"Introductory transmission", by Elizabeth Thomas
"Postcards of Iraq from Elsewhere", by Deena Chalabi
"Speak to Porousness: On Seven Statements by Michael Rakowitz", by Frances Richard
Tuning In: Vignettes from an Elusive Body of Research, by Regine Basha
by Elizabeth Thomas
Radio Silence has been developed over many years of meetings and conversations with Philadelphians. Although most had never met before, they were already united by their relationship to a place, Iraq, and to a situation in which the trajectory of their lives was largely a product of international politics out of their control. They have come together at the invitation of Michael Rakowitz, an Iraqi–American artist who has worked variously with Iraqis and Iraq War veterans for the past 15 years. His series of projects, which have touched upon Iraqi dates and their syrup, destroyed artifacts, Star Wars, and grilled carp, among many other subjects, have explored true but often fantastical narratives that bring the massively complex relations of the United States and Iraq into focus on the human scale.
With a team of collaborators and partners in Philadelphia, Rakowitz worked from person to person, beginning with Bahjat Abdulwahed, who immigrated here in 2009 with his wife Hayfaa Abdulqaddar, and who inspired the form of this project as a live and broadcast radio program. As an important TV and radio host, Abdulwahed's life intersects with major events in Iraqi history and the rarefied study and practice of Arabic grammar, in which he was an expert; as a generous host in his living room, his life reflects the physical, mental, and social displacements that refugees experience in their journeys away from embattled homes and toward uncertain futures. His spirit informs the entire project, even after his untimely death in late 2016.
After Bahjat and Hayfaa we met other Iraqis, primarily in living rooms, library basements, high school sports fields, and Dunkin Donuts locations in Northeast Philadelphia, recording conversations along the way. This has led to the stories, readings, and performances that are woven through the radio program, and the live extensions of their contributions developed for the one-time performance. At the same time, we began workshops with Warrior Writers, a Philadelphia-based organization that works with veterans using writing as a means of self expression, healing, and testimony. Within closed groups, Iraq War veterans support each other creatively, personally, and emotionally, as each processes feelings and experiences, memories, and dreams. Organically developing out of the personal concerns of participants, and at times responding to prompts from the artist, these contributions join those of the Iraqis in narrating the past, present, and future of Iraq, and its displacements (in the form of people, culture, memories) here in Philadelphia.
Putting Bahjat back on the air became the framework for imagining a radio program that would bend time and merge space, creating a portal to Iraq, in all its dimensions, here in this present moment in Philadelphia. As the live broadcast combines expected radio elements like weather reports, reporting from the field, musical guests, serialized fiction, and much more, all in unexpected ways, it does so on a stage that inserts famous Iraqi monuments into this most symbolic space of America: Independence Mall. The performance uses the live situation to create this visual commingling, and to create this moment of presence, not just for the Iraqis themselves, but for the symbols and music and food of Iraq. In the radio programs to follow, Rakowitz taking full advantage of the “beautiful blindness” radio affords so that our own minds can do the work of imagining a place we have never been.
In both cases, an idea about Iraq is being built, through words and images, to stand in for 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.
Elizabeth Thomas is the curator of Radio Silence, a project developed with Mural Arts Philadelphia as part of a Pew-funded residency to explore innovative forms of public practice. Throughout her career she has focused on the production of site-responsive works across a range of forms and disciplines. As Director of Public Engagement for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, she is developing new initiatives in contemporary performance and public practice. Previously she directed the MATRIX program UC Berkeley Art Museum and has held curatorial positions at the Carnegie Museum of Art and Walker Art Center.
by Deena Chalabi
We have never met but I jumped at the chance to write something in connection to Radio Silence because its multiple formats intrigue me, and as an immigrant to the US with an Iraqi father, its subject matter is always on my mind and close to my heart. I'm very interested in your choice of title. It speaks to the medium you've chosen to explore, obviously, but it also reminds me of the profound communication gap that has existed in the US with regard to Iraq. Despite the tremendous amount of news about Iraq that is generated in this country, Iraqis are rarely able to speak out clearly, without interference. For this project, you have brought together some remarkable individuals, and you encourage Iraqi voices to be heard, to protest that silence, to commemorate what has been lost, and what remains. As you know, it takes a certain bravery even to talk about loss—both personal as well as collective, let alone to enter the uphill battle in support of those on the losing side in a war against systemic erasure.
