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Theater review: In ‘Food and Fadwa,’ the occupation is the elephant in the room

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Sara Krulwich
Lameece Issaq, writer and star of Food and Fadwa. (Photo: Sara Krulwich/New York Times)

I left the Noor Theatre Company’s production of Food and Fadwa on Sunday night thinking about the innumerable ways in which the Israeli occupation shapes the landscape and everyday life of Palestinians in the West Bank. There are the glaring, truly paralyzing daily reminders of the creeping intractability of Israeli dominance like the walls and fences snaking across Palestinian farms and villages; the fortified, self-sustaining, and semi-autonomous Jewish towns that have grown too big to be called settlements; and the deserted, divided villages whose economies have been choked by settlements, walls, checkpoints, or often all three. Then there are the subtle signs and images of Israeli control: the mesh canopy covered in detritus that protects the remaining vendors in the abandoned center of Hebron’s old souq from settler harassment; the black municipal water towers standing sentry on top of Israeli buildings on one side of a street and their absence on the roofs of the nearly identical, Palestinian apartments on the opposite side; the wordless observance of an unwritten rule that prompts all minibus passengers to buckle their seatbelts right before going through Israeli army checkpoints and unbuckle them at the other end, almost in unison; or the way people abruptly draw their curtains and scurry away from windows when a soldier patrols a neighborhood.

I also remembered a conversation I had with a Palestinian friend at the end of a three-week visit to the West Bank in February 2011. I asked her if there was ever a moment when she forgot about the Israeli occupation.

“Of course not,” she said, matter-of-factly. “Israel is in our backyard, in our houses. The occupation is our reality. It is everywhere in life. I drive to work, its there at checkpoint. I look out my window, it is there. For children and adults. It is inescapable.”

In Food and Fadwa the occupation is less a harsh reality inflicted on the Palestinian people by one of the world’s largest military powers than a giant elephant in the room made more obvious by the collective refusal to acknowledge its presence. At best, the occupation functions as a narrative device that exacerbates the conflicts inside the Palestinian household in Bethlehem to drive the plot forward. The two-act play centers on Fadwa Faranesh, an unmarried woman in her thirties who dutifully cooks and cares for an ailing father suffering from dementia and acts as an anchor to an extended family scattered between the West Bank and America. The cast includes a kooky aunt who is obsessed with Arab Idol, the Middle Eastern version of the U.S. reality singing competition; a younger, more American-oriented sister Dalal, and her wisecracking fiancé, Amir; Fadwa’s longtime, estranged boyfriend Yusef, who lives in the states; and her American cousin and rival Hayat, a celebrity chef who rose to fame in the U.S. by infusing–or as Fadwa sees it–corrupting, traditional, family recipes with foreign influences and has returned to Palestine for the first time in 15 years. (A cross hangs in the living room alerts us that the protagonists are Christian, but religion factors into life in the Faranesh household almost as rarely as politics).

Fadwa periodically escapes the drudgery of her family obligations by hosting an eponymous, imaginary T.V. cooking show, “Food and Fadwa.” The play opens with Fadwa teaching the audience to make babaghanoush, which translates to “spoiled father,” and delivering “a crash course on Palestinian weddings.” The patriarch of the Faranesh clan is not spoiled, but driven mad the traumas of occupation. Rather than address the serious atrocities that pushed him towards the edge, the play milks him for My Big Fat Greek Wedding-style comic relief. He threatens to hit his son-in-law with a shoe, mistakes his sister for a soldier and ties her up with toilet paper, lectures the family about the medicinal qualities of olive oil and rubs it onto the leaves of a potted olive plant salvaged from their bulldozed groves “because it is dry.” “You will grow up to be 20 feet tall like all my other olive trees,” he coos.

Fadwa has a similar habit of talking to food as she prepares dishes like manaeesh and molokhia and offers little nuggets of Palestinian cultural heritage. “Do not betray the parsley with your own agenda,” she says as she hacks methodically at a bunch of parsley. “Tabouleh doesn’t need adornment or updating. It is from the culture from which it came.”

