Feeding ‘The War on Terror’

Written by Sarah Jajou

Figure 1: Rakowitz M (2009) Enemy Kitchen, The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum [photograph], The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum. Image courtesy of the artist.

Figure 2: Rakowitz M (2006) Enemy Kitchen, Hudson Guild Community Center [photograph], Hudson Guild Community Center. Image courtesy of the artist.

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Working primarily within Chicago, Michael Rakowitz (b. 1973) is a transdisciplinary Iraqi American artist concerned with post-colonial social intervention in diasporic communities. Informed by a pedagogical approach to practice, Rakowitz cultivates non-Western ways of knowledge acquisition that undermine the Orientalist dogma catalysed by the 2001 international counter-terrorism military campaign, ‘The Global War on Terrorism’ (GWOT). This discussion paper analyses the sociological and intercultural conditions of the United States of America (USA) within which Michael Rakowitz’ ongoing series of cooking workshops, Enemy Kitchen (2003-present), are situated. Contextually, I will first discuss Edward Said’s (1978; 2003) foundational theory of American exceptionalism in relation to the Orientalist polarity ontologically distinguishing between ‘The West’ and ‘The Middle East’. Acknowledging the ‘us-vs-them’ dynamic, I will navigate the relocation of the subaltern object to subject in Rakowitz’s aesthetic of hospitality; particularly in Enemy Kitchen, The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum (2009) and Enemy Kitchen, Hudson Guild Community Centre (2006). Then, I will trace these concepts to the pragmatic advancements made by Homi K. Bhabha (1978), which reveal diasporic potential to stimulate hybrid, intersecting cultures divergent to homogeny. Ultimately, I will conclude by evaluating the potential of Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen series to facilitate critical post-colonial dialogue through nonconventional pedagogy.

In tandem with traditional Orientalist belief, American exceptionalism claims an inherent discord between the backwards, uncivilised and barbaric societies of ‘The Orient’, and the modernised, democratic ‘West’ (Said 1978). At the very centre of American exceptionalism is the ontological and epistemological distinction made between the ‘West’ as the ‘Self’ and the ‘Middle East’, or the ‘Orient’, as the Other’ (Said 2003).  Throughout Western media, the ‘Arab’ identity has been mystified into a collective entity devoid of individuality, rational thinking and self-discipline (Shaheen 2001). Solely motivated by aggression and vengeance, Arab bodies are fictitiously rendered into a foreign threat to the ‘West’, materialising only at the ‘bloody borders’ of Islam (Huntington 1993:34). Conversely, the ‘West’ is depicted as a religious agent of morality bestowed with a ‘God-given destiny’ to dominate, restructure, and democratise other nations incapable of self-governance – such as the ‘Orient’ (Lipset 1997). The ambiguity of the Arab characterisation has historically accentuated the Western fear that Arabs will take over the world through means of barbaric violence (Said 1978). The ‘Other’ exists as a potential danger to the ‘Self’, and yet, the ‘Self’ cannot rescind anxieties over the difference from or the encounter with the Other. Without the construction of such anxiety, diffidence, and threat, American nationalism would not be able to endure (Campbell 1998). Here, Western colonialism is misconstrued as encounters with danger, barbarism and brutality rather than unilateral violence; in order to justify the ‘Self’ (Campbell 1998). Notably, contemporary American exceptionalism strays from traditional Orientalism, in that it ontologically declares itself superior to other ‘civilised’ societies, such as Europe. This specific strain of thought functions to constrict ideals of multiculturalism, and naturalise Western nationalist, hegemonic narrative (Said 2003).

