Michael Rakowitz’s food truck and pub­lic art project brings Iraqis and Amer­i­cans to­gether for free meals in front of the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art.


The En­emy Kitchen food truck has an er­ratic and un­pre­dictable sched­ule. Most of the time it sits on the plaza out­side the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, which is cur­rently show­ing “Back­stroke of the West,” a mid­ca­reer sur­vey of the work of the food truck’s pro­pri­etor, the artist Michael Rakowitz. ( Do not call it a ret­ro­spec­tive. “A ret­ro­spec­tive,” says Rakowitz, “is a liv­ing funeral.”) In­side the gallery, a plaque briefly tells the story of En­emy Kitchen’s his­tory and mis­sion, and de­scribes the truck it­self as an “in­stal­la­tion.”

But on select Fri­day evenings and Sun­day af­ter­noons for the last two months, En­emy Kitchen has opened to feed the masses. ( The re­main­ing date is Oc­to­ber 22 at noon.) All the food is free, for as long as the sup­ply holds out. For a stint in 2012, Rakowitz pre­pared food in­side the truck. Now chefs at Marisol, the MCA’s new res­tau­rant, do the cook­ing, us­ing Rakowitz’s fam­ily recipes, while the artist, as­sisted by Amer­i­can vet­er­ans of the Iraq war, dishes out the food onto pa­per repli­cas of Sad­dam Hus­sein’s china.

On the Sun­day morn­ing af­ter Yom Kip­pur, the Jewish day of atone­ment, there was a prob­lem with the gas in Marisol’s kitchen, and Rakowitz and the MCA thought they might have to can­cel the event. But the gas was re­stored, and Sam Ber­man, the chef on duty, was able to pre­pare the

kofta ( meat­balls), kubba stew, mas­gouf ( grilled fish), and amba and fat­toush sal­ads, and food ser­vice be­gins at 2 PM as sched­uled. Al­ready, there are about 50 peo­ple lined up and wait­ing. “It’s a Yom Kip­pur mir­a­cle!” Rakowitz tells them.

Rakowitz has curly dark hair and a dra­matic mus­tache, and he speaks rapidly with a slight New York ac­cent. His body is usu­ally in mo­tion, and you get the im­pres­sion that his brain is too. He likes to talk. In most of his work he con­sid­ers the re­la­tion­ship between the U. S. and the Mid­dle East not through the lens of ab­stract for­eign pol­icy, but in ways that are much more ac­ces­si­ble: pop cul­ture ( the ti­tle “Back­stroke of the West” comes from an Ara­bic mis­trans­la­tion of the ti­tle of a Star Wars movie), re­pro­duc­tions of lost ar­ti­facts, and, es­pe­cially, food.

To­day’s En­emy Kitchen ser­vice be­gins, as usual, with a brief wel­com­ing speech/ artist talk from Rakowitz. Ini­tially he thought about in­cor­po­rat­ing the Yom Kip­pur themes of atone­ment and for­give­ness, but in­stead he de­cides to fo­cus on the story of the truck it­self. It goes like this:

In the fall of 2001, Rakowitz, who was then liv­ing in New York, no­ticed that the lines out­side Khy­ber Pass, an Afghan res­tau­rant in the East Vil­lage, had grown un­usu­ally long. The cus­tomers were stag­ing a form of protest against the anti- Mus­lim rhetoric and at­tacks on mosques that had be­gun af­ter 9/ 11: they were go­ing to sup­port the peo­ple of Afghanistan by eat­ing their food. They couldn’t sup­port the peo­ple of Iraq in the same way be­cause there were no Iraqi restau­rants in New York.

Rakowitz had first be­come aware of the con­nec­tion between food and pol­i­tics and her­itage a decade ear­lier, dur­ing the ini­tial sor­ties of the first Gulf war. He was 16 years old and liv­ing in the same town on Long Is­land to which his grand­par­ents had im­mi­grated from Iraq, via Mum­bai, in 1946. His grand­fa­ther, Nis­sim Isaac Daoud bin Aziz, an­gli­cized the fam­ily name to David and went into busi­ness as a date im­porter. Rakowitz grew up eat­ing Iraqi food, hear­ing his mother and grand­par­ents speak Ara­bic when they didn’t want him to know what they were talk­ing about, and lis­ten­ing to his grand­mother Renée’s sto­ries about how, in Bagh­dad, she would tell time by the “singing tow­ers,” the minarets which is­sued the Mus­lim call to prayer five times a day. “Now,” he says, “the sto­ries were at risk. The place they had fled to was at war with the place they fled from.”

Rakowitz’s mother, Yvonne, didn’t want her sons to ex­pe­ri­ence Iraq for the first time through the blurry green night- vi­sion footage on CNN. “There was only vul­gar and vi­o­lent at­ten­tion from TV,” Rakowitz tells the crowd as­sem­bled out­side En­emy Kitchen. “She wanted to cre­ate an Iraqi cul­ture in the U. S. beyond the war.” She did this by teach­ing them the lan­guage of Iraqi cui­sine.

