For four women from western Sydney the smells from the cooking of their home countries are comforting. This is the case for many newly arrived refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who now call Sydney home. The fried onions, capsicum and silverbeet used in Iraqi dolma; the spices and the sugary stuffing in sweet dumplings from Nepal; or the fragrant spices, rice and vegetables in Iranian biryani.
Mother’s Spice is an interactive multimedia show performed by four women who have relocated to western Sydney from Iran, Iraq, Nepal and Lebanon.
The idea for the show came about through a program for newly arrived families called Family Creative Hub. It provides free preschool child-care while creatively engaging mothers to help them learn English and helping them with their digital literacy.
The first project the group undertook was creating a children’s picture book, Lullaby in a Faraway Land. During the process Information and Cultural Exchange facilitator, Eddie Abd, noticed one of the interests shared by the women was food.
“Food and spices were the constant in our lives when everything around us had changed,” says Abd, who moved to Australia from Lebanon in 2001. “It became a link to home and a trigger for finding similarities in each other that then led to deeper territory – how we felt as women, as migrants, as mothers, as refugees.”
Of particular interest was the common spices these women used. The spices may go by different names and be used in different dishes, but they were a constant that helped bring the women together.
“It was fascinating to see how much culture, food and spices don’t adhere to borders; that people naturally share and take on board different ways of cooking irrespective of borders,” Abd says.
For Mother’s Spice the women each cook a meal on stage while telling stories and recalling memories from home. They ask audience members to help with the preparation and cooking.
“Some stories are quite emotionally charged, and because these women are not professional actors, the video that was filmed earlier tells the stories,” Abd explains.
Nasrin Dostbin recalls the trauma of her boat trip from Iran to Australia. Nepalese woman Nisha Shrestha shares her memories of the “house of eating”, where children would play on the swings outside while the women prepared sweet dumplings in the communal house, where they would later gather and share a meal. That house was destroyed during the 2015 earthquake.
At the end of the show the audience of 20 is invited to sit down to a banquet with the cast and crew and share the food the women have prepared.
Abd says not only will it increase awareness of the rich cultural backgrounds that are a part of western Sydney’s population, but it has been empowering for the women involved.
“None of them had done anything connected with public art or performance before, and that gives them a great sense of confidence, a broader view of life and the possibility that they can take part in anything and contribute culturally and artistically to their community,” Abd says.
“That’s what is so powerful about art, it’s about offering these possibilities and helping stories get heard.”
Mother’s Spice is presented as part of Sydney Art Month and will be performed from March 11–19 at Information and Cultural Exchange, Parramatta.