Artist Michael Rakowitz brings Arab-Jewish culture, and all its current political implications, to the forefront in his Enemy Kitchen, a culinary intervention.
Michael Rakowitz serving food out of his Enemy Kitchen truck.
For seven days last year, the words emblazoned on the glass of a Dubai storefront read “Cuisine of an Absent Tribe” in both English and Arabic. Across, in italics, was another haunting phrase: “You are eating a dying language from a plate of a ghost.” Inside, the first Arab-Jewish restaurant in the Middle East in more than 80 years served a menu of Iraqi-Jewish cuisine to more than 50 diners each day, and disappeared after just a week. This was Dar Al Sulh, the pop-up restaurant-cum-art project of artist Michael Rakowitz, who curated the menu and cooked the food with recipes from his Iraqi-Jewish mother’s kitchen.
“We couldn’t say Jewish on the glass of the windows for the restaurant because of the municipality [codes],” says Rakowitz.
Dar Al Sulh means “domain of conciliation” and refers to the period of relative religious tolerance that existed between Muslims, Jews, and Christians during the Ottoman Empire. The pop-up restaurant, which has traveled to different parts of the world, is part of a collaboration between Rakowitz, Ella Shohat, a renowned Iraqi-Jewish professor of Cultural Studies at NYU, and Regine Basha, founder of an archive of Iraqi-Jewish music called Tuning Baghdad. Every element of the dinners is precisely planned, from the music, contributed by Basha, to the serving implements, metal and porcelain wares that originally belonged to the Iraqi-Jewish community.
The Dar Al Sulh storefront in Dubai
With his Dar Al Sulh dinners, Rakowitz attempts to recreate a space and an experience that no longer exists in Iraq. The food serves as a repository of memory for the Iraqi-Jewish communities who fled the country in the 1940s, after a pro-Nazi government took over in a coup d’etat and began carrying out anti-Jewish riots in which more than 180 Jews were killed. Jewish homes were looted and destroyed. In 1941, there were close to 140,000 Jews living in Iraq. By 1952, 124,000 had been exiled. Although displaced from their territorial homes, Iraqi Jews in the diaspora sustained connections to their homeland through music and food." “Food conjures a memory relationship that you can’t get with photographs because of the olfactory sensation,” says Rakowitz.
If diners at Dar Al Sulh realize that the food they were eating doesn’t differ from the kinds of food typically served in a Muslim or Christian Iraqi household, this is the point. “The variations on the food have more to do with regions than it has to do with background or religion,” says Basha. “Iraqi Jews have been in Iraq for centuries. They were in Babylon for a very long time.” Only one dish on the menu remains exclusive to Jewish food repertoire, a slow-cooked rice and chicken meal traditionally cooked on the Sabbath called Tbeet. One night during dinner, a Christian Iraqi turned to Rakowitz and said, “Your Tbeet is good, but my wife does it better.”
“Her story was beautiful,” says Rakowitz, “Her best friends in Baghdad were Jews. They left, and she makes it as a memorial for them.”
In 1990, operation Desert Shield had American military powers and a coalition of international forces drop bombs on Baghdad, a response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Rakowitz was a teenager when it happened.
“I remember sitting in our dinette, eating dinner with my family, and watching the first images of Iraq presented to me in real time, which were images of unrecognizable architecture being blown up,” says Rakowitz. “That was such a violent way of introducing my mother’s homeland to me.”
These events politicized Rakowitz as a teenager, forcing him to contend with his Arab and Jewish identities. Following the events of 1948—the creation of Israel and the depopulation of Palestine—these two identities became crystalized in political discourse as oppositional forces. “What happened simultaneously is the erasure of the identity of Arab Jews, which Israel is also responsible for, because of the coercion and the pressure to emigrate and to essentially give up these millennial-long traditions in order to become this new country,” says Rakowitz.
Michael Rakowitz’s mother in Bombay after leaving Iraq.
In the polemical debates on Israel and Palestine, Arab Jews are often relegated to the margins of history. Many who fled to Israel assimilated to the dominant national culture; those who went westward to the United States, Canada, and Europe find refuge in the small communities they’ve created to keep their traditions alive. But they remain largely invisible to a political culture that compels them to declare loyalty to only one side of who they are. “It’s the saddest thing when people hear the words ‘Arab Jew’ and they think that it’s a paradox or an impossibility,” says Rakowitz. “It was so normal when my grandparents were living in Baghdad and they identified themselves as Arab.”
These conflicts of identity have shaped Rakowitz’s political dispositions, particularly with regard to the Israel-Palestine debate. His position, highly critical of the Israeli state and its policies towards Palestinians, has put him at odds with his own family. “It can be really isolating and alienating in some very significant ways,” says Rakowitz. He teaches classes once a year at the International Academy of Art in Palestine, and he says every single one of his male students has been jailed at least once in their lives.
“This kind of civil rights crisis and human rights crisis is always masked in the international media as some sort of millennia-old religious war, which is total bullshit,” he says.
These experiences informed much of Rakowitz’s work as an artist. His projects are consistently and assertively political. In 2004, he founded Enemy Kitchen, an ongoing project in which he introduces Iraqi cuisine to different audiences. It began as a series of cooking lessons for underprivileged middle school and high school students in New York after-school programs. Many of the students had family members who were stationed in Iraq. “We started to make Iraqi food as a form of resistance against the war,” says Rakowitz. “As people are making something together, you start to talk about other things, and it creates a social space.”
In discussing the Iraq war, the students began vocalizing attitudes on the conflict that represented all dimensions of the political spectrum. One boy came in asking why they were cooking the food of terrorists who knocked down the twin towers. A second student argued that it wasn’t the Iraqis but Bin Laden. And yet another student suggested that the U.S. government was responsible for the attacks on the World Trade Center.
The Iraqi refugee’s and American war veterans who operate the Enemy Kitchen food truck.
At the end of the 10-week program, the students approached Rakowitz and asked him if they could teach him how to make one of their favorite dishes. Rakowitz agreed, and the next week he found himself frying chicken with his students.
“They marinated chicken strips in baharat and taught me how to make Iraqi fried chicken,” says Rakowitz.
Enemy Kitchen culminated into a food truck, where Rakowitz put Iraqi refugees in charge of the cooking, and placed American war veterans who served in Iraq as sous chefs and servers. “It inverts the power dynamic that existed in Iraq, where the Americans are finally taking orders from the Iraqis,” says Rakowitz.