A dozen years later, in 2003, as the sec­ond Gulf war was get­ting un­der way, Rakowitz de­cided he would do the same for the rest of New York. He started up a se­ries of cook­ing classes, teach­ing Yvonne’s recipes to var­i­ous groups around the city. Among them was a co­hort of high school stu­dents who had par­ents serv­ing over­seas in Iraq. The sub­ject of the war was deemed too in­cen­di­ary by their teach­ers to be dis­cussed in their his­tory or govern­ment classes, but con­ver­sa­tions started spon­ta­neously as they la­bored over the prepa­ra­tion of kofta and kubba. One stu­dent asked why they were learn­ing about Iraqi food when the Iraqis had knocked down the World Trade Cen­ter tow­ers. It wasn’t the Iraqis, an­other stu­dent cor­rected, it was Osama bin Laden. No, said a third stu­dent, it was our own govern­ment.

“Here was a panorama of the mis­in­for­ma­tion that let the war go on,” Rakowitz now says.

En­emy Kitchen didn’t end the war, but it did cre­ate a mod­icum of un­der­stand­ing and cross­cul­tural com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and off­set some of the hos­til­ity from the war with the Iraqi tra­di­tion of hos­pi­tal­ity. At the end of their ses­sion, the high school stu­dents told Rakowitz they wanted to teach him about their food. To­gether, they in­vented a recipe for Iraqi fried chicken, made with Iraqi spices and date syrup. “It was as­ton­ish­ingly de­li­cious,” Rakowitz says. ( The recipe ap­pears in the “Back­stroke of the West” ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­log.)

When Rakowitz moved to Chicago to teach at North­west­ern Univer­sity in 2006, he brought

En­emy Kitchen with him. He found a vin­tage 1960 ice cream truck, painted it mil­i­tary green, and dec­o­rated it with an Iraqi ea­gle and the Chicago flag in the Iraqi colors, black, red, and green. Then he re­cruited Iraqi chefs to help cook and Amer­i­can vet­er­ans to help serve— the idea was to have sup­posed en­e­mies work to­gether— and, in 2012, be­gan serv­ing free meals in var­i­ous lo­ca­tions around Chicago.

The vet­er­ans found it lib­er­at­ing to meet and work with Iraqis. To­day’s servers, army vet Aaron Hughes and navy vet Michael Ap­ple­gate, were for­bid­den to have con­tact with civil­ians dur­ing their time over­seas; Hughes was once dis­ci­plined for giv­ing an old wo­man a drink of water. “Peo­ple say, ‘ Thank you for your ser­vice,’” he says, “but I don’t feel good about it. I pre­fer serv­ing in this way, in a very so­cial, hu­man way that breaks down as­sumed cul­tural bar­ri­ers. Michael is shar­ing his fam­ily. That’s not how you in­ter­act when you’re at war.”

But many of the Iraqis as­so­ci­ated with the project have had more com­pli­cated re­ac­tions. The Iraqi com­mu­nity in Chicago is an old one: the first Assyr­i­ans, Ara­maic- speak­ing Chris tians from north­ern Iraq, ar­rived nearly a cen­tury ago. But dur­ing the first Gulf war, many be­came afraid of be­ing iden­ti­fied as the en­emy, and even af­ter hos­til­i­ties sub-

sided, they were re­luc­tant to broad­cast their back­ground. And now, although Iraq isn’t in­cluded in the cur­rent it­er­a­tion of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s travel ban, Iraqis view it as a ban against Mus­lims in gen­eral and are afraid to give the govern­ment any pos­si­ble rea­son to no­tice and de­port them. ( This is not an ir­ra­tional fear; ear­lier this year, U. S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment rounded up dozens of Assyr­i­ans in Michi­gan and sent some back to Iraq.) It’s dif­fi­cult, Rakowitz ob­serves, to talk about Iraq with­out talk­ing about pol­i­tics. And so, while Rakowitz con­tin­ues to in­vite Iraqis to par­tic­i­pate in En­emy Kitchen, many of them, as he puts it, “keep it in an in­de­ter­mi­nate space when we talk.”

While the En­emy Kitchen food truck is one of the few openly Iraqi in­sti­tu­tions in the city, it’s not the only place that serves Iraqi food. “There are Iraqi restau­rants in Chicago,” Rakowitz tells the crowd, “but they don’t tell you be­cause of xeno­pho­bia. They say they’re ‘ Mediter­ranean.’ But if they serve mas­gouf it’s a sign.”

There’s even an Iraqi night­club, he adds, Baby­lon Bistro, open on Fri­day and Satur­day nights in what’s nor­mally Milo’s Pita Place at 2639 W. Peter­son in West Ridge. ( Rakowitz likes to pro­vide ex­act street ad­dresses.) Milo, aka Mi­lad, is a good friend of En­emy Kitchen. The food truck spent sev­eral years parked be­hind the Pita Place. Last June, van­dals at­tacked it, and then, find­ing noth­ing of value, at­tacked the res­tau­rant it­self. Af­ter that, Rakowitz had the truck towed and set up a Kick­starter cam­paign to re­store it. The MCA ex­hi­bi­tion pro­vided a good excuse to re­vive the food- serv­ing part of the project.

