about sharing the story with them and seeing how they respond to it, and what they have to add, their perspective. And of course because food is central to GLIDE, I think it was important for us to perform in a food-space, and you all have that beautiful demo kitchen which is perfect for the performance so it really worked out well!
Oh My Sweet Land will be performed in Freedom Hall, on the ground floor of GLIDE’s main facility at 330 Ellis St., at 2:00 pm this Tuesday, October 17. The show lasts about an hour. Admission is free and all are welcome. Food and conversation will follow the performance.