Michael Rakowitz, Every Weapon Is A Tool If You Hold It Right, 2014. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Michael Rakowtiz.

by Jeremy Ohmes

An artist plans to bring together Iraq War veterans and Iraqi refugees to turn an invasive species into an enriching cultural exchange

Carp is a much maligned and misunderstood fish. You don’t find it on many menus, at least in the United States. Most anglers don’t brag about catching carp. And it is commonly known as a trash fish—a freshwater also-ran to sexier game fish like salmon, trout, and bass and, historically, a staple of lower-class, immigrant laborers’ diets. According to fishing instructor and professional angler Johnny Wilkins, this reputation as garbage fish is completely inaccurate. As filter feeders, carp meticulously sort their food, sifting twigs, pebbles, and unwanted vegetation to get to the good stuff. “They’re actually the finest dining fish in the water,” says Wilkins. “They’d prefer a fresh berry over anything.”

“So they’re like the foodies of the ponds and rivers,” responds Michael Rakowitz, an artist and amateur fisherman.

It’s a bright, clear Sunday morning at Patriot’s Park in Downers Grove, Illinois, a straight-laced Chicago suburb that often makes those annual “Best Places to Retire” lists. Rakowitz is sipping coffee alongside four Iraq War veterans on the bank of Barth Pond while Wilkins prepares fishing bait. An Art Theory and Practice professor at Northwestern University as well as participating artist in SAIC’s exhibition A Proximity of Consciousness: Art and Social Action, Rakowitz has invited Wilkins to teach a few members of Iraq Veterans Against the War how to fish for carp.

As part of an ongoing social practice project titled Every Weapon Is A Tool If You Hold It Right, Rakowitz—whose heritage is Iraqi Jewish—is hoping to catch some carp in order to make a dish called masgouf, which is the national dish of Iraq. The traditional recipe, dating back to Babylonian times, calls for a carp from the Tigris or Euphrates River, cut open from the back down the dorsal fin, and impaled vertically on wooden stakes next to an open fire made with apricot tree logs. The carp is slowly smoked for about two to three hours and then eaten communally with lemon, Iraqi pickled vegetables, mango chutney, rice, and crispy flatbread. Rakowitz says, “It essentially encourages gathering and communing as an excuse to eat this long-cooked fish.” But first there’s the matter of catching the fish.

Carp cannot be caught with regular angling techniques; they don’t go for the typical hook, line, and sinker. Instead, a lot of carp fishing involves snagging, trawling, or sometimes bow fishing (picture a boat cruising down the river while fishermen shoot jumping carp in the air). On this day Wilkins is demonstrating a less injurious technique called the “suspension method.” He rolls up a few balls of bait, a mixture of corn bits, hemp seed, and oats, and tosses them into the middle of the pond. As they disintegrate, he cantilevers a 40-foot-long rod to the spot and drops in a tiny hook with a short leader and bobber. Then the veterans take turns waiting and watching for the carp’s signature single bubbles.

Rakowitz asks them if they ate much Iraqi food during the war. All four of them shake their heads no. Edgar Gonzalez-Baeza says that the Third Country Nationals would occasionally get him more exotic food, but many meals were from the Burger King on his base. An artist and a high school theater teacher, Gonzalez-Baeza was deployed in 2005 for a year to Baghdad with the 301st Tactical Psychological Operations Company. Stationed at Camp Liberty, he says that it was like he was in Iraq, but not really. “I worked in a support role, and I’m considered a combat veteran in the sense that I went to a combat zone, but I never actually saw combat. I was working as a supply sergeant, so a lot of what I dealt with was the aftermath. It was the wreckage of the Humvee that got blown up, and everything that was destroyed in the fire….”

Two of the veterans help Rakowitz set up the fire pit where the masgouf will be made. They hammer stakes into the ground, but instead of the traditional wooden stakes to prop up the fish next to the fire, they use the bayonets of American and Iraqi soldiers. As they spark the apricot wood and kindling, Rakowitz unsheathes the knife for filleting the fish—it’s a steel blade with an ivory and gold handle forged by Saddam Hussein’s personal sword maker. The artist says, “Every weapon is a tool.”

