For five generations, Mohamad's family has been making sweets and pastries in Ramallah, in the Palestinian Territory, only about six miles from Jerusalem. His pride is his kanafeh, making it as his family has been for those five generations, and it is a tradition which he dreams of being able to pass down to his children, but as he sits in his empty cafe -- empty because customers have stopped coming to the cafe due to the Israeli military's checkpoints they'd have to go through, which can make a simple trip last hours -- it looks as though his family's tradition may soon end, its lifelines being cut off because of the conflict in that part of the world.
His is one of the storied told in Theatre Mir's production of "The Arab-Israeli Cookbook," playing through April 5 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St.
The stories told in this show are true, collected by British playwright Robin Soans and two directors, Rima Brihi and Tim Roseman, an Arab woman and a Jewish man, when they traveled to Israel
and the West Bank in October 2003. They conducted interviews with ordinary people -- Jews, Muslims and Christians -- that formed the basis of the play. The political aspects of the show are unavoidable, of course, but that is not what drives the show. That distinction belongs to the food. As the show's director, Rob Chambers, said in an audience talkback after a show its first week, Soans and the others couldn't exactly just show up the Israel and the West Bank and say, "so, tell us about the conflict and what it's done to your lives" to strangers, but they could ask people to tell them about a particularly meaningful food or ask them to tell them about themselves while they prepared a meal.
Like Mohamad, who is played by Stephen Loch. In the scene, which consists of him in his cafe talking to the audience, he speaks with pride of his family's tradition and sadness about how the numerous checkpoints have pretty much killed his livelihood. The kanafeh, says Loch after a recent show, is "a very thin dough in strands, like vermicelli, worked with oil or butter, laid down in a pan with a special red dye then covered in goat cheese, cooked, inverted, drizzled with simple sugar syrup and ground pistachios."
You don't get to see it being made, but throughout the show, the characters prepare a number of dishes, as they talk both about the food and their everyday lives.
There is also Yaakov, an Israeli bus driver. Yaakov, played by Mark Richard, is not only a bus driver, but a driver on the route that is the most targeted by suicide bombers. He recounts his experience, including driving a bus that was right behind one that was blown up (he was instructed just to keep driving, right past it), as his wife prepares Shabbat. Their children are on their way to the home for the Friday evening meal, the nice wine is out, and Yaakov's wife is making three types of salad, including an aubergine (sesame eggplant) and kibbeh with hummus.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is the sidebar, unavoidable as it is, in this show, while the food (there is a working stove onstage which gets used throughout the show) is what brings everything together.
It's one thing to hear people in any part of the world, talk in public, in congressional chambers, battlefields, seats of government, but quite another to listen to them in their kitchens. Their defenses could be down or things could be boiled down (no pun intended) to what really matters. This show doesn't start to suggest anything like if the various people in Israel and the West Bank just got together for a big meal all the problems would be solved, but it does show us that they are people. And however difficult it is for any of us in the U.S. to comprehend just why this conflict goes on, we see that they are people, much like us. Says Loch, "for the Palestinians there is despair and frustration. For the Israelis, there is the constant fear of terrorism. These two conditions feed each other and that's the heart of the conflict. The people of the region are divided by politics, but they are united by food." Or they could be.