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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.

Lysandra Ohrstrom

Lysandra Ohrstrom is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has written for The Daily Star, The New York Observer, and multiple other publications in the U.S. and the Middle East.

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19 Responses

  1. justicewillprevail on June 9, 2012, 8:47 am

    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.

  2. Boycott Israel on Campus on June 9, 2012, 9:56 am

    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.

  3. jabaroot on June 9, 2012, 10:27 am

    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 fact, just try to get by; life goes on. If the playwright wants to tell a family-oriented story about Palestinians, does she HAVE to cram the occupation down our throats? Would Palestinians in the intimacy of their homes necessarily speak of it regularly in stirring, political terms? Part of me doubts it–why would they have to, since they all live it and know what it’s about? I, for one, hate it when movies or videogames have lines of dialogue between characters that are not representative of how people who KNOW one another actually talk but rather serve as clumsy tools to explain things to the audience.

    I’m reminded of a Syrian friend of mine who lives in Damascus that I recently spoke to. Her father died in February after a painful, four-month battle with cancer. Last week, she had her first child. Such personally tremendous moments were the focus of our conversation, even as her country is being torn apart and car bombs strike uncomfortably close to her neighborhood. She knows that I know, and she doesn’t have to explain it to me. It seems that I’m the only one who’s apprehensive about calling, wondering what I could possibly say to my friends as I see their country rent asunder on Al Jazeera and YouTube. For them, life goes on.

    • Koshiro on June 11, 2012, 3:40 am

      I’m pretty sure you could produce a comedy about a North Korean family struggling to get by, in which the only reminder of the North Korean regime would be occasional power outages and the occasional guy in a uniform.

      I’m also pretty sure I know what the reaction to this would be.

      P.S.: I should note that I have not seen the play and that Laura’s post below makes it appear that the author does in fact “cram the occupation down our throats”.

  4. tokyobk on June 9, 2012, 12:28 pm

    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 someone left the theater thinking that Palestinians exhibit the complete range of humanity and don’t come in two flavors: terrorist or victim!

    This reminds me of the mind-knumbing aspect of cultural boycott (everything is reduced to evil or its flimsy pretext) and why fascists may have better uniforms but always lousy painting and literature.

    • annie on June 9, 2012, 1:11 pm

      bk, speaking of narrow range of images of minorities..it’s funny you should mention that as i was just thinking about what a narrow image for a palestinian woman as i looked at that photo up there. a woman cooking in the kitchen, while very universal, is rather limiting. not showing range.

    • Mooser on June 9, 2012, 1:36 pm

      “God forbid someone left the theater thinking that Palestinians exhibit the complete range of humanity and don’t come in two flavors: terrorist or victim!”

      Ah, the nostalgie de la boue! The deja-vu the, well, the je-ne sais quas. I mean, this is the good ol’ kind of concern trolling we used to see a lot of at Mondoweiss, but now, alas, we don’t see much any more. Concern trolls are easily frightened by right-wing Israelis.

      • tree on June 9, 2012, 1:46 pm

        Ah yes, concern trolling. How could I have forgotten? Thanks, Mooser.

        TBK missed the trifecta, though. He implicitly accused Ohrstrom of being both racist and fascistic, but missed his chance to call her anti-semitic as well. No doubt he was forced to narrow his script by the thought of some white Westerner hovering over him.

      • eGuard on June 9, 2012, 4:28 pm

        Mooser: Concern trolls are easily frightened by right-wing Israelis.

        Please reread this. (I myself laugh each time.)

    • Mooser on June 9, 2012, 1:39 pm

      “why fascists may have better uniforms but always lousy painting and literature.”

      Yes sir, that BDS is the closest thing to facism I’ve seen in a while. What Israel is doing among other things, to it’s own Jewish population doesn’t even come close.

      • tokyobk on June 9, 2012, 3:38 pm

        I genuinely don’t know what a concern troll is but I suppose a concern troll would feign ignorance, wouldn’t he or she?

        BDS imo is of course a legitimate tactic, and non-violent. If that is what Palestinians want its their choice, not mine.

        I personally disagree with all cultural and academic boycotts. There becomes indeed a mental requirement to reduce all of Israel’s pink to just gov’t washing. And all Palestinian plays must be in the form of protest for them to be worthy to a New York critic.

        Same for NK, KSA, Iran, Israel and the PA. Indulge them all culturally.
        It would be great to see the Chili Peppers in Tehran, I mean with no snark.

        And, again, there is a certain type of “liberal” who only accepts their chosen wards angry or innocent. My original point.

    • tree on June 9, 2012, 1:42 pm

      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?

      Yes, I’m absolutely certain that’s the Palestinian’s main problem. Its not the Israeli occupation; its Western white critics that question why the Israeli occupation is not overtly mentioned in a play about Palestinians in the West Bank, even though it clearly affects much of the flow of the play. Ohstrom’s point is that the playwright’s WERE following a narrow script, that depoliticized what was happening within the play.

      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.
      ….

      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.

      You seriously misunderstood the critique, TBK. Ohrstrom isn’t calling for a narrowing of the image of Palestinians. She’s bemoaning the narrowing that the playwrights felt constrained to follow.

