Eating Off Saddam's Plates: Iraqi Militaria as a Hobby

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Yes, if you haven't yet heard, Saddam Hussein's butt cheek is for sale. In a story that has become catnip for headline writers, Hansons Auctioneers announced this week that it would be auctioning off a bronze buttock from the iconic Saddam statue that was torn down in Baghdad after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The two-foot slab of backside, which former British soldier Nigel Ely pried loose with a sledgehammer and crowbar, is expected to fetch over $15,000 for charity. AFP adds that Ely recently established his own company to promote "war relic art."

Ely isn't the only soldier in Iraq collecting relics. Over the past week, several news outlets have picked up a story about how Kevin Lasko, a chef at the New York City restaurant Park Avenue Autumn (the name changes with the seasons), has teamed up with artist Michael Rakowitz to create a dish called "Spoils" that the restaurant is serving though November on plates looted from Saddam Hussein's palaces. Rakowitz told The Atlantic Wire by email that the traditional Iraqi dessert-turned-savory dinner entrée--date syrup and tahini topped with venison, pine nuts, and a chopped pomegranate garnish for $38--is deliberately designed to evoke mixed emotions in diners. "I wanted to explore the tension between the diner's tongue, the delicious and sweet meal, and the bitter surface upon which it is presented," Rakowitz explained. "Indeed, refusal, or the inability to eat or even order this dish because of the dishware's provenance or the circumstances under which it was acquired is just as important as the experience of consuming this dish."

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In fact, the circumstances under which the dishware was obtained is one of the most interesting parts of the story. Rakowitz says Park Avenue Autumn purchased the plates on eBay from two collectors of Iraqi military relics, or "militaria": Usama Alkhazraji, an Iraqi refugee living in Michigan, and Lorenzo Luna, an American soldier in Iraq. The restaurant ultimately bought around 20 plates at a cost of $200 to $300 each. Alkhazraji provided white porcelain Berardaud plates and two hospitality plates with blue rims and gold trim (plated with "Spoils" above) from Saddam's personal collection at the Al-Salam Presidential Palace in Baghdad, while Luna shipped Wedgewood china once owned by the last king of Iraq, King Faisal II, who was assassinated in a 1958 coup. Rakowitz recalls that the dishes from Luna were packaged individually in empty boxes of Nabil's frozen kubbe. The pictures below show some of Usama's plates, on left, and one of Luna's plates, on right:

Luna, who has done four tours in Iraq, has purchased his militaria from Iraqi antique shops and Iraqi vendors at bazaars organized by the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (the King Faisal II plates came from a shopkeeper at an AAFES bazaar who also packaged the china). Luna also runs the Iraqi Militaria Forum, which he described in a posting last year as a "place where collectors from around the world can come [to] post photos information and engage in civil discussions about their collections of Iraqi Militaria." Topic threads include "Saddam Husseins Iraqi Army Infantry Bayonet Knife" and "Fist of Saddam Hussein, Statue Piece" (the forum is noticeably silent on Saddam's buttock). Luna is particularly proud of the orders and medals and document signed by Saddam that he has collected.

Luna tells The Atlantic Wire that he began collecting militaria--specifically German war relics from World War II that U.S. veterans brought home--as a young child. He estimates that while there are a few hundred people collecting Iraqi militaria, there are only a "handful" doing so in the U.S. military. 

The phenomenon of U.S. troops collecting relics in Iraq has stirred up some controversy in the past. In 2004, CNN noted that U.S. soldiers were selling items (or "war trophies") that they'd taken from Saddam's palaces on eBay. "A spokesman for U.S. Central Command told CNN that U.S. troops should have been prohibited from bringing such items home from Iraq," the news outlet explained. "But the men selling the items say they had no trouble bringing them back." This past July, U.S. officials returned around 200 antiquities to the Iraqi government that, according to The Washington Times, had been "stolen by U.S. troops and contractors from museums and archaeological sites" in Iraq during the invasion. Luna, however, notes that he always purchases the items in his collection and never picks them up "on the ground or off the enemy." While he says his hobby has made his various stints in Iraq since 2003 "very interesting," that's not the primary reason why he collects. "Iraqi military history needs to be preserved," he explains, adding that he cares deeply about the Iraqi people.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.