The foreign threat induced through Orientalist anxieties has historically fabricated an ‘us-and-them’ dynamic – and later ‘us-vs-them’. Support for American interventionism was catalysed by this perceived incompatibility between the ‘Arab’ and the ‘American’. It was believed that the ‘Arab’ is not capable of listening to rationality, for ‘He’ is not like ‘Us’, and cannot appreciate ‘Our’ values (Said 2003). Where the U.S.A. set a moral precedent, its liberal values such as tolerance were weaponised to demarcate Arab subjects as either ‘civilised’ (conforming) or ‘barbaric’ (non-conforming) (Brown 2006). Paradoxically, American exceptionalism views itself to be exceptional and yet a norm to be mimicked. Under George Bush’s administration (2001-2009), the dissemination of such polarity justified the campaign launch of The Global War on Terrorism after 9/11; drawing exceptionalism closer to exemptionism. Arguably, America’s social condition Post 9/11 did not change, but rather ‘became more itself’ (Kagan 2003:85). If not for the Orientalist foundation preceding American exceptionalism, the Iraq invasion (20 March 2003) could not have happened (Said 2003).

In response to Bush’s polarising ‘War on Terror’, Michael Rakowitz’s Enemy Kitchen (2003-present) performance series welcomes audiences to enter the ‘Other’s’ territory fictionalised as a ‘bitterly hostile land’ (Bush 2003). Recognising the ‘us-vs-them’ dynamic, Enemy Kitchen, The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum does not territorialise or homogenise, but rather operates within the diasporic tensions of difference, ambiguity and indeterminacy (Bhabha 1994). Reminiscent of the traditional American barbeque, members of the Chicago Chapters of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) and Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW) cooked Iraqi kofta on Memorial Day together. Enemy Kitchen depicts the inherent element of gathering, as members were brought together in the preparation of the minced meat for Iraqi kofta. While Vietnamese and Iraqi war veterans are epideictically constrained within nationalist rhetoric, Rakowitz recontextualises the notion of ‘service’ for one’s country into acts of community servitude through the shared cultural staple of ‘nourishment’ (Rakowitz 2006).

Empathetically, Rakowitz relocates the ‘subaltern’ – the Arab – from object to an active agent of information (Bhabha 1994), through the workshop renegotiating agency to the Arab identity and permitting them to represent themselves alternate to the ‘Other’. While the subaltern is expected to assume Western ways of narrative entailing verbal or written languages, thought and reasoning, Rakowitz’s work privileges alternative forms of knowing to validate the subaltern as subject (Spivak 1993). Sensory encounters of the ‘lower order’, such as touch, taste and smell, crucially articulate diasporic experience connected to past and present places of habitation (Oliver 2011). Beyond a rigid Western construction of the ‘Other’, olfactory encounters propose an embodied subjectivity to diasporic subjects (Oliver 2011). Critically, Rakowitz’s workshop speaks to the way smell can simultaneously mark bodies as ‘foreign’, attesting to the Eurocentric desire to locate origin and establish boundaries. While experienced subjectively, all participants of the performance are intermingled in the same aromas and tastes; and here, the diffusive qualities of olfaction resist otherness. Subversively, food knowledge emerges as a contrapuntal ontology threatening the Western ‘abstract and impersonal regime of modernity’, antagonised by its ‘radical interiority, boundary transgressing propensities and emotional potency’ (Classen 1994:5). Cultural information is imbued within the bodily labour of preparing and making Iraqi kofta in a communal setting and memorised through verbal enunciations of recipe. It is then chewed, swallowed and digested in the formation of a multisensory methodology traversing gesture, touch, smell and taste (Santos 2019). Through intercultural histories of food ontologies, it is possible to nurture systems of reciprocity and solidarity; and most importantly produce subaltern knowledges located beyond the colonial historiographical canon (Santos 2019).