  5. Boycott Israel on Campus on June 9, 2012, 1:56 pm

    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 in 1964, you also had Nina Simone singing “Mississippi Goddam” (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_Goddam )

    Where is the play or campaign, speaking in 2012 language, that expresses any heartfelt outrage like that, when it comes to Palestinians?

    Where is the performer, where is the university group, that publicly says “Fuck Israel”?

  6. lauradurkay on June 9, 2012, 4:00 pm

    This review is totally off base. Did Lysandra even watch the same play I did? The characters are under Israeli military curfew for 2/3rds of the play, to the point where they’re running out of food. They’re down to the last ten bottles of the family olive oil after their land was confiscated and their trees destroyed–a fact that, it’s made abundantly clear, contributed to the father’s mental deterioration. The younger sister’s fiance is missing for half the play and sneaks back to Bethlehem at night, dodging snipers. They even explain the carve-up of the West Bank using hummus. But I guess that wasn’t obvious enough for this reviewer.

    The occupation is everywhere in this play–all the more impressive given that it takes place on a single (beautifully realized) set depicting the interior of a home. I read this as not just a logistical choice, but also a political one. You can’t escape the occupation–politics will follow you into your home whether you like it or not.

    Just as in the real world, the characters deal with the stress of living under occupation through a series of coping mechanism. One is humor. Another is trying to live a normal life despite crazy circumstances. Anyone who’s spent time in Palestine or other sites of war and occupation will recognize these tools.

    Many of the themes of the play are familiar and, yes, universal. Because, guess what, Palestinians are people. Taking care of family versus following your dreams; lost love and relationship regrets; the immigrant’s dilemma of staying in a beloved homeland or traveling far away in the hope of more opportunities: all these themes are there. And they’re all the more heightened and fraught because of the specific circumstances of Palestine.

    This play does what all good drama is supposed to do–find the universal in the specific. It’s also a highly successful piece of political drama. The politics are absolutely clear, and they’re not in the background at all–they’re interwoven into the characters’ lives and struggles. That’s what makes us care about political issues–seeing how they affect ordinary people who are just like us.

    And as for New Yorkers’ “ingrained bias toward Israel,” all I’ll say is maybe Lysandra needs to start hanging out in a different part of town.

  7. Keith on June 9, 2012, 6:37 pm

    LAURA- Interesting comment. I have a question. The picture accompanying the post has the author of Food and Fadwa in what appears to be a rather upscale kitchen, a hellava lot better than mine, in fact. Was this the set? If so, do you think that an upscale kitchen captures the essence of the occupation?

    • lauradurkay on June 9, 2012, 7:16 pm

      There is a fully working kitchen on stage, and the actors do actually cook all the food in the show. I looked long and hard at that picture and I can’t tell if it’s the actual set or a publicity still shot in an apartment kitchen somewhere.

      I can’t tell if your comment is implying that if the family isn’t living ten to a room in a refugee camp then the play is missing “the essence of the occupation.” The family in the play is not the poorest of the poor, although they’re not wealthy. There are references to clothes that have been worn for years and pots and pans that have been used for decades. There are references to a family restaurant (now failed) and family members have the means to emigrate (although not without years of hard work in the US.) The younger sister is a teacher and her fiance is a mechanic. Hayat, the cousin from the US, is clearly costumed and treated as having more money than them.

      To me the set seemed to imply the sort of beautiful old stone home you find in Bethlehem–solid, well-built and taken care of with pride, home to an extended family. I think the fact that that Palestinians have things like modern appliances and Tupperware and satellite TV might come as a nice surprise to some people who don’t know anything about the region. “Oh damn, they’re just like us.”

      To me, the essence of the occupation in the West Bank is stealing land, containing the population, and making people’s lives miserable, uncertain and terrifying enough that they leave “voluntarily.” All this is most definitely in the play.

      • Keith on June 10, 2012, 12:17 am

        LAURA- “I can’t tell if your comment is implying that if the family isn’t living ten to a room in a refugee camp then the play is missing “the essence of the occupation.”

        I would think that a set depicting a West Bank Palestinian kitchen which resembles the kitchen from an upper middle class American suburb would tend to suggest that the Palestinians don’t have it all that bad, regardless of your evaluation of the dialog. Are you suggesting that this accurately reflects the physical living conditions of the West Bank Palestinians? Is even remotely accurate? Has Mondoweiss wildly exaggerated their plight, or has this play propagandistically misrepresented their living conditions? There is a huge chasm between “living ten to a room in a refugee camp” and stage sets which depict a relatively high standard of living. Nice cabinets, nice tile, nice countertops, nice appliances, nice cookware, plenty of food and spices, Lameece Issaq looks like a Middle Eastern Julia Child. Hardly somewhere in the middle between “the poorest of the poor,” and the West Bank wealthy. Are there a lot of those West Bank wealthy? If this kitchen accurately reflects the physical living standard of the average West Bank Palestinian, with “modern appliances and Tupperware and satellite TV …Oh damn, they’re just like us,” then I have been misled. More likely, that is simply untrue.

      • Keith on June 10, 2012, 12:21 am

        One more thing, the dialog may appeal to you but don’t forget that one picture (or stage set) is worth a thousand words. This depiction of reality will totally overwhelm any laudable dialog.

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