As I imagine it in context of your other work, Radio Silence once again will bring together complex stories that need to be told, and told again. You focus attention on Iraq’s physical products (in this case radio, but also the dates and antiquities of past projects) and through those you explore the more ephemeral products of memories and culture. I keep thinking about what the special assembly on Philadelphia's Independence Mall might mean to people. So many have fled Iraq over the last several decades. I cannot imagine the extent of their loss. I, like any of us, can only see fragments, and I appreciate the attempt in your work to piece some of those together in public.
I understand that the performance will take place mere steps from the Liberty Bell, on a stage in the shape of the Ziggurat of Ur, one of the oldest buildings in the world at the site of one of the world's first cities. That’s an expansive basis from which to begin. The choice of location recalls both foundational ideas of the United States of America, and the set speaks to core ideas about Iraqi identity, with its backdrop featuring several other Iraqi monuments. And by hosting Iraqis' personal stories and melodies at a public site that is so central to the story of independence in the United States, Radio Silence becomes a process of exchange, a complex collage of histories and experiences of two nations that have become inexorably intertwined, in the lives and imaginations of so many people, in the City of Brotherly Love and well beyond.
You've thought a great deal about monuments, recognizing both the nobility and the futility in any attempt to reconstruct them. Lately I have been asking myself, how is a monument in public space supposed to communicate? It occupies a special place in a society's network of symbols and material culture and speaks most to those who understand that particular culture and its history. I heard about your new commission for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in my hometown of London, which seems so important and timely. Yet the Radio Silence project in Philadelphia deals with monumentality and public space in a wholly different, equally important way: the involvement of individual voices creates an openness, a dialogue that explores actively what monuments truly mean today—both those that still exist, and those that have been destroyed.
Someone once told me that Americans learn geography through war. As your work around Iraq has dealt in many ways with the recent war and its effects, especially with regard to antiquities, I wonder what you would think of that. I know you would agree that we need humanizing narratives about Iraq, to share stories of survival, to deepen understanding of its cultural richness in the past and the challenges facing Iraqis at present. I know that you would agree we need to provide images of Iraq that have been not been filtered through the Western media imagination, in which there is no sense of recent history—only a story about the origins of Western civilization thousands of years ago, or the story of Saddam Hussein and his defeat. What happened in between seems immaterial to the world outside Iraq.
I have been emailing with Mayyadah Alhumssi, who has designed the stage and painted the backdrop for your performance. I'm glad to be in touch with her and to understand that she shared your desire to tell a richer story of Iraq and its history than the war narratives have allowed. She has done this by depicting various monuments from different eras on the backdrop, larger ones on the sides and smaller ones in the middle, all embraced and unified by the Iraqi flag. Mayyadah talks about your project helping to bridge “the gap between Iraqi and American people.” I have been very aware of this gap in my own understanding, and to be honest for years it has consumed me, “not only as a private individual,” as Olivia Laing has written, “but also as citizen of our century, our pixelated age.”
Mayyadah's painting reminded me of the importance of sharing Iraq's modern visual and cultural history that is so rarely seen publicly in the US or elsewhere, and reclaiming, as much as possible, the cultural space that has been eroded in Iraq itself. Connecting these monuments to the Iraqis now living in Philadelphia, it occurs to me that whether a people and their culture are seen by the mainstream depends on whether they have the power to mobilize their own symbols. The problem of being a refugee is that it seems you come from nowhere. You have no representation. You are simply expected to jump, feet first, into the melting pot. Forgive me, if I'm being too blunt. It just seems so tremendously important to amplify these ideas that otherwise have so little voice.
Another thing I wanted to tell you: Radio Silence feels like an American project in many respects, especially in the way it mobilizes multiple voices, yet to me your work is also intrinsically connected to a legacy of reclamation by Iraqi artists. So many painters, sculptors, poets, musicians, and more, from the mid-twentieth century to the present, have repurposed images, symbols and fragments of Iraq’s past to explore new ideas. They looked to retell narratives afresh, documenting the present by referencing what they could find about what came before. They established a basis for recognition of cultural heritage and aesthetic value and attempted to restore dignity and a sense of sovereignty in the face of widespread destruction and amnesia. Like you, they wanted to make sure people understood that Iraq is both a physical place and also a set of ideas.