Af­ter Rakowitz fin­ishes ex­plain­ing the his­tory of En­emy Kitchen and the two vet­er­ans make a few re­marks, the serv­ing be­gins. The line moves slowly, but no one seems to mind. Rakowitz chats with the guests, ask­ing where they’re from or what brought them to the mu­seum. Many are tourists, but a few are friends or for­mer stu­dents who came in­ten­tion­ally, and a few more are neigh­bor­hood res­i­dents who hap­pened to be walk­ing by. Some peo­ple stop to ask ques­tions but don’t stay to eat. One cou­ple, rid­ing on bikes from one of the Kimp­ton ho­tels, cir­cles the plaza for a few min­utes, watch­ing, be­fore de­cid­ing to leave; the man says he doesn’t like the im­pli­ca­tions of the ti­tle “en­emy kitchen.”

As 3 PM nears, al­most all the food is gone, ex­cept for half a tray of bas­mati rice, a few balls of lamb kebab, and some date cook­ies. Rakowitz and Hughes scrape the bot­tom of the trays, try­ing to find a few last bits of kubba stew. De­part­ing guests squirt rose water on their hands from the soap dis­penser at­tached to the side of the truck be­neath a line of Ara­bic script that trans­lates as “Bless your hands.” A few linger to talk with Rakowitz. An el­derly In­dian man is ex­cited to learn about the sim­i­lar­i­ties between In­dian and Iraqi food. ( Rice and spices and pick­led mango trav­eled between the two coun­tries, Rakowitz tells him, af­ter the Bri­tish took con­trol of Iraq af­ter World War I.) An­other U. S. army vet­eran tells Rakowitz how the food brought him to tears be­cause it re­minded him of meals he’d eaten in Iraq when he was a pro­to­col of­fi­cer dur­ing the war.

“Back­stroke of the West” in­cludes rem­nants of some of Rakowitz’s other food- re­lated projects, in­clud­ing Re­turn, in which he re­opened his grand­fa­ther’s store on At­lantic Av­enue in Brook­lyn and at­tempted to im­port dates ( most Iraqi dates com­ing to Amer­ica, he learned, were be­ing routed through Le­banon or Saudi Ara­bia in or­der to cir­cum­vent sanc­tions, and the process by which they trav­eled was re­mark­ably sim­i­lar to that of Iraqi refugees); Spoils, a din­ner in a res­tau­rant in New York served on Sad­dam Hus­sein’s china, which he’d pur­chased on eBay ( it was later repa­tri­ated; the pa­per plates are a trib­ute); and Dar Al Sulh ( Do­main

of Con­cil­i­a­tion), a pop- up res­tau­rant in Dubai that was the first res­tau­rant in the Arab world to serve Iraqi- Jewish cui­sine since the Jewish ex­o­dus of the 1950s. Many Iraqi vis­i­tors rem­i­nisced about their lost neigh­bors, who had, be­fore Arab na­tion­al­ism and Zion­ism cre­ated di­vi­sions between Jews and Mus­lims and Chris­tians, con­sid­ered them­selves Arabs too.

“Th­ese nar­ra­tives about na­tion­al­ism erased ev­ery­thing,” Rakowitz says. “There was a plu­ral­is­tic and cos­mopoli­tan so­ci­ety in Iraq that’s been lost to the past. My projects are a blue­print for go­ing for­ward and speak­ing fear­lessly about a time when there weren’t di­vi­sions. It’s a way of res­cu­ing. It’s a way of be­ing in the world, of hos­pi­tal­ity and com­mu­nity beyond blood­lines. In terms of world his­tory [ the ex­o­dus of the Jews from Iraq] was just 10 AM this morn­ing. It’s not too late for a rean­i­ma­tion of plu­ral­ism, to show how things can be.”

Rakowitz has still never been to Iraq. He’s met so many Iraqis through his work, though, that when he fi­nally gets there, it will be less about re­cov­er­ing his fam­ily roots than vis­it­ing friends. But for now, he wants to con­cen­trate his ef­forts of help­ing the Iraqis of Chicago.

“I want peo­ple to show their love to the Iraqi com­mu­nity and the grow­ing Syr­ian com­mu­nity here in Chicago,” he says. “This is a sanc­tu­ary city still. Peo­ple are run­ning. Lives are on the line. And hos­pi­tal­ity is so im­por­tant in Iraqi cul­ture. So go out and sup­port the com­mu­nity. Go to Baby­lon Bistro on a Satur­day night. Think about the other Chicagoans here who are mak­ing the city in­cred­i­ble.”


Dur­ing an Oc­to­ber 1 activation of En­emy Kitchen out­side the MCA, Michael Rakowitz ( left) serves Iraqi cui­sine with the help of U. S. mil­i­tary vet­er­ans.

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