An Interview With OH MY SWEET LAND Writer and Director Amir Nizar Zuabi

Amir in rehearsals for OH MY SWEET LAND.

I recently sat down with Amir, our ferocious writer and director for OH MY SWEET LAND. In the blistering heat of this current “fall” season in New York.  We sat down joking about the bizarre heat waves pausing in shared moments in which we wiped away our sweat. Talking with Amir, I was immediately captivated by his knowledge and engagement about our world. In this talk we spanned numerous discussion points centered around food, hospitality, culture and everything in between.

How is food integral to middle eastern culture? How does it become a tool for connection?

Hospitality is the most important quality obviously. We gather around the tables, and when we eat there’s always a big variety spread out. And just having guests over to eat is something very, very normal. We don’t go out to restaurants, or bars. The main entertainment of the Arab world is to have guests. The food is just delicious. The food in Syria, Palestine and Lebanon are very rich and diverse and very artful. And of course Syria is considered to be the food from Aleppo, which has been annihilated now, but it is considered to be the best Arab cuisine. So Syria was always considered very rich in terms of its cuisine and culture. It was almost the first thought I had when I was thinking of doing this show was “okay there’s going to be food involved”.

I believe there’s a difference in American culture in which there is a fear of allowing other people in, how do you believe food helps to break down these walls?

There are no walls in the Arab world for getting people in because it is in the core value – allowing people in. It comes from an ancient desert culture that still exists back home. Which is if anyone knocks on your door, no matter when, no matter what, you let them in, you feed them and the tradition is that by the third day in you are not allowed to ask the reason for their visit. A complete stranger, he can tell you if he wants to, but you’re not allowed to ask. And this comes from an ancient tribal thing. If you’re passing through tribal territories you can still sustain yourself, eat, get stronger into the desert even if you are on rival tribal turf, or enemies you can still survive the desert.

And this is so engrained in the Arab culture, the notion of generosity, which means opening up your house and hospitality that’s the main trade of generosity. It is so rooted in our culture; In our mythology, in our religious culture, our every aspect of life. It is still a very strong value. The Arab-Muslim laws are much more open, meaning that you can eat with others, and others can eat with you much more easily. Food is the base and that’s how it sustains. It is down to everything. We eat from communal dishes. We gather around a big plate and everyone sits around it and is eating with their hands. And there is a code for that, but once you understand the codes of how you eat with your hands and how you eat from a communal plate, where you are allowed to eat from, there is a complete ritual that is very specific. So there is something that makes food very important.

What is different about the theatre in Palestine, London and then New York?

They’re all different in their clothes and the way they behave but at the end of the day the audience is an audience. They react in the same places and end up saying the same things after a show; whether they liked it or not. We are much more similar than we think.

I mean the codes are different, codes of behavior are different. For example we had a show in Hebron which is one of the toughest cities in the Westbank, under brutal occupation, and when the show ended there was no curtain call. It was just a group of lovely people, and instead of giving us a curtain call they all marched down to the stage and shook hands with the actors and hugged them and dragged them home to feed them. The reaction was very different. They were all sobbing and very excited about the show. But theatre never goes to Hebron so getting a show there was very exciting.

Why do you continue to do theater?

This is a question I ask myself constantly. You know I grew up in two different cultures. I have lived within both. I’m part of both but part of none. I have this ability to look at everything with a shifting point of view. And theatre gave me two things. One is the ability to create art that is three dimensional; it can completely encompass more than one point of view at the same moment because it starts with the meeting of two people. And at the same time it gave me a family, a true sense of a family, because the theatre people around the world are part of a tribe of storytellers.

Which is a very ancient tribe – we are as old as the prostitutes and the priests. We are time merchants and this is not said lightly. This is a very big responsibility.  Taking someone’s time is taking up a very important bit of his life. It is the one commodity that nothing can return. Every show I do back home is an upwards struggle. It is defeating the impossible. But when it is done, when it tours internationally, when we win prizes, when all of this happens and when you are able to touch people with completely different backgrounds with your story, it is a very powerful thing. I’m a storyteller at the base and theatre is the medium to tell my stories. So yeah, vanity is the shorthand answer.

What are words that you live by?

“We are all one, and we need to care”. The Qur’an says that men are like trees – if you throw stones at them, they’ll shed fruits on you. So the request is that you become like a tree. Even if you’re harmed you shed fruit and in a way that’s how I want to live, being in a politically contested place. The Jews say the whole bible was given in one axiom, love thy other like you love thyself and the new testament is all about that and somehow we live exactly the opposite.

And I want to celebrate our diversities, we are diverse, embrace our similarities, and we are all much more similar than we think we are. And I think that once this is your approach to the world a lot of things become clearer. I’m a great humanist, I really believe that we are unbelievable creatures, capable of horrible things but still unbelievable creatures.

Interview by Victoria Detres.