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 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.
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.
There are plenty of knucklehead kids at Independence Mall for the performance, brought there by their families. Where I sit on the grass, a group of little girls cluster at my back. They inch forward, and every time I move to give them some room, more appear, or they inch closer, and again I hear them whispering and talking right behind me. Their whispers gradually increase in volume until they’re almost shouting at one another, at which point an adult shushes them.
These restless, noisy, energetic kids are bored. Of course they are — it is not a kids' show. It is not compelling because the speakers are excellent, trained performers (some are, and some are not). It’s compelling because the information they give speaks to a massive, ongoing wrong. And for the Iraqi-American children around the Mall, the experiences of the people on the stage — war, poverty, death, humiliation, forced emigration — are apparently, thankfully, alien.
On the stage, Gin McGill-Prather is on her knees and apologizing. An Iraq War veteran, her story is about the consequences of a single day spent traipsing about the Ziggurat of Ur. “No one told us the history,” she says. She and her company were “within American walls,” she tells us with a crooked smile. Feeling safe and happy, they took off their helmets and their extra bullets and ran and leapt through the complex, taking photos in catacombs over a thousand generations old. In her mind, her imposition becomes representative of the entire war.
Her apology is not just for taking selfies in front of a mummy, gun in hand. Her big crime was taking a small white object, what she later realized was a bone, from the site, and carrying it with her through her tour in Iraq until, about to get on the plane back to America, she slipped it into a charity box set out for just such contraband.
Souvenirs are what we take from a place to prove to ourselves that we’ve existed there; having existed in a place, we own it just a little bit. No existence is as deeply felt as complete, childish freedom, and that is what McGill-Prather felt at Ur, the cradle of civilization. But our own footprint must be smaller than our history’s. If everyone took a piece of the Ziggurat of Ur who felt — or wanted to feel — ownership over it, the structure would have a faded long time ago.
It has faded, a couple of times. It has crumbled and been restored at least twice, the latest restoration being in the 80s, by Saddam Hussein. So with this history resting subtly in the background, we watch the performances that make up the idea of Iraq formed in Radio Silence. Nashwa Al Taan moved to Syria as a refugee from Iraq, and eight years later had to move to America, reinventing her life twice. Aaron Hughes, another veteran, gives a moving speech about how the victories of labor organizers in Iraq who oppose the policies of the American-installed government.
In the performance program, Thomas asserts that Iraq is “a country in the process of disappearing, as buildings and monuments and landscapes have been destroyed by war and conflict, and as the people have been displaced in the aftermath.” What is now called Iraq has “disappeared” in this way many times over, and this war imposed from outside is the latest tragedy in a long cycle of stabilization and subsequent change. Every region in the world has a history and will likely have a future of such collapses on both personal and national scales. Today we as Americans are in close quarters with the present collapse in Iraq, though most of us forget about the Iraq War whenever we can. The constant humiliation of the Iraqi people and the region in general by the West rebounds on our own humiliating inability to stop the war.
And while violence is key to the narrative of Iraq and America, Radio Silence is not really about violence. It is about something creeping underneath the rhetoric and the war mania, a radical potential: that the soldiers of one side of a conflict and the citizens of another can be allies.
The tacit recognition in the casting of Radio Silence is: Our connection to Iraq is one of war. Can Iraq look like anything other than a wound, gushing blood, to Americans today? But tenderness exists in the partnership which Iraqi refugees and American war veterans have forged. Some of the performers, like Al Obaidi and Davidson, reference this partnership explicitly. It is perhaps most viscerally present when elderly Hafyaa Ibrahem Abdulqader, a broadcaster and Iraqi refugee, cries in the middle of her interview with Rakowitz. American veterans are the ones who meet her, comfort her, and help her off the stage.
There are small answers, micro-nurtures, in Radio Silence and the stories shared by its contributors. This will not solve political problems or great historical trends, but as I sit on Independence Mall, with a cluster of rowdy Iraqi-American children whispering behind me, it seems hopeful, human, and kind.
Julius Ferraro is a journalist, performer, playwright, and project manager based in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This, and editor-in-chief of thINKingDANCE. His recent plays include Parrot Talk, Micromania, and The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster.