Michael Rakowitz unsealed the 10 boxes of palm dates from Iraq and stared.
He had waited five long months for this moment, after battling bureaucracy in what began as a politically charged art project and ended as a labor of love. So would he taste one of these dates, a sweet memory of his childhood as an Iraqi Jew in New York and a bitter symbol of his family’s war-torn homeland?
No, he said, as he fought tears, “They’re not for me.”
Rakowitz, 33, revived Davisons & Co. — an import-export business his grandfather once operated in Baghdad — as an art installation in a storefront at 529 Atlantic Ave. in Boerum Hill. His quest to import the first shipment of dates from Iraq to the U.S. in more than a quarter-century began in July and ended in December.
“The Iraqi dates are a surrogate for a larger story,” he said. “In a way, the history of Iraqi dates is a history of the Iraqi people.”
A professor of art theory at Northwestern University in Chicago, Rakowitz has led several unconventional art projects, including “paraSITE,” in which he attached plastic bags to hot air vents on buildings so he could create warm shelters for homeless people.
He said he hopes his dates experiment will spotlight the unusual relationship between the U.S. and Iraq.
A Date With Destiny
Rakowitz’s maternal grandfather, Nissim Isaac David, an Iraqi Jew, was exiled from his homeland in 1946 with his wife and their four children, leaving behind a family legacy spanning centuries. They settled in Great Neck on Long Island, and David ran his import-export business in New York City until 1963.
Growing up with his grandparents in Great Neck, Rakowitz said he developed a strong connection to Iraqi culture at a very young age. Stories about Iraq were like fairy tales for him.
He recalls the peculiar posters of Iraqi newspaper cartoons on the walls, and using date syrup or date balls with walnuts on Rosh Hashana and Passover. He always thought it was a Jewish tradition — until he learned it was an Iraqi one.
Rakowitz’s version of his grandfather’s company, sponsored by public arts group Creative Time, formed a partnership with Sahadi Fine Foods, a Brooklyn company that sells Middle Eastern goods, to import one ton of dates from Hilla, Iraq. He paid Al-Farez Co. in Iraq $6,400 for the dates and the shipping.
But like Iraqis struggling to flee the country, the shipment suffered endless delays. It was stuck for weeks at the Iraqi-Jordan border and was sent back twice.
A Long Journey
When the company tried to send it through Syria and then to Egypt by air, Syrian authorities held the cargo, demanding extra taxes. By the time officials released the goods, the dates were spoiled.
“The dates have traveled the exact same path as many refugees fleeing Iraq, who attempt entry into Jordan, only to be sent back and to try their luck at getting to Egypt by air through Syria,” said Rakowitz.
The Iraqi company finally decided to send 10 boxes of dates from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, by air, and then to Kennedy Airport. When the results of the U.S. midterm elections were announced, Atheer Al-Azawi, manager of Al-Farez Co., was so excited he offered to throw in a free box.
It took 19 days for the 10 boxes to be cleared by U.S. customs officials, who were unable to determine what to do with an Iraqi product, according to Pat Wheelan, managing director of Sahadi Fine Foods.
Rakowitz’s customers are pleased, despite the quarter-pound limit on sales and the steep $8 price.
Many of them are Iraqis who view the dates with nostalgia. Others are Americans, curious about the country that has dominated news coverage over the past three years — as well as curious about the dates, which are sweeter and fuller than the California-grown variety.
“I’ve been thinking of all the exposure I’ve had to Iraq through TV, newspapers and magazines,” said Eric Mandel, an American customer, as he chewed on a date, “but now it’s suddenly also through touch and taste.”