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, Enemy Kitchen opens to feed the masses. (The remaining dates are October 6 and 22.) 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. When food service begins at 2 PM as scheduled 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 that 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 cross-cultural 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, 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 Christians 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 subsided, they were reluctant to broadcast their background. And now, although Iraq is not 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 happen 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 they decide 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 that come to America, he learned, are 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, 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.” v