You Are Eating a Dying Language: Michael Rakowitz on Arab Jewish Identity

October 20, 2014

Artist Michael Rakowitz examines the disappearance of Arab Jewish identity in the context of his recent project Dar Al Sulh, a temporary restaurant serving Iraqi Jewish cuisine in Dubai, for Creative Time Reports’ Summit Series. The series features articles related to themes at the heart of the 2014 Creative Time Summit Stockholm, a collaboration with the Public Art Agency Sweden.

For one week last year, the artist Michael Rakowitz operated an Iraqi Jewish restaurant out of the Dubai art space Traffic as part of the Moving Museum’s exhibition “TECTONIC.” The temporary kitchen, a rarity in the wake of the Jewish population’s mass exodus from Iraq during 1948–51, drew older visitors nostalgic for their pasts as well as younger diners attracted by its novelty. Elaborating on the themes of the project for this podcast, Michael Rakowitz sat down with two of his collaborators, the independent curator Regine Basha, who has chronicled Iraqi Jewish music with her archival project Tuning Baghdad, and the scholar Ella Habiba Shohat, author of several books in addition to the influential essay “Reflections of an Arab Jew.”

The restaurant, Dar Al Sulh, is in some senses a continuation of Rakowitz’s “Enemy Kitchen” project, started in 2004. In its first iteration, Rakowitz cooked with middle and high school students in a summer program, teaching them his Iraqi Jewish grandmother’s recipes. The classes became an entry point for discussions about the war in Iraq and aimed to humanize a culture often depicted as a faceless “other” in mainstream media reports.

Similarly, Dar Al Sulh uses a shared culture of food and hospitality as a catalyst for broader political discussions. The communal tables provided the feast with the atmosphere of a family meal and for many, the food was reminiscent of home. Rakowitz discusses how diners were often surprised to discover that Iraqi Jewish food was no different from Iraqi food, and it shared many flavors and ingredients with other Middle Eastern cultures.

The restaurant’s name, Dar Al Sulh, or “Domain of Conciliation,” refers to a territory in which an agreement is made between Muslims and non-Muslims to guarantee freedom of religion, autonomy and protection, an arrangement under which Arab Jewish populations had once flourished. The title serves as reminder of the social and political climate before the establishment of Israel, in which one could claim both Jewish and Arab identities without conflict.

This piece, commissioned by Creative Time Reports, has also been published by Jadaliyya.