PHILADELPHIA — In the wake of the Iraq War, finding a way for Americans to learn about and celebrate elements of Iraqi culture that have been lost seems like a form of reparations, especially for those directly involved in the conflict. When Michael Rakowitz held a live public broadcast for his project Radio Silence — a seven-part podcast series investigating narratives of Iraq that launched a weekly broadcast on April 15 — at Philadelphia’s Independence Mall in late July 2017 (the project’s original planned launch date), the relative comfort with which Iraqis and Americans engaged (both on and offstage) felt remarkable and rare. A diverse group of Iraqi immigrants, veterans in military uniform, and Philadelphia-area musicians, artists, and writers came together to pay homage to Iraqi culture, while enjoying catered Iraqi cuisine from Amasi, Philadelphia’s only Iraqi restaurant. The performance took place on a stage modeled after the Ziggurat of Ur, with a backdrop depicting Baghdad’s Arc of Triumph monument, placed in the cradle of US democracy.
Behind the scenes, however, Radio Silence was seriously affected by the current political climate. When the Trump administration reinstated a revised version of the travel ban last June, many of the project’s original participants understood the implicit anti-Muslim sentiment of the order and asked that their contributions be reduced. “For these people and their families, their fear was that participating in something that could be seen as political and against the policies of the current administration could disrupt their families’ bids for asylum, residency, or citizenship,” Rakowitz, an Iraqi American from New York, said via email. “There was also a concern that being seen alongside other performers during the event, like the veterans, who speak directly about their experiences during the war, could place their families here and back in Iraq in danger.” Several performers dropped out, and after that first live performance, the project was shelved for some nine months.
Produced by Philadelphia’s Mural Arts Program, Radio Silence is a project that weaves together narratives about the Iraqi experience, both from the perspective of political refugees who sought asylum in the United States, and from US military veterans who were deployed during the Iraq War. Last July’s staged performance was led thematically and sonically by the late Iraqi radio broadcaster Bahjat Abdulwahed, who occupies a mystical position as a kind of spiritual godfather of Iraq, representing the country’s progressive era during the 1960s. Abdulwahed was the original impetus behind the project before his death in 2016; recordings of his narrative are combined with intimate interviews, comical dramatizations, performance, poetry, and music to create a tapestry that is simultaneously nostalgic and generative, spanning from powerful testimony about combat to skits about the imaginary Iraqi superhero Dolphin Man (hero of the seas, saving Middle Eastern migrants from drowning).
The Radio Silence podcast’s first episode, “Speechlessness,” introduces Abdulwahed, the “host who has become a ghost,” who will continue to appear in snippets in each subsequent episode. Arriving in Philadelphia as a political refugee in 2009, Abdulwahed left a 50-year career in radio and film broadcasting as the “Walter Cronkite of Iraq,” a voice that served as a link for Rakowitz and other Iraqi Americans to an inaccessible past. Rakowitz recounts his original conception of the Radio Silence project and how Abdulwahed’s illness early necessitated its first restructuring; he underwent a tracheostomy, which literally silenced him. Mechanisms of suppression and silence — actual and psychological — are themes that flow through the podcast series, binding the narratives of Iraqi refugees and members of the US military in a painful, complicated web. It is particularly poignant that, in the context of breaking silence and making reparations, many of the Iraqi contributors have chosen to remain anonymous, while the US army veterans share their full names, a reflection of how tenuous the political situation remains.
With Radio Silence, Rakowitz continues to investigate the varied and complex history of contemporary Iraqi identity in the wake of the devastating effects of dictatorship, mass emigration, and war. In past projects like Spoils — in which he served traditional Iraqi deserts and American-sourced venison out of a high-end Manhattan restaurant on Saddam Hussein’s china (pillaged by Iraqi refugees and US soldiers and then sold on eBay) — Rakowitz facilitates investigation and discourse through a range of approaches, in the service of “reanimating and ghosting Iraq’s past.” Radio Silence was designed specifically for Philadelphia in light of its large community of Iraqi refugees, its prominent place in US history, and its geographical mirroring of Iraq as a “land between two rivers.” As Rakowitz said, the project is “speaking to [a] more silenced Iraqi voice. It’s hard to make silence into compelling radio, but I’ve been approaching it the same way that one might see the voices created in the aftermath of the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas: those niches of absence describe a presence.”
The decision to include non-Iraqi voices in this portrait of Iraq is unexpected, but allows for a dynamic conversation. Rakowitz worked with the Philadelphia-based organization Warrior Writers, a nonprofit that offers writing workshops to veterans. Expressing raw feelings (guilt, shame, and mourning over their time serving in the military), the veterans give testimony of their experiences in Iraq and discuss the demons with which they continue to struggle back home. On stage at the debut performance last July, Army medic Gin McGill-Prather (who appears in the first episode of the podcast as well) described stealing a finger bone from a spot near the Ziggurat of Ur as a souvenir. She left the bone at an amnesty box at the airport, but carries a heavy burden of guilt with her, and describes experiencing reminders of Mesopotamia wherever she goes. She ended her monologue by kneeling on the stage and apologizing.
A particularly poignant segment of the live performance paired Iraqi refugee Farouk Al-Obaidi with veteran Lawrence Davidson, who was stationed at a bridge in the Iraqi city of Baqubah, where Al-Obaidi’s family used to live. Al-Obaidi spoke of the difficulty of growing up during the US occupation, specifically the loss of a bridge he used to cross to get to school — the same bridge Davidson patrolled. Davidson delivers his own narrative of increasing disenchantment with the purpose of war, during which it becomes clear that the two could easily have encountered each other during their time in Iraq — or, at least, Lawrence may have watched Farouk through his night-vision goggles. The eerie poignancy of seeing these two men together in a peaceful setting, united by a desire to share their stories, drove home the potential power of Rakowitz’s project.
What makes Radio Silence compelling is its willingness to consider the possibility that all narratives are valid parts of the truth of a story, even those that, at one point in time, operated as mechanisms of silence. By aligning stories both from the victims and aggressors of the US-led invasion of Iraq conflict, the project creates a picture of collective trauma and perseverance. In the face of agents of silence, speaking out is its own kind of artistic expression, and Rakowitz facilitates a complex, combined voice.
Rakowitz estimates that he lost about 40% of his recorded material when a number of his contributors decided the project had become too risky. This forced him to rearrange the project in a major way for the second time, having already done so after Abdulwahed’s death, and the podcast’s airdate was delayed again. Despite these obstacles, Rakowitz remains flexible in a way that feels congruent with the fractured history he seeks to engage. He acknowledges that the fears of Iraqi Radio Silence contributors could have meant the end of the entire project, but he remains committed to seeing it through, perhaps for the sake of protecting the voices of those who continue to be threatened by political instability. “These decisions are of course something I respect,” Rakowitz said, “and my wish is to protect my collaborators, even if it means canceling the project. Their lives are precarious in ways that I and the veterans can never know.”