Vegetables stuffed with rice, spices and ground chicken. To Lebanese ears, this sounds like mahshi — and there is nothing “Jewish” about mahshi.
It’s May. I am seated at a communal dining table in Traffic, a dying art gallery in Dubai, about to celebrate a space that has run its course by sharing the cuisine of a culture, which in contrast, has been interrupted and diverted. My taste buds have been promised the resuscitation of a fading ethnicity. I am about to eat mahasha, my menu explains, cooked according to artist Michael Rakowitz’s Iraqi-Jewish grandmother’s recipe. My teta (1) too, cooks mahshi. I am with friends, also from Lebanon. We are patrons of the artist’s pop-up restaurant Dar Al Sulh, or Domain of Conciliation, on its seventh and final night in operation; its name an homage to the days of religious tolerance (relative to our dismal present) that characterised the Middle East prior to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, the drawing of Arab borders and the emergence of the state of Israel (2). We are told that this is the first public serving of Iraqi-Jewish cuisine in the Middle East since the beginning of the community’s exodus in the 1940s. Our bellies prepare to make history (3).
Interrupting our usual post-work routines, we rushed to the gallery, excited about the prospect of participating in a living artwork in a city often accused of soullessness. In Dubai, most journeys are necessarily mapped out, and even spontaneity must, to a certain degree, be planned. Unable to accommodate pedestrianism, the city hinders our ability to get lost, to wander, to discover detours and allow our day, our city, our encounters or our strangers, to restructure our lives, even if for only a few surprising hours. Here, we tend to know where we are going and the one way to get there, and we are usually aware of what any given location or event has to offer. My friends and I knew that we were heading to Traffic Gallery but, constrained by the limits of our experiences, we couldn’t know what to expect. Senses first, we ran towards the exotic promise of meaning being injected into the term “Iraqi-Jewish food”. Some of us had never knowingly met a Jewish — let alone an Iraqi-Jewish — person before, and all of us had been subject to decades of televised, printed, improvised and mimed reminders of hatreds, conflicts and unconquerable differences. We ran, demon towards demon, caricature towards caricature, not sure what we were looking for, let alone what we were going to find.
Now, seated around the table at Traffic Gallery, we glance uncomfortably at the strangers sharing our table. We pass around kichree (red lentils and rice), mahasha and amba salad (a type of mango pickle), served on vintage plates that originally belonged to members of the Iraqi-Jewish community, and which survived their exile. The flag of Palestine, once shared by the short-lived Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan, hangs in the background, next to the Iraqi flag briefly adopted after the revolution led by Abdul Karim Qassim in 1958, which ended Hashemite rule and transformed the country into a republic — black, white and green, the flag displays a yellow sun at its centre representing the Kurdish minority, surrounded by a red star symbolising the country’s ancient heritage. Each of Dar Al Sulh’s seven nights were conceptualised around the seven primary tastes, and we are lucky enough to sample Rakowitz’s Iraqi interpretation of the ambiguous “umami”.
The amba salad is waiting for us when we arrive — served in metal bowls that were smuggled out of Iraq in the 1940s and have somehow made their way into our contemporary and privileged context. Sweet and tangy, it features everything we as Lebanese associate with a salad — cucumbers, raw onions, bell peppers, and tomatoes — but with a refreshingly different, pickled edge. Similarly, eating the mahasha and kichree is like digging into a comfort food made by a friend’s mother — the fundamentals are the same but novel, unidentifiable spices tickle our tongues; we cut into a delicious stuffed onion, not typical among the vegetables we as Lebanese incorporate into mahshi; the kichree reminds us of the Egyptian staple koshari and our very own mjaddara and mdardarra, but there is something subtly distinct. We can’t figure out what it is, but it’s there, hiding beneath a bed of rice and lentils. We taste elements not potent enough to distance these dishes from our own cuisine but sufficiently palatable so as to introduce another, welcome instance of intra-cultural culinary diversity. We fail to locate the “other” in the familiar dishes presented to us and in the recognisable ritual of hospitality in which we are participating.