The practice of reflexive listening, negotiating and disrupting within Rakowitz’s socially engaged practice becomes apparent in earlier iterations proximate to the events of 9/11. At the intersection of pedagogy and cooking, the intersubjective encounter also carves out space for dialogical discourse through which Iraqi culture can be discussed outside conventional Western realms of knowledge proliferation such as propaganda and education (Rakowitz 2006). In Enemy Kitchen, Hudson Guild Community Center, the primary premise was to teach middle and high school students various Baghdadi recipes assembled by Rakowitz and his Iraqi-Jewish mother. This included kubba bamia, a meat dumpling stew of okra poured over basmati rice; and baklawa, a sweet pastry embellished with nuts and syrup. Rakowitz recounts an event when a student asked, ‘why are we making this nasty food? They [the Iraqis] blow up our soldiers every day and they knocked down the Twin Towers’ (Rakowitz 2006). Dialogically, this created a platform for examining forms of fiction and narrative about Arab and colonial identities within the context of the 9/11 aftermath. Facilitating the dialectic examination of cultural signs and narratives amongst students, discussion oscillated between what constitutes ‘our’ in juxtaposition to ‘they’ (Rakowitz 2006). In conjunction with food as ontology, the work reveals itself as instrumental to engaging dialogical forms of critical pedagogy outside traditional education systems in America. Within the diasporic environment, cultural renegotiation is made possible by unifying students from different ‘funds of knowledge’ to cultivate a transformative learning outside dominant Western belief (Moll 1992).

With such transethnic and transcultural properties emerging from Rakowitz’s encounters, Enemy Kitchen approaches Bhabha’s notion of the ‘Third Space’ or the ‘Hybrid Space’ (Bhabha 1994). Bhabha contends that at the interstitial passage overlapping cultural identities, it is possible to produce intercultural identities beyond the parameters of colonial homogeny (Bhabha 1994). Arguably, the state of hybridity materializes at the failure of the colonial authority to translate, interpret and contain the ‘Other’ via a singular framework (Bhabha 1994). Consequently, this undermines traditional essentialist principle of the ‘invariable and fixed properties’ which epistemologically declare the ‘whatness’ of an entity (Fuss 1989, xi). At the very core of American exceptionalism and Orientalism is this belief; that there is something essential, fixed or pure pertained solely to Western culture. Subversive to Western homogenic thought, Bhabha cautiously identifies the dangers of cultural fixity and binary and maintains that all cultures are persistently in the process of hybridity and liminality (Bhabha 1994)

Significantly, this unstable state of cultural indeterminacy and hybridity is naturally infused in the diasporic setting of Rakowitz’s work (Tsing 2011). In Enemy Kitchen, Hudson Guild Community Center, Rakowitz engages with reciprocity in tandem with the productive capabilities of the ‘Third Space’ (Bhabha 1994). After eight weeks of learning how to cook Iraqi recipes, students at the Hudson Guild Community Centre suggested to teach Rakowitz their own families’ recipes. Anecdotally, Rakowitz recalls a student, Hyasheem, asking whether there is a Southern fried chicken dish within Iraqi cuisine, and then proposing to invent one (Rakowitz 2006). Fried chicken is racially connoted as a ‘slave food’ for enslaved African Americans, and later assimilated into Southern cuisine after the abolition of slavery (Bering 2011). This sensitive contact zone between culture, stemming from histories of Western imperialism, invites participants to examine colonial inscriptions in cuisine and reinscribe new culture readings of ‘sign’ (Bhabha 1994). Aided by the ambiguity of interpreting and translation, the newly arisen ‘multivocal language situation’ validates complex multivocal narratives outside the restraints of polarity (Bakhtin 1963). Central to Enemy Kitchen is this ambiguously occurring hybridity, which syncretically moves towards post-colonial expressions of transcultural reading and reciprocity.

Overall, Michael Rakowitz’s body of work pragmatically, and unconventionally, materialises the postcolonial criticisms raised by Said and Bhabha. Rakowitz’ socially engaged series, Enemy Kitchen, realises the neglected potential of non-traditional pedagogy in the horizontalizing of colonial knowledges. Situated within a racially charged exceptionalist American condition, Rakowitz’ community interventions are performed in recognition of the dialectically absent and subaltern Arab identity. Compassionately, the hybrid space emerging facilitates mutual experiences of transcultural and transethnic exchange. The friction, sensitivities and tensions arising from these diasporic encounters do not negate hybridity, but instead reveal its productive capabilities to produce ontologies divergent to Western frameworks of knowledge. Through postcolonial dialogue and pedagogical performance, Rakowitz’ community practice establishes itself as an empathetic framework with the potential to displace polarity and ultimately, nurture networks of connection.