December 9, 2018

Sounds, tastes of Middle East, North Africa converge at Clockshop in L.A.

How does one spark meaningful dialogue about complex Arab and Jewish Diasporic communities and help bring them to life thousands of miles away from their places of origin? Clockshop, an arts and cultural programming nonprofit organization, is turning to the powerful tools of music, history and food for this purpose next month. 

Filmmaker and artist Julia Meltzer, founder and director of Clockshop, is collaborating with New York City-based curator Regine Basha of Basha Projects to organize Kan Ya Ma Kan, named for an Arabic phrase that is open to various translations, including “Once upon a time there were.” In this sense, Kan Ya Ma Kan references vanishing communities and how cultural legacies remain, evolve and, in some cases, disappear. 

The series will take place over the course of three weekends in November, with a focus on three specific parts of the globe where cultural retention and survival remain fragile, particularly in the post-1948 world. A range of scholars, writers, artists and chefs will participate in a multifaceted, interdisciplinary approach to talking and thinking about Iraq, Syria and North Africa. And the food will be memorably delicious.  

The Kan Ya Ma Kan Saturday night programs will feature Havdalah services and multi-course, sit-down dinners for 50 guests helmed by guest chefs, followed by musical performances. All components, including the language and end-of-Sabbath prayers, will reflect distinct traditions tied to the highlighted regions and countries. Sunday afternoons will be dedicated to tea and conversation with visiting artists, writers and thinkers. Kan Ya Ma Kan is based at Elysian, the multi-purpose event space Meltzer operates with her husband, artist and chef, David Thorne. 

The venue is located in Elysian Valley, also known colloquially as “Frogtown,” a collection of mostly light-industrial buildings and a smattering of residences along the south bank of the Los Angeles River just northeast of the neighborhoods of Silver Lake and Echo Park. Meltzer and Thorne recently renovated the former porcelain mold factory to include a fully permitted, gleaming commercial kitchen. With its lush landscaping and down-to-earth yet stylish feel, Elysian’s casual, creative atmosphere can be better suited to sparking open conversation and community-mindedness than some other institutional settings. Thorne, who runs Elysian’s sporadic but as of late more frequent full-service dinners, will help execute the Saturday night meals. 

The unorthodox exchanges will provide a unique opportunity to look at the symbiotic connections between Arab and Jewish communities rooted in particular geographies. Regarding the many rich culinary heritages involved, “I think there’s a perception that there’s a separation, and actually there’s not,” Meltzer noted. 

The first weekend of November will feature Basha, artist Michael Rakowitz and Ella Shohat, a professor of cultural studies at New York University, focusing on issues pertaining to dispersed Iraqi-Arab and Jewish communities. Rakowitz, a conceptual artist of Iraqi descent who teaches at Northwestern University, has used food and material culture to explore the tangled relationship between the United States and that Middle Eastern nation. His “Spoils of 2011” project, for instance, used a high-end Manhattan restaurant to showcase traditional Iraqi dishes presented on fine dinner plates, some of which had been illegally taken from Saddam Hussein’s china collection. (Needless to say, it ended with the State Department issuing a cease-and-desist letter, and the plates were taken by U.S. Marshals and returned to the Iraqis.)  

Rakowitz will present a semi-related adaptation of the aforementioned undertaking, with food made according to his own grandmother’s recipes, served on actual dishware that was carried from Iraq to other parts of the world. “Rakowitz has shown all over the world, but never in L.A.,” Melzter noted. Musician Henry Azra will perform on the kanun, a traditional string instrument, along with a doumbek player.

Musician and photographer Jason Hamacher from Washington, D.C., will present his work about Syria in various media during the following weekend. Hamacher spent six years visually and orally documenting religious minorities — including gaining extremely rare government-sanctioned access to Jewish sites — which he has collected in his Lost Origin Sound Series and in a soon-to-be-published book, “Aleppo, Syria: Witness to an Ancient Legacy.” Meltzer has also lived in Syria and shares a particular interest in that nation and city, where current events merit thoughtful, nuanced discussion. 

Afterward, acclaimed L.A.-based cookbook author Clifford Wright will organize a feast of an order that’s otherwise only accessible to those with direct access to Syrian home kitchens. Flavors and cooking techniques from Aleppo are on the agenda, but “because of the similarity of Levantine cooking, it is impossible to untangle the various threads that tie it all together,” noted Wright, a leading authority on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food history.  

Wright’s menu includes “foods that most Americans, even those familiar with Middle Eastern cooking, may not have encountered” he said, such as bādhinjān maqlī ma laban (fried eggplant with yogurt) and a lentil and lemon dish with pomegranate molasses, since that particular ingredient “usually indicates that the dish is influenced by an Aleppine cook.” Fakhadha ghanam mashiyya bi’l-tūm, garlic-stuffed, slow-roasted leg of lamb, is based on a Palestinian recipe, and non-dairy dessert will be al-maziyah, Syrian-Jewish pistachio and rose water cornstarch pudding from “A Fistful of Lentils by Jennifer Felicia Abadi. 

Abraham Marcus will help put the meal into context when he talks about the history of the Jewish synagogue in Aleppo, and master oud player Ara Dabandjian will perform afterward. 

The final weekend examines the North African countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, with Aomar Boum, an assistant professor of history at UCLA and author of “Memories of Absence: How Muslims Remember Jews in Morocco,” along with UCLA historians and musicians Chris Silver and Sarah Abrevaya Stein.

Artist Orly Olivier, who documents her family’s history on her Petit Takett website, which is named for her paternal grandmother’s restaurant in Tunisia, plans a spread that also suggests that country’s difficult French colonial history. She’ll serve Tunisian kemia, or mezze, including spicy carrots with homemade harissa and za’atar-crusted crostini with smoky harissa hummus and salata meshjua (roasted pepper salsa), along with a main course of poulet aux olives (chicken stewed with cracked green olives), and gateau de harrisa, a citrus and semolina cake.

Kan Ya Ma Kan offers a confluence of global and local forces. While some of the speakers and participants will be traveling from elsewhere in the United States, “There are a lot of interesting people working around this history in L.A,” Meltzer said.

Each Saturday evening event costs $65 for the meal and program, or the package of all three nights can be purchased for $175. A $10 donation is suggested for the Sunday teas and conversations. Information: www.clockshop.org/kanyamakan.html