I am relieved. I did not come here to taste difference. I came here to reclaim a morsel of the collective memories that politics and history have denied me. I came here to reconstruct the Arab, long ago butchered and broken down like an animal carcass into individual, limp parts fallaciously past off as holistic identities. I came searching for my respectively southern and northern Lebanese Muslim grandmothers in the pages of Rakowitz’s Iraqi-Jewish familial recipe book. I came seeking out the subtle variations in flavour, technique and plating that indicate not alienating foreign difference, but enriching domestic diversity. “You are eating a dying language from the plate of a ghost,” explains Rakowitz. To me, that threatened ghost is not only the Arab Jew, but the Arab in her entirety — her throat surrounded by the daggers of sectarianism, her ancestral language of “us” gradually being smothered into silence by the angry fists of many selfish regional versions of “we”.
We fail to locate the “other” in the familiar dishes presented to us.
I don’t remember the Arab Jews. The Middle East has Alzheimer’s and I have inherited it. Our past is endangered. Memories have been ethnically cleansed. As the years pass, what do we have to look forward to? Will more communities join the Arab Jews in the purgatory of hyphenated identities transformed into oxymoronic impossibilities? What will become of the Arabs, who now near extinction, overrun as they are by Sunnis, Shi’ites, Maronites, and so on and so forth? Will these categories deconstruct themselves further in their fanatical search for an unattainable purity of superior being until even our atoms are waging civil wars against one another?
Or will our palettes save us? They, it seems, have not forgotten. They have been spared the amnesiac touch of nationalism(s). We can still recognise ourselves in the cuisines of those we are taught to despise. Common foods have the power to awake hibernating memories and provoke uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Arabs — all Arabs — still share a culinary sensibility, one that can fill in the cracks caused by decades of divisive, osmotic -isms. Records have been burned, borders have been redrawn, countries have been replaced, oral narratives have faded into whispers, but food is the immortal diary of dying cultures, preserving them on the brink of life until enough of their determined offspring decide to rejuvenate them.
Our meal at Dar Al Sulh is now nearing its end. As we bite into slices of juicy watermelon, “signing” — as we say in Arabic — our meal with fruit, just like we are accustomed to doing, Rakowitz kindly asks for our attention. Standing alongside him is Ella Shohat, a legend among academics specialised in the Middle East. An Iraqi-Jew like Rakowitz, she has come here to serve as his interlocutor. On previous nights, they were accompanied by Regine Basha, who presented Tuning Baghdad, an archive of rare video footage, audio clips and information on Iraqi-Jewish musicians and the Baghdadi music scene of the 1940s and early 1950s. For an artist of his calibre, Rakowitz is unconventionally shy, humble and unpretentious. He didn’t come here to present an artwork in a vacuum, to make a statement, to raise eyebrows or garner applause. Listening to him awkwardly recite Arabic poetry, explain some of the photographs hanging on the wall, lovingly narrate anecdotes about his grandmother, and remind us that “Jews were once Arabs too,” I feel that more than anything what the artist is doing here is staging a family reunion, calling out to those of us who, like him, have been failed by modernity and undermined by nationalisms, and robbed of our histories and cultural heritage. Unsatisfied with the identities that, within limits imposed on us by politics, we are able to develop, I see Rakowitz as having designed a setting where the skeleton of the future Arab could, for his sake and ours, be discussed and however faintly, imagined.
I don’t remember the Arab Jews. The Middle East has Alzheimer’s and I have inherited it.
After dining in Dar Al Sulh, I feel artificial. I am drawn to memories of different ways of being that aren’t mine but should have been. I balloon with the overwhelming urge not to resurrect the past, but to create from the little of it that has survived a new “we”. I think about piecing together these subtle similarities that hint at a bygone unity, which preceded the imagined borders and distinctions imposed on our present. And, I feel hopeful that we can learn from our grandparents how to alternatively inhabit our troubled modernity, working on being Arab and Jewish, Arab and Muslim, Arab and Christian, coexisting not despite of differences but because of their insignificance.
(1) The colloquial Lebanese term for grandmother.
(2) Dar Al Sulh was commissioned and co-produced by The Moving Museum as part of its recent show Tectonic.
(3) This work is heir to the artist’s project Enemy Kitchen, a Chicago food truck that paired Iraqi immigrant cooks with US army veteran sous chefs.
Both photos were taken by Kamal Rasool at Traffic during another dinner, called the Sweet night. Source: I am not a fiend.