Food and Conflict Merge On Stage in 'The Arab-Israeli Cookbook'

Robin Soans' play is directed at The Met by Louis Fantasia

13 June, 2005| The Daily Star, Lebanon | Jordan Elgrably

Los Angeles - In "The Arab-Israeli Cookbook," kibbeh, falafel, fattoush, and grape leaves, among other mezze and main courses, are almost as central to the story as the 40 characters inhabited by the nine actors on stage. The old adage "you are what you eat" is never far from anyone's mind during the drama that ensues. Each of these residents of Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, or a West Bank refugee camp, whether they are Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, talks about family, food and the hope for a better future. And while almost everyone is paranoid about suicide bombings or Israeli military incursions, the audience quickly comes to understand that Palestinians and Israelis are in this crucible together—no wall, no matter how many meters high or how many kilometres long, will ever truly separate their interwoven destinies.

Fadi (Iman Nazemzadeh), a young Palestinian student of both law and medicine, seems almost blessed to be above the usual fray; he is never stuck at checkpoints himself, but he reports the pain of other Palestinians just the same. Nadia (Ros Gentle) is an engaging Palestinian woman, a Christian sitting in her kitchen preparing grape leaves who recalls the siege of Bethlehem with resigned sadness. And the central male figure representing the Palestinians, Hossin (played by Moroccan actor Ismail Abou-al-Kanater), is a force of nature, with undeniable charm and sophistication. Forced by circumstances to work as a gardener, despite his graduate degree, Hossin is an enviable tour guide for the future Palestinian state. As he talks to the audience about food, music and relationships, you feel safe in his hands. If anything, none of these Palestinians seems angry enough at their circumstances, but maybe when plenty of good hummus is available, rage at the daily injustices Palestinians suffer is just a little longer in coming.

Often, the Israeli characters are flamboyant, too. Their principal spokeswoman, Rena (Jill Holden), is a strident New York-born-and-raised widow who has spent over 20 years in Israel. She represents the Ashkenazi culture with a healthy dose of wit and sarcasm. The other sunny Israeli, Mordechai (Louis R. Plante), who in the first sketch runs a popular falafel stand, feels like a familiar sitcom dad but with a New York edge. One of the highlights of "The Arab-Israeli Cookbook" is comedic actor Ric Borelli; with his elastic face and quirky smile, Borelli plays several Israeli characters. He brought out the mirth in the sceptical audience members, who— whether Arab or Jew—were prepared to pan the play and go home harrumphing. As Alon, Aharon, or Giora, Borelli had us glued to his every word and gesture; but the decisive moment was when he reappeared in the penultimate sketch as Mohammad, making us empathize with a Palestinian living in an Israeli pressure cooker.

The love of good food binds together the ten sketches of "The Arab-Israeli Cookbook;" the audience is treated to some live on-stage cooking, the smells of garlic, fresh herbs and spices wafting over the theatre. The play's author, Robin Soans, is a Brit who spent several weeks in Israel and the West Bank in 2003, interviewing three generations of "ordinary" Palestinians and Israelis before drafting his play.

The "Cookbook" first ran in London, in May 2004, and is running currently at the MET Theatre in Los Angeles, under the direction of Louis Fantasia. Also the play's producer, Fantasia has directed over a hundred plays and operas on several continents. Soans is to be thanked for bothering to go out and talk to Palestinians and Israelis in the first place. He sampled their recipes, listened to their personal stories and recorded their political opinions. We in the West, far from the explosions and the chaos of their daily lives, benefit from knowing more about what average people endure in a state of perpetual war.

The play strives for balance; throughout, Jews listen to Arabs and Arabs listen to Jews. Indeed, during several monologues, whether by Fadi or Rena, Hossin or the young Arab-Israeli woman, Amal (Dre Slaman), at least one Israeli or Palestinian sits or stands quietly nearby, listening to the other side. Soans may be suggesting that everyone could use a weekend crash course in compassionate listening—not just embittered enemies in the Middle East.

Possibly the most painful, unfunny sketch conveys the beauty and tragedy of Haifa, a mixed Arab-Jewish city of tolerance, as Fadi describes how Maxim's—an Arab-and-Jewish-owned restaurant—was struck by a suicide bomber on Passover. A 29-year-old female lawyer perpetrated the attack, which blew up dozens—among them a baby whose body parts were strewn 200 meters away. Fadi shares his pain for both the Jewish and Arab victims in the restaurant, but also for the suicide bomber who, he reports, had recently lost three of the seminal males in her family.

The playwright and director want "The Arab-Israeli Cookbook" to be a work of realism, and it is; after all, paranoia in the major Israeli cities is widespread, among both Jews and Arabs: is that really a baby carriage or a package with wires sticking out of it? Is that man as fat as he appears, or is that a bomb? However, by tastefully combining cooking, soulful Arab music (composed by Yuval Ron) and irresistible humour, the "Cookbook" manages to be more than a recipe for controversy, its emotional honesty leaves the audience with more questions than answers. In the play's program, Soans described one early reaction to a staged reading of the play, from a woman who carped, "The conflict was never resolved." While his play does present a myriad of viewpoints and believable situations, Soans notes, "If I could resolve the conflict, I would get the Nobel Peace Prize. All I can do is try and stage the play."

There is an actual cookbook, by the way. Published by Aurora Metro Press in London last year, The Arab-Israeli Cookbook won two Gourmand World Cookbook awards, for "Most Innovative Cookbook" and a Special Jury Award that cited its "simple recipes for peace."