Directors Rima Brihi and Tim Roseman and writer Robin Soans travelled around Israel and the West Bank in autumn 2003 interviewing everyday people caught up in the region's ongoing conflict. The result can now be seen on stage at the Gate Theatre in the shape of The Arab-Israeli Cookbook and shortly in a companion book too.
During the course of the evening at the Gate, we're introduced to Israelis and Arabs alike who wax lyrical about their day-to-day experiences living on a new kind of front line. Each character has his or her own concerns but what all their stories share are fear and food. Some just refer to dishes, others actually prepare the food before our eyes. The theory is clear – however different we are, whatever religion whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim, we all eat and we all die.
For me, the main problem with The Arab-Israeli Cookbook is one of effect without cause. In the main, we’re faced with Christian Arabs and Jewish Israelis living in Jerusalem in a perpetual state of ‘terror’, some have even experienced suicide bombs first hand – of course all want peace.
The few Palestinians we meet are food sellers whose business is suffering because of road blocks. There's also a brother and sister; he works at a refugee camp, she has lost a son to the war. He was martyred protecting their camp and his mother relates his last hours in detail before playing the video of the same event with grim pride. These people don't cook – maybe the idea is that they have bigger things on their mind, but the comparison of how Palestinians eat with all the restrictions placed upon them would provide a fascinating parallel.
At two and a half hours, Soans' play could have proved overlong, but it’s engaging thanks to the strong performances and the frequency with which we meet new people. Sheila Hancock particularly finds subtle and effective ways to draw out the differences in the characters she plays. Ben Turner is also very watchable, whether playing a proud chef or aggrieved Palestinian.
All the members of the company seem to be English and that’s a shame. The casting must be intended to make us realise how easy it is to relate to these people – they could be English - but I would have liked to have seen an Israeli and an Arab company member too and what resonances that would have brought to the piece.
By its nature, this kind of reportage/documentary piece inevitably lacks a narrative drive, but that's compensated for by the many interesting stories. Unfortunately, we're just given a portrait of life as it is, not – as I would have preferred – how it came to this.
- Margaret Costello