Jul 28

Tuning Up for Radio Silence

by: Laura Kochman

Three days before the Radio Silence performance, a public staging of a project that’s been in the making for five years, the participants meet in a rehearsal space at the Gershman Y on Broad Street. In one corner, a man is halfway into a dolphin costume, and in another, someone plays a violin. Hayfaa Ibrahem Abdulqader, the wife of Bahjat Abdulwahed, the late Iraqi broadcaster who has inspired Radio Silence, has made dolmas for the group. Abby, the project manager, corrects me: “The best dolmas.” A poet named Layla tells me about her grandson in Iraq, who she’d like to bring to the U.S. for medical care, and shows me a poem of hers that appears on the Al Jazeera website. Sarah, the rehearsal director, leads everyone in theater warm-ups, clapping hands and shaking out legs, getting ready for the last off-site rehearsal before everything comes together on Independence Mall this Sunday, July 30.

In this warm, welcoming space, I press record and ask, “What does this performance mean to you?”

Hayfaa (former Iraqi broadcaster, refugee, and wife of Bahjat Abdulwahed):
“I like to say that my program is my life, because I was with my husband when we arrived in America, and we had many dreams. But after he passed away, I feel alone, and I can’t do anything. But we made this recording before he passed away—he was thinking about this program, and talking with Michael, and they started to do something. They put the first stone on the earth. So that’s why Michael wants to complete the discussion between him and my husband. My husband, we worked together, we lived a long time together, we have family here together, friends, relationships, and I thank God that we had a chance at a life. I love that I have had that…You know, this is a very small idea, but it gives. It gives people a chance to have relationships, and to have ideas together, and then they can do something. Maybe in the future we can do something bigger than what we have now…The front door is open in front of the people, so they can enter. We plant now the small tree, and we’ll wait for it to start growing.”

Kevin (writer and Iraq War veteran):
“I’ve changed a lot as a person and as an artist during [the last five years]. I started playing music again. I had put that away for years. In this performance, I perform a song that I wrote in Iraq. Getting to play with the house band, to perform some Arabized versions of American standards is going to be fun, and I look forward to it. A lot of writers and artists in the Warrior Writers community have used art to record personal histories…healing…some use it as protest, and we encourage participants to use those tools as they wish. The next step, I feel, for veteran artists, is to work with Iraqi, Syrian, and Afghan refugees and hopefully help heal some of those wounds from the past 16 years of war. Hopefully, this project is a step in that direction.”

Mayyadah, architect, painter, and Iraqi refugee:
“I’m excited! And I’m waiting to see my painting, the big size, on the stage. I’m thrilled. We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, and we want to see it happen. It’s a big event for our community.”

Lawrence (writer, teacher, and Iraq War veteran):
“The performance is important, but I’m a process person, and the process…the workshops and the thought process and interactions and the relationships that I was able to have: they’re in the process. I would have been okay without anybody else knowing about it. There is something about making it very public, about coming out with the idea that you’re a veteran, and you’re embracing the Iraqi refugee community, and reflecting on your experiences in a not-triumphant way—that’s fine to say behind closed doors in writing groups, but when you put it on a stage, it becomes something very different…The idea of silence—we have writing groups where we talk about this with our veterans, and writing groups where we talk about this with our refugees, but there is still a silence around it, and when you put it on stage, it’s not silent anymore.”

You know, this is a very small idea, but it gives. It gives people a chance to have relationships, and to have ideas together, and then they can do something. Maybe in the future we can do something bigger than what we have now…We plant now the small tree, and we’ll wait for it to start growing.

- HAYFAA IBRAHEM ABDULQADER

Gin (artist and Iraq War veteran):
“I’m glad that I was able to participate, and that it happened to come into my life when it did. It’s been extremely therapeutic for me, kind of an emotional rollercoaster, but I will be glad to have the day of the performance come. I’m not a performing-type person, so it was a lot easier to do the recordings than it is to do the rehearsals…I’m invested, because I’ve been coming, and I’m finishing what I started.”

Aaron (artist, activist, organizer, teacher, and Iraq War veteran):
“To me, this is a continuation of a process of telling stories—to remember, to create meaning, to survive, to remember beauty despite everything that continues to happen in the world, and that’s always come out of my conversations with Michael, and this is another manifestation. It’s part of a shared art practice. There are many more collaborations and dialogues to be had. These little moments—you never know how they’re going to connect people.”

 


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: Aug 3, 2017

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Nathan says

The tragedy and devestation in Iraq since the misguided American assault of the early 2000's is unfathomable. As a combat participant in Vietnam (66-67) I did not learn of the harm inflicted on the Vietnamese people and land until I got out of the service. Even then I could only intellectually understand some of what had transpired. Subsequent documentation has shed unflattering light, to say the least, on the US.
The situation in Iraq seems far worse than Vietnam which is now stable and a trading partner around the globe. Iraq has sectarian and ethnic divides that seem insurmountable with no peaceful solution in sight. For Iraq's sake were that I am wrong.

Gin McGill-Prather says

Thanks,
gin