I'm sending you a postcard I found of the Ziggurat of Ur, and another of Jewad Selim's Monument to Freedom, which is on Mayyadah’s backdrop and in Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the center of Baghdad. Known as the father of Iraqi modern art, Selim might be the superlative example of the reclamation and reimagining I just described. The monument commemorates the 1958 revolution and reflects both Selim’s understanding of the ancient aesthetics (with its echoing of Assyrian and Babylonian reliefs), his training in modern sculpture in Europe, and his channeling of the yearning of Iraqis to determine their own fate. It has been a fixture in the city since 1961. Mayyadah tells me that it’s the main site where people go to protest today. Selim did not live to see its completion, and although the liberation he depicted remains an aspiration for Iraqis, I like to think he would be pleased to know that the potency of his work remains, and that it is not limited to its physical site. A couple of years ago in London I walked past a demonstration in front of the Iraqi embassy, calling for an end to political corruption in Baghdad. Among a sea of posters covered in text, three men stood in a line holding a large banner featuring the only image I saw: Selim’s monument.
Incidentally, Jewad Selim visited Philadelphia in 1954, as part of a tour organized by the American Friends of the Middle East, and had an exhibition of his work in a local gallery. The only report I can find declares it a great success. That was at a moment of great optimism for Iraq. I doubt that he would have dreamed that more than 60 years later, you would need to introduce Iraqi art and culture to the city all over again.
I am now traveling in Europe, and found myself today at the Pergamon Museum, part of the museum island that features many of Germany's 19th and 20th century acquisitions of antiquities in Ottoman territories during what Zainab Bahrani and others have called "the Scramble for the Past." Inspired by Mayyadah's rendering on the backdrop, I spent time once again at the Ishtar Gate, a monument with which you are very familiar. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the one in Babylon today, which Mayyadah has visited, is the smaller reconstruction built by Saddam Hussein, and it feels odd that here in Berlin there is no sense of context, neither of Babylon's history nor of the importance of this monument to Iraqis as an icon of their cultural heritage. It is only described in terms of the prowess of the German excavation.
“As a child, I actually did not like history, especially the contemporary history of Arab countries,” Mayyadah told me. “The theme of colonialism was depressing, and having to memorize the dates of each country’s occupation and revolution and independence did not fascinate me as much as the older history did. I loved reading up on findings of the first human beings and their development, and as an adult, I wanted to learn more about old civilizations, and archaeology.”
You must be very familiar with the ways in which antiquities capture imaginations. As I was marveling at the richness of the blue glazed bricks and the reliefs of the bulls and dragons on the Ishtar Gate, I wished that I could still visit your related work, itself a reconstruction, across the city.
By coincidence there was also a small exhibition upstairs at the Pergamon about the German excavation of Samarra, another city with an image on Mayyadah’s backdrop. The capital of the Abbasid Empire for several decades in the 9th century, the wall text described Samarra's development into one of the largest and most lavish cities in the ancient world, stretching for more than 30 miles along the Tigris. (Of course, for most of the period from 762 to 1258, the capital of the Abbasid Empire was Baghdad, which stretched from North Africa to the borders of China. Culture and science flourished, featuring advancements in geography, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. It is this version of Baghdad that is referenced in One Thousand and One Nights).
You most likely know all this, but it strikes me today that no one who walked through the Pergamon was asked to connect the different periods or cultures to the same country, or to connect the historical artifacts that they saw to the damage inflicted by recent conflict.
Built in 851, the mosque at Samarra was (and remains) an engineering feat. The great minaret’s name, Al Malwiya, means the twisted one, or snail shell. It could be a seashell too, marooned in the desert. It makes me think of Hayv Kahraman, the Iraqi-Swedish artist who lives in Los Angeles. She made a beautiful work a few years ago referencing the Malwiya, and the recent fate of Iraq. It was a sculpture of the minaret, with the spiral facing downwards, reminiscent of a scene from Alice in Wonderland. Made from 1800 playing cards she printed from her own paintings, it evokes the deck of “archaeology awareness playing cards” issued in 2007 by the US Department of Defense to encourage troops to respect antiquities. A bomb damaged Samarra and its mosque in 2005, supposedly set off by insurgents since US soldiers had used the 171-foot tower as a lookout point.
