Mar 22, 2018

Silence on the Airwaves in 3…2…1…

by: Laura Kochman

Since the kickoff public performance of Radio Silence in July 2017, we’ve been eagerly waiting for the companion radio series, and it’s finally here. Join the Philadelphia listening party on Sunday, April 15, or tune in through WPPM PhillyCAM, Public Radio Exchange, iTunes, or the Radio Silence website.

This unique project from artist Michael Rakowitz and curator Elizabeth Thomas brings together Iraqi refugees and Iraq War veterans, weaving dreams, memories, and music into a multi-episode broadcast. This surreal soundscape attempts the impossible: recreating an Iraq that, due to war and political unrest, no longer exists.


Explore the project website, where seven writers have reacted to the project and the performance. Below, we’re featuring an excerpt from the newest transmission.

Finale of the July 30 live performance for Radio Silence. Photo by Steve Weinik.

“No one told us the history,” by Julius Ferraro (excerpt) 

What is Iraq to me? I am an American, and so Iraq, to me, is a place where my country has been waging aggressive wars off and on for 26 years. I have never been there, and likely never will. To the West in general, this political entity was first called Iraq when Great Britain invented it, in partnership with local allies, about a century ago. But there have been people living in this geographical area, under a variety of political circumstances, just about as far back as written and architectural history allows us to look into humanity’s past. What is now called Iraq stands in the locus of an ancient historical continuity, one that can be experienced mostly, now, through architectural memorialization.

But “Iraq is in Philadelphia now,” as curator Elizabeth Thomas says in the program notes to Radio Silence. Radio Silence will be a series of radio shows featuring stories told by Iraqi Americans and Iraq War veterans, conceived and shepherded to existence by artist Michael Rakowitz. It is launched by a live performance on a Sunday evening in July, featuring the Iraqi and American correspondents, who go on stage to share their personal experiences of what Thomas calls “a country in the process of disappearing,” a country otherwise understood, in America, via hasty war dispatches and the long periods of silence in between them.

The July 30 live performance for Radio Silence. Photo by Steve Weinik.

The performance takes place on Independence Mall. A sheer backdrop, designed and painted by Mayyadah (Mayyadah and her husband Mohammed both go by their first names for this performance; as they are performing with American soldiers, they are concerned for their safety), which casts the shadow of great Baghdadi landmarks on one of America’s own most important historical structures. Through it, we can just see the low spire and clock tower of Independence Hall.

These landmarks reference 4,500 years of Iraqi history. The Ishtar Gate, one of the original seven wonders of the ancient world, was constructed over 2,500 years ago and now exists only in a mostly reconstructed form in Berlin. The Victory Arch and Al-Shaheed Monument commemorate the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s, a period when Iraq’s secular Baathist leader Saddam Hussein was considered an American proxy. Then in the 90s, Hussein was America’s enemy, and the Baghdad Tower (previously the Saddam International Tower) replaced communication towers knocked down during the Gulf Wars. Together, even these three points in time illustrate not only how soluble culture and reality are when exposed to time, but also how vast the land’s history is, and how porous it has been to outside influence.

Gin Mcgill-Prather and Hayfaa Ibrahem Abdulqader at the July 30 live performance for Radio Silence. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Many of the men and women who take the stage are attempting to find an explanation of this war in their own experiences. For American soldier Kevin Basl, being ordered to pretend to play taps while a tape recorder blasts the song out of the bell of his unwinded trumpet indicates the falsity of the rhetoric and the dislocation of the troops: “silently, we performed,” he sums it up. For Farouk Al Obaidi, a childhood memory of being escorted across an improvised bridge by American soldiers reinforces the ineffable brotherhood between the individuals put in the line of fire on either side. For Lawrence Davidson, it is seeing the “knucklehead kids” of Iraq that cools his wartime fervor to destroy the enemy, and replaces it with a recognition of the humanity of the people whose land he occupied.


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.

Last updated: Mar 22, 2018

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