Rakowitz started politically conscious projects in 2003 at the onset of the Iraq War. At that time he was collaborating with his mother on a project called Enemy Kitchen, where they cooked and taught Iraqi recipes to everyone from middle school students to museum-goers. “It was a kind of resistance to the way Iraq was only perceived through crisis and war,” says the artist. “We pushed against the way Iraq was only seen through the green-tinted CNN night-vision of bombs falling and pieces of architecture being blown up.”

Enemy Kitchen evolved into a food truck in Chicago. Rakowitz staffed the truck with Iraqi émigré chefs and brought on board Iraq War veterans as servers and sous chefs. Suddenly, the Americans were taking orders from the Iraqis. Rakowitz notes, “It inverted the power dynamic and put into circulation two kinds of people most Americans haven’t met and engaged with: veterans and Iraqis.”

These two groups of people will eventually come together for the current project as well. For future Every Weapon fishing trips, Rakowitz intends to convene Iraqi refugees and veterans to catch carp, make masgouf, and incite conversation and exchange about their varied experiences in Iraq. (In fact, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources recently invited the artist and the project’s participants to help harvest Asian carp from the Illinois River.)

At the pond in Downers Grove the fire is burning and everyone is still waiting to catch the elusive carp, a fish worthy of its nickname “The Golden Ghost.” Aaron Hughes helps Rakowitz secure a flag to a mulberry tree that hangs over the pond. It’s a four-starred Chicago flag, but it’s rendered in the colors of the Iraq flag—red, green, and black. Rakowitz says the flag not only brings the experience of being there home, but it also represents the strong and proud Iraqi refugee community in Chicago.

Hughes was a junior in college when he was called to active duty with the 1244th Transportation Company of the Army National Guard. In April of 2003, he was deployed to Kuwait, where he served as a truck driver for 15 months, transporting supplies to operating bases throughout Iraq. Hughes is currently a field organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War as well as an artist and a curator. He serves on the board of the National Veterans Art Museum and recently curated the exhibition, Surrealism and War. His work focuses on militarism, violence, and trauma, and, like Rakowitz, he often blurs the lines between art and activism, providing contexts to “communicate complexity” and counter ideologies. In an artist statement, he says: “I didn’t understand the war. I didn’t understand the ease of dehumanization or the ambiguous, anxious convoys of nothingness, for nothing.” For his ongoing performance project, Tea, he prepares and serves Iraqi tea to audiences in various places around the world. He says, “These types of projects are what I’m interested in: conversations and building communities.”

The bobber subtly moves and Wilkins helps one of the veterans reel in and net a two-pound common carp. It’s a beautiful fish with gold-green scales, pinkish fins, and puckering lips—a fish that, at least on the surface, belies its reputation as a bottom-feeding pest and an invasive species. Introduced to filter ponds and fish farms by eating excess algae and plankton, the carp, namely Asian carp, have infiltrated major waterways like the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers, reproducing at an alarming rate, competing with other fish for food and space, and heading toward the Great Lakes. Currently, there is a war against the fish with headlines like “The Great Lakes are under the threat of invasion by a foreign species.”

Rakowitz sees the carp as a metaphor for Iraq and “the way these temporary alliances are made for the purpose of achieving one goal and then they move on.” He says, “[The situation] is similar to how Iraq was a proxy ally to the US during the Iran-Iraq War in order to isolate Iran…but then of course Iraq goes from being an ally to an enemy.”

The Barth Pond carp is split down the back and gutted with the Iraqi knife, rubbed with salt, impaled on the American and Iraqi bayonets, and slowly cooked next to the fire. The deep pink flesh lightens as oil drips from the fish. After a couple hours, the fire burns down and Rakowitz lays the carp directly on to the embers to crisp its thick skin. Then he serves it splayed open on a silver tray with the requisite lemon, rice, pickled vegetables, and flatbread. The artist, the angler, the veterans, and a couple curious park-goers sit in a circle on the bank of the pond tearing into the smoked, pearly meat. Everyone agrees that the taste is clean, flavorful, and surprisingly delicious.

Wilkins comments that he’s just glad they actually caught a carp—the masgouf is an added bonus. But for Rakowitz the day isn’t about the fish or the meal. “Even if we don’t catch something, we’re still getting together and experiencing a place none of us has been before,” he says. “For me all of these things become the transitional object toward something else. This is about the people at the table, the conversations, and how we’re creating a place for reconciliation, accountability, and a way to move forward.”