Masgouf is considered the national dish of Iraq. Dating back to ancient Babylon, the basic recipe consists of a fresh carp fished from the Tigris River, split open from the back, gutted, and impaled on two wooden stakes next to an open fire of apricot logs or reeds. The fish can take anywhere from one to three hours to cook, during which time guests eat mezze and congregate.
Here in Chicago, Iraqi and Assyrian restaurants serve what is sometimes referred to as Diaspora masgouf—catfish, red snapper or another fish simply grilled on a stove and smothered in a rich tomato sauce.
In 2007, Baghdad’s Imams issued a fatwa on the carp swimming in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, declaring them unclean and unfit for human consumption due to the large number of human corpses found in the waterways. And so, at the height of the war, yet another of Iraq’s cultural symbols was endangered.
The common carp was brought to the United States from Eurasia via Germany as a food fish in the 1800s and is widely regarded as the first wave of an “invasive species” that has culminated in recent years with the overwhelming growth and spread of the silver and bighead carp. These particular carp, along with the black and grass carp, were brought over to the US in the 1970s to clean commercial ponds of plankton and algae. Those fish soon find their way into the Mississippi River and other major tributaries. They grow quickly, multiply in great numbers and are considered a threat to native species for space and food.
A much-publicized campaign was launched in Illinois, Missouri and other states to establish measures to prevent the spread of Asian carp, especially in the Great Lakes. While a market for the fish as food in the US has not been sufficiently established, fisheries have flash frozen silver and bighead carp to be exported to China, where it is eaten; ground up and exported to Israel, where it is an essential ingredient in gefilte fish; and exported to Iraq, where the fish has served as a substitute for making masgouf.
Every Weapon Is A Tool If You Hold It Right seeks to recuperate carp as surrogates for convenient ecological and geopolitical alliances from the past, now unwanted. Building on his ongoing project, Enemy Kitchen, artist Michael Rakowitz once again works in collaboration with the city’s community of Iraqi émigrés and US veterans of the Iraq War. Together, they go on carp fishing excursions in Chicagoland’s waters, led by World Champion angler Johnny Wilkins, preparing masgouf from the day’s catch. The stakes supporting the fish while it cooks in the fire pit are fashioned from Iraqi and American bayonets. The gutting knife was forged by Saddam Hussein’s personal sword maker.
Weapons become tools, an invasive species preserves and makes present an endangered recipe.
Read more about Rakowitz’s project here.