September 20, 2012 By Ayoob Rahman

Women and Cuisine: A Palestinian Saga

food and fadwaFood is the motivation for love and hence, it unites people. It forms us into a community, nurturing in us the consciousness of being together. In grim situations, it gels us against all odds.

The life of Palestinians under the Israeli occupation is one of the worst in history. Their bitter stories that  have been cathartically narrated in various movies, documentaries and autobiographic accounts challenge the prevailing western prejudices and highjacks. Recently a play, a joint initiative by New York Theater workshop and Noor theater, Food and Fadwa written by Isaaq and Jacob Kader has attempted to tell the stories of struggles of people who live under the occupation.

Food and Fadwa is a seriocomedy that tells how the occupation shapes the landscape and everyday life of Palestinians in the West Bank. In 2007 a British play ‘My Name is Raechel Corrie’ about the American activist and a member of the pro-Palestinian International Solidarity Movement (ISM), who was crushed to death by an Israel Defense Forces armored bulldozer while protesting the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza, was withdrawn from the new York theater workshop. It was due to the outcry from a large pro-Israel audience though luminaries like Harold Pinter strongly argued for it.

In Food and Fadwa, there are blatant, truly annoying reminders of the prowling Israeli dominance like the walls and fences across Palestinian farms and villages; the ever increasing Jewish settlements; and of course the checkpoints where the Israeli soldiers are just like monsters. Altogether, this is a wonderful play about a Palestinian family set to conduct a traditional Arab wedding under the complexities of the Israeli occupation. Directed by Shana Gold, it proves to be an entertainer and mildly effective story of a Christian family dealing with, among its many issues, a harsh Israeli-imposed curfew in their Bethlehem home during the wedding of young girl in the family.

The protagonist of the drama is Fadwa  Faranesh, an unmarried, Palestinian woman who is trying to overlook her frustrations and sorrows with her amusements in the kitchen. She is a whole-hearted, talkative foodie like the celebrity chef and TV host of a famous cook show in the Western world Raechel Ray. She is an adorable house wife who dutifully cooks and cares for an ailing father suffering from dementia, who is the much respected patriarch of the family.

On occasions she speaks about the delicious Arab recipes like baba ganoush, hummus and manaeesh molokhia to her imaginative audience scattered in Middle East and America. She herself names the show as ‘Food and Fadwa’. She radiates sensual pleasure and pride in her cooking especially when she prepares the feast for her younger sister Dalal’s wedding. She sees cooking as a competitive sport in her culture. Noor theatre, residing in the New York theatre workshop that specializes in works by artists with Middle-Eastern dissent has set their very first step with Food and Fadwa into a bright, promising future of theater activism. This is a very good playwriting debut for Lamees Isaaq and James Kader.

The play’s inspiration was a comedy sketch presented by Ms. Issaq in the annual New York Arab-American Comedy Festival. The other cast in the play includes Fadwa’s aunt Samia who is obsessed with ‘Arab Idol’, the Middle Eastern version of the U.S. reality show; her younger sister Dalal, whose wedding is on cards and her fiance, Amir; Fadwa’s long-time  separated boyfriend Yussif, who lives in the States; and her American cousin and ‘rival’ Hayat, a celebrity chef who rose to fame in the U.S.

The play starts with the scene of Fadwa cooking in the kitchen. Food is the real entry point in the story. Playwrights try to explore many dimensions of the plot through food. The history of Palestine is so long, so is Israel’s and food is on its own grain on the culture. It is an easy piece to communicate with people all around the world. More than political it is personal. Food and Fadwa is a human interested story built up on universal themes like the people who are caring their sick parents, love of cooking and so on. Hence it tries to explore the cause of Palestine and hints at occupation in a new perception. The story is a new perception of the Arabs, Arab-Americans and Palestinians. A different portrayal of ordinary life in occupied territories, an approach different from the nuanced portrayal by the media of Palestine in particular and West Asia in general.

Responding to the queries as to why the play doesn’t directly deal with politics, Isaaq says: ‘We’ve been very cognizant of letting the politics be a sort of ancillary character. We really want to focus on the personal story; we don’t want to be standing on a soapbox.”  Of course the casts and others related to the play are those coming from the occupation background and they have experienced the harsh realities of invasion. Thus it is the story about love and tradition happening in the land of full of history and loss, story of a family that struggles with its past and present.

Within days of performance in New York Theatre, Food and Fadwa has claimed critical appreciation and the Noor theatre is all set to create their next work. Noor was founded by three New York theatre makers, Artistic director Lamees Isaaq, executive director Maha Chehlaoui and producing Artistic Director Nancy Vitale. The theater was the result of collaboration between the rising tides of talent from the Middle-Easterners in the United States. All of the founders of Noor have been extensively involved within that community as writers, actors and directors. As a vital presence in the theatrical landscape, they aim to come out with exceptional works that transcend cultural boundaries, especially the Arab and Middle-East.

Posted in: Woman