Listen to Radio Silence
As an artistic gesture I try to make an unlikely thing happen, and the impossible becomes possible. It's art because it's impossible for this to exist in the world.
Radio Silence is a large-scale project produced by Mural Arts, with artist Michael Rakowitz and curator Elizabeth Thomas. On April 15, 2018, Rakowitz and Mural Arts launched a seven-episode radio broadcast, the follow-up to a large-scale performance on Independence Mall in Historic Philadelphia that was simulcast on PhillyCAM TV. Radio Silence, conceived specifically for Philadelphia as the birthplace of American democracy, was inspired by famed Iraqi broadcaster Bahjat Abdulwahed, who lived in the city as a refugee until his death in 2016. The project interweaves dreams and memories from Iraq, America, and in-between into a soundscape of the contemporary refugee experience, the Iraqi diaspora, and the culture of an Iraq, that due to war and political unrest, no longer exists.
The radio show, hosted by Rakowitz, includes themes such as secrets, shyness, silent letters, censorship, dead air, and peace. Episodes feature recordings of Abdulwahed, plus interviews with his wife and a number of other Iraqi refugees living in the Philadelphia area. Rakowitz and Thomas also conducted a series of workshops and recordings with Warrior Writers, creating poetry and songs and capturing stories of American veterans who served in Iraq. Using first-person narrative, poetry, and music, in English and Arabic, Radio Silence reconstructs a timeline of remembrances spanning the culturally rich Iraq of the 1960s to the decimation of physical and emotional landscapes during and after the war. Weaving these perspectives together, Radio Silence revives ghosts of days gone by and humanizes unspoken sides of a new American story.
The special multi-episode radio show airs Sundays from April 15–May 27 at 5 p.m. on WPPM PhillyCAM Radio 106.5 FM, on community radio stations across the country with support from the Prometheus Radio Project, and is distributed nationwide through Public Radio Exchange (PRX). Episodes are available for download on iTunes, as well as on the dynamic Radio Silence website, alongside archival images and research, resources, and essays by leading practitioners on performance, Iraqi culture and music, and contemporary visual art designed by Ryan Hines.
Episode One: Speechlessness
Our debut episode, devoted to the topic of speechlessness, introduces you to our host Bahjat Abdulwahed, the “Walter Cronkite of Iraq” living as a refugee in Philadelphia. Hear an Iraq War veteran’s story about war crimes witnessed and, until now, unspoken; learn about the Iraqi doctor who refuses to be recorded because he can’t speak directly enough about the atrocities he witnessed. (iTunes) (SoundCloud)
Episode Two: The Mute
We’ll explore the sounds that have been evacuated from Iraq, musicians muted by their disappeared audiences and bygone origins. Listen to an instrument built from a tree that no longer grows in the Iraqi landscape, and thus creates a sound both alive and dead. Hear stories related to the popular songs “Boos El Wawa” (“Kiss the Boo-boo”) and “Fog el Nakhal” (“Above the Date Palm”). (iTunes) (SoundCloud)
Episode Three: The Hushed and the Secret
On this episode, an Iraqi activist shares stories about silence as a form of protection in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We’ll also hear a radio play about Dolphin Man, invented by an Iraqi as a savior of the environment and refugees. (iTunes) (SoundCloud)
Episode Four: Shyness and Withdrawal
We’ll hear about a soldier’s refusal of tea and how that led him to work toward rediscovering his and Iraq’s humanity, eventually leading him back to Iraq. We’ll also hear about the unlikely love story between our host Bahjat and his wife Hayfaa. (iTunes) (SoundCloud)
Episode Five: Silent Letters
An Iraqi tells us about the absence of certain sounds in the Arabic language, and a veteran reads letters from her former grade school teacher’s class, sent to her while in combat and never answered. A veteran and an Iraqi refugee meet for the first time at dinner in Philadelphia, only to realize they were once on the same bridge at the same time in Iraq. (iTunes) (SoundCloud)
Episode Six: The Censored, the Forbidden, the Disappeared
We’ll hear about Iraqi monuments kept hostage by US troops, denying access to the Iraqis to whom they belong. Listen as we trace the stories of artifacts looted from the Iraq Museum, and hear an Iraqi activist sing a song that was censored during Saddam Hussein’s rule. (iTunes) (SoundCloud)
Episode Seven: Stillness, and Still Here. Resilience. Remaining *Listener Advisory: This episode contains brief instances of language that may be offensive to some listeners.
Our final episode: listen to an American combat veteran recall Iraqi samoon bread, which he refers to as white gold. Hear the song of the Iraqi bulbul bird, the first sound ever broadcast on Radio Baghdad, reincarnated in Philadelphia. And listen to Bahjat’s legacy live on in the voice of his daughter Rawnak, broadcasting from Amman, also known as the ancient city of Philadelphia. (iTunes) (SoundCloud)
Rakowitz chose to stage the Radio Silence live show on Independence Mall because it is the symbolic home of American democracy and a site of heightened significance during our current moment in history, when issues around immigration are in the spotlight and receiving wide attention. The public and free live performance on July 30 included Rakowitz as the host along with performances and storytelling by members of the local Iraqi refugee community, a special “house band” ensemble of virtuoso musicians in the Arab tradition, plus animal performers drawn from Iraqi tradition, and Iraqi cooking demonstrations. The stage performance concluded with music and food from the only Iraqi restaurant in Philadelphia, Amasi Restaurant and Hookah, located in North Philadelphia. The stage was designed by Philadelphia-based, Iraqi-born architect and painter Mayyadah, as an homage to the famous Iraqi monument, the Ziggurat of Ur. The stage’s backdrop was based on a painting by Mayyadah, which brings in other symbolic motifs from Iraqi culture, all seen with the American monument of Independence Hall in the background.
Scenes from the Radio Silence performance
Read About Radio Silence
Read essays on Radio Silence by Elizabeth Thomas, Regine Basha, Brian Boucher, Deena Chalabi, Julius Ferraro, Frances Richard, and Stephen Zacks at the project website.
Major support for Radio Silence has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from The National Endowment for the Arts, and the Hummingbird Foundation. Project collaborators and partners include a host of agencies and nonprofits that work on refugee and veteran issues, as well as independent community-driven media nonprofits.