The Malwiya also reminds me of art historical images of the Tower of Babel. I wonder if the European painters were inspired by it. Never mind that it represents a very different point in time or that Samarra is 2 hours' drive to the northwest of Baghdad, while Babylon (Babel?) is an hour and a half to the south, on the Euphrates. Of course, I only know this from what people have told me, and from looking at maps, in books and on Google. Like you, I have never visited Iraq.
Here is another postcard, this one of several monuments including the Malwiya.
I have to confess that once I started looking at maps and images of Iraq several years ago, I began to fall in love with the landscape of a country I have yet to see in person. Do you feel the same way?
As a child the only images of the country that I saw were those on British television. My Iraqi family members were silent about what the country looked like, about why it was important to them, about whether they found it beautiful. I had no books, no photographs for reference. The television coverage of the 1991 Gulf War might have been my first window. I can recall soldiers in sand-colored uniforms, dust storms, burning oilfields. It was only in the wake of the 2003 invasion, when I was in my twenties, that I became conscious of how the imaginative space that Iraq occupied in my mind’s eye had been dominated by media images of military incursions. I knew what Baghdad looked like after explosions and of course I was deeply familiar with images of suffering Iraqis. But I knew little else.
I keep thinking about what it means to really “see” somewhere or something, about how places are represented, and by whom. How a place is seen depends on where it is on the side of conquest, of course. So what beliefs structure our looking at images from the so-called Middle East, and Iraq in particular?
Orientalist paintings of the 19th century present vastly detailed paintings of a rich world in the East, including the Arab world, but one in which nothing changed. They were static representations that provided political ammunition for the story of progress that the West wanted to tell, to justify its activities of colonial expansion.
The 19th century French, British, and German archeologists who excavated major sites in Mesopotamia and removed artifacts for their museums did so with the mandate to fill those newly created institutions with a new early chapter in the story of Western civilization. But they also participated in a long tradition of engaging with and representing the Middle East that had complex roots in the European experience of the Crusades, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment—the contexts for Europe’s efforts to systematize the study of other peoples and places. The story of America’s engagement with Iraq began slightly later, with archeologists particularly interested in finding historical evidence for Biblical stories, for example, the likely physical location of the Garden of Eden, or more about places such as Assyria and Nineveh which feature prominently in the Old Testament. There in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania amassed collections of Iraqi antiquities through the late 19th century Nippur excavations, the first American archaeological project in the region.
Together these activities changed the West’s understanding of Mesopotamia, the land of two rivers—before there was frequently a sense in the travel literature that there was nothing in the landscape, many descriptions of emptiness and desolation, and yet there were shapes on the horizon that caught the imagination. All of these expeditions and excavations proved that those mounds indeed contained treasures beneath the earth. Not surprisingly, oil was to be discovered not long after.
I have wanted to go digging too, and perhaps I am similarly greedy. I have looked for alternative images of Iraq everywhere I can, in archives, libraries, and the Internet as a means to help me understand its modern history, to become my adopted memories. I particularly like monuments for this because they act as markers in the fabric of the city; they are agents of public memory, reference points to navigate by, even when one is imagining a place one has never been.
I look at Google maps and wonder what it would be like to walk through the streets, how many roads have until recently been impossible to traverse because of blast walls. I’ve looked for a map of those but quite fittingly I can’t find one. It’s not transparent. It’s not accessible. That is in some ways how it should be, I don’t want it surveilled, but even in our era of satellite photography and information overload it is strange not to see the evidence of these radical, if temporary, shifts in the urban topography.
The city as I imagine it is a collage from photos I’ve seen and texts I’ve read, as well as stories I’ve been told by those who used to live there. Dust storms and oppressive heat. Families sifting through wreckage. Too many clichés. The artist Mohamed Ghani Hikmet described seeing Baghdad after returning from exile as “a beautiful girl whose clothes were dirty.” He was quoted saying this many times.
I spoke to Suad Attar, an artist from Baghdad who left in the 1970s and studied in San Luis Obispo, California before settling in London. She told me of driving along the river at sunset and admiring the fading sun on the palm trees and low roofs of the houses, as the string lights began glinting over the Tigris. Elements of Iraq’s landscape haunt her paintings still. Several others have described to me the golden light in their city, and many artists have used that memory as an impetus for work that conveys their longing for home.
Here is an image of Baghdad along the Tigris and another of a statue of Abu Nuwas, the poet, who lends his name to a famous street next to the river that used to hum with life in the evenings. I realize the postcards are nostalgic. I hope to find a way to incorporate them in another project one day.