It almost seems plausible to me that the head of Palestinian household in Bethlehem could host a cooking show without overtly mentioning Israel or the immediate consequences of the occupation, even if Fadwa’s kitchen does overlook the brick separation barrier that divides her family from its traditional livelihood, but the cooking conceit is only one thread in a tangled plotline.

Once the play leaves the confines of Fadwa’s imagination, we learn that it used to take 15 minutes for Palestinians to get from Bethlehem to Jerusalem and now takes five hours. We hear the characters grouse about long waits at checkpoints and the other non-threatening inconveniences of occupation that make the routines of daily life so arduous and time-consuming. But the writers, Lameece Issaq and Jacob Kader, have gone to such great pains not to vilify Israel and Israelis that they are mentioned by name only once at a climactic moment midway through the second act. Spoiler alert: There is a blackout about a week into a curfew “they” impose —pronouns stand in for proper nouns in much of Food and Fadwa—and Amir explains to a confused and scared Hayat that “the Israelis are helping us go green.”

The uninformed, pro-Israel audience to which the play is presumably geared will probably leave Food and Fadwa with the impression that a power cuts are among the worst of Israel’s offenses. The play treats Israel’s illegal, expanding occupation of the West Bank as an unfortunate fact of life–less the product of one country’s concerted, unilateral strategy to undermine the future viability of a two-state solution than a naturally occurring phenomenon like a tsunami or hurricane that all human beings are powerless to stop.

The central conflict of Food and Fadwa that plays itself out in the kitchen and in the escalating confrontations between Fadwa—meaning self-sacrifice in Arabic—and her dramatic foil, Hayat—meaning life—is a familiar one that we’ve seen in countless movies, books, and plays about the tension between the traditional values of a particular culture and the easy, no-strings attached allure of western consumerism. Hayat’s heretical cooking tips, such as marinating the chicken for her mouhalabiyeh in ginger to “give it a little Asian flare”—and the fact that she rarely talks to her mother when they live in the same city—are meant to show how much she has simultaneously instrumentalized and betrayed her heritage. Fadwa is the zealous guardian of family tradition against the seductive influence of America.

My mom remarked as we left the theater, “That was cute. I liked that it wasn’t political. It could have been anywhere.”

Exactly. I welcome any play that chips away at the ingrained bias towards Israel that is so common among New Yorkers by humanizing a Palestinian family in the West Bank and realize that immediately launching into a history of the injustices perpetrated by Israel might make a Manhattan theater audience defensive and dismissive. While I understand the need to push politics to the background of the Faranesh story, depoliticizing them entirely and sanding down the rough edges of occupation that shape the families’ identity strikes me as distracting and even dishonest.

During intermission, a woman standing next to me in the bathroom line remarked, “I’m hungry and all that bulgur, whole grain and fresh vegetables makes me realize how unhealthy our diet is.”

Maybe I’m being optimistic, but I’d like to believe that New Yorkers would be able to identify with the struggles of a Palestinian family living under occupation on a level deeper than food, if given the opportunity. I’d also like to think that a play that tackles the real injustices of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians in the West Bank would prompt a more significant realization than how unhealthy the American diet is.

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As long as it is non-threatening to the status quo (Israel worship). On the other hand, had the reality of the occupation featured, and the role of Israel in implementing its unprecedented cruelty, we all know it would have been closed down before it even started.

This is part of a brilliant strategy of laughing our way to liberation.

Why push for boycott of Israel when you can just laugh at Fadwa’s kooky aunt?

Laugh it up.

I’m not so sure that this is a problem. Granted, I’ve never been to Palestine, but I’ve spent my fair share of time with people living in tough conditions in the Middle East, Palestinians included. The fact of the matter is that most people living in appalling situations do, in… Read more »

Hi Lysandra, Have you ever considered that some (often white and Western) critics are only attracted to and find useful a narrow range of images of minorities? I mean, how terrible the writer forgot she has to follow her narrow script and wrote something both Palestinian and universal. God forbid… Read more »

Austin, Yes, it is fine for someone to write a play about the genuine lives of Palestinians from her own point of view. By the same token, Black Mississippi in 1964 was not 100% living in trembling terror of whites; many were sharecropping and living without any political dialogue. But… Read more »