Michael Rakowitz

RETURN . 2004 – Ongoing

Michael Rakowitz . +

In 1946, my grandfather, Nissim Isaac David, was exiled from Iraq with his family (pictured above). Like many Iraqi Jews, they were forced to leave behind a legacy spanning close to half a millennium. After settling in Long Island, his import and export company, Davisons & Co., among the most successful and active in the Middle East, found a new home in New York. The business closed in the 1960s. He died in 1975. In 2004 I reopened my grandfather’s business.

The company initially functioned somewhat symbolically as a drop box. Then in 2005 it took the form of a full-fledged packaging center and sorting facility. Members of the Iraqi diaspora community and interested citizens were invited to send objects and goods of their choice, to be shipped free of charge to recipients in Iraq, an exceptional offer at a time when the shipping and trade infrastructure in the country had completely collapsed on account of the war.

In 2006 I opened Davisons & Co. as a storefront on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.

In addition to continuing the gesture of shipping items, I wanted to explore the possibility of importing something that was clearly labeled as Product of Iraq. This venture began with the discovery of a can of Second House Products Date Syrup. Though stamped on the back as Product of Lebanon, the date syrup is in fact processed in Baghdad, put into large plastic vats, and then driven over the border into Syria, where it gets packed into unmarked aluminum cans. It is then driven across the border into Lebanon where it receives a label and is then exported to the rest of the world. From 1990 until May 2003, this was one method that Iraqi companies used in order to circumvent UN sanctions. It was still in practice in August 2004, more than one year after the sanctions had been dropped, due to prohibitive “security” charges levied by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and Homeland Security for any freight bearing the origin of Iraq.

The date syrup led me to dates, which were legendary in Iraq, with a yield of over 600 varieties. I signed a deal with an Iraqi company, Al Farez, to import one ton of dates from the city of Hilla, the first such deal in more than 25 years.

In the store I displayed pictures of the harvest, which Al Farez sent me. The dates were packed and ready to ship via Jordan in early October. They traveled by truck along the most dangerous road in the country, then waited in a line of cars at the Jordanian border that was reported to be four days long, as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis tried to flee the worsening sectarian violence. After sending the truck back to Baghdad for a radiation certificate, the Jordanians finally refused the cargo as a security concern. The exhausted truck driver then headed north to Syria and dropped off the dates at the airport in Damascus, where they were to get on a plane to Egypt, then onward to the US. The shipment was held there for a week, and was by then so blistered from three hot weeks in a truck that Al Farez deemed it unacceptable for export. So the shipment died in Syria.

Meanwhile, the store opened, empty of Iraqi dates for the time being, but selling four California varieties derived from Iraqi seed. All along, the story of the dates and daily updates were communicated to customers frequenting the store. The dates suddenly became a surrogate, traveling the same path as Iraqi refugees. The store became a place where that crisis and its affiliated narrative was being disseminated—hardly the exchange a customer would expect.

Customer reactions were as layered as my gesture of opening the store. Many, like Shamoon Salih, an Iraqi Jew who left in 1960, spoke from the position of nostalgia and memory, which always seemed to be a window into the pain or the trauma of having to leave Iraq, or being unable to return in the current context. Others came in to speak about possible business ventures, like Ibrahim, from Kurdistan, and Omar, from Egypt, who wanted to export white American paint to Iraq, where it was a much sought after commodity.

After the initial shipment of dates met their untimely end, Al-Farez remained determined to stock my store, arranging for 10 boxes to be airlifted out of Baghdad direct to New York City via DHL. For three weeks the small parcel underwent inspection by Homeland Security, US Customs and Border Patrol, the USFDA and the USDA. At one point a US Customs agent determined that the shipment was illegal since we were “at war with Iraq.” Finally the dates reached the store and customers flocked, eager to try the fruit that had now interrogated and scandalized every government agency from Baghdad to Damascus to New York. A fruit that asked questions.

Shamoon returned, for a taste of what he called thikra, which means memory or nostalgia. “It’s for when you are homesick, when you miss your home,” he said. He slowly put his first date in his mouth, closed his eyes, smiled, and softly said, “this is 46 years in the making.”

When I told Al Farez how happy the customers were to finally receive the dates, they asked me to take pictures of those who had bought them. Here are a few of the many.

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