I walked around Athens today, looking at ancient historic sites and contemporary art. With all its current crises and challenges, Athens remains an idea that is fixed in our Western minds as an integral part of Western civilization, as the birthplace of democracy, for example, whatever that has come to mean. Although Greece was conquered repeatedly, there has been continuity in its narrative, however overburdened, and this idea of place and its importance has stayed whole and has been carried forward through time. Thousands throng to see the remaining evidence each day. In Iraq, by contrast, there has only been rupture.
Yet the Iraqis I’ve met are fiercely proud of their millennia-old heritage and culture as the Greeks—Mayyadah included. They also know that the country has been the site of wars and several conquests long before Western powers weighed in and that the destruction of monuments is part of the process. The empires of the Sumerians, Akkadians, Bablyonians and Assyrians all fell eventually. Alexander conquered Babylon and demolished its ziggurat; the Mongols invaded and destroyed the Abbasids’ wonder of the world, Baghdad, in 1258 (constructed by Mansour in the 760s); the Ottomans began conquering Mesopotamia in the sixteenth century and held it for over 400 years.
When British Commander General Maude took control of southern Iraq in 1917, he proclaimed that his armies came not “as conquerors or enemies but as liberators.” Addressing the people of Baghdad Province, he continued, “your city and your lands have been subject to the tyranny of strangers, your palaces have fallen into ruins, your gardens have sunk in desolation and your forefathers and yourselves have groaned in bondage.” The British ruled the country by mandate until 1932 and then maintained unofficial control until the 1958 Revolution. There were only a few decades of an independent republic, much of those marred by dictatorship, before the US-British invasion and occupation in 2003. On the eve of the invasion in 2003, George W. Bush told Iraqis of his respect for their great civilization, and that “the day of your liberation is near.” Today, as we know, the so-called Islamic State attempts to undermine Iraq’s authority and identity.
Iraqis continue to wait for liberty and for the peace that will help them rebuild their civilization, further damaged over recent decades by looting, by the lack of public access to cultural sites because of security concerns, and by the flight of so many artists and thinkers from the country. Hence Radio Silence. For better or worse, those who leave Iraq take its history with them. In your work, in the context of Iraq and its cultural products, there is a constant dance between the real and the imaginary, between creation and destruction: an endless contradiction. Journalist Anthony Shadid, who covered Iraq before and after the US invasion, said that loss has come to define Iraq’s narrative, and in particular that what has been lost is an ideal of a pluralistic, tolerant, diverse, cosmopolitan Iraq. That ideal is what I see Radio Silence attempting to reclaim.
Although I realize it’s in many ways absurd, I've tried to make a mental map of the places in Baghdad and the rest of Iraq that I would visit if I could. It includes, of course, the monuments and the public art, especially the statues of literary figures like Abu Nuwas and Mutannabi who would not be celebrated in the same way today. I want to see firsthand how artists rendered their ideal of Iraq into bronze and stone, engaging with history and legend, reimagining meaning for their public spaces. What might we learn from them for the future?
One last postcard for you; a sculpture of Scheherazade and Sharyrar, the characters from One Thousand and One Nights, in a park by Abu Nuwas Street. Although it’s hard to see because of the fading light, the large almond eyes on the igures evoke Sumerian sculptures. The artist Mohamed Ghani Hikmet, whom Shadid interviewed at length, was a student of Jewad Selim, and you might remember, finished the Victory Arch. I have looked at this image a number of times, but I only just noticed the young man leaning on the railing with the baby in his arms, who both seem to be staring in wonder. I send you this one because I think we can never have enough reminders of the relationship between art, narration and resistance, nor the power of storytelling.
Deena Chalabi is the Barbara and Stephan Vermut Associate Curator of Public Practice in January 2014. From 2009 to 2012 she was the founding Head of Strategy at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha, Qatar. She co-curated the inaugural exhibition of Mathaf’s permanent collection and was responsible for developing the museum’s public presence across several platforms, including “Pop-Up Mathaf” programs for collaborative international partnerships, c at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London; Mori Art Museum, Tokyo; and with the Serpentine Galleries and the Liverpool Biennial. She has written for Bidoun, ArtAsiaPacific, and The New Inquiry, among other publications.
by Frances Richard
“Please do not mistake what you see with your eyes for physical presence.”
— Radio Silence, working performance script
It’s radio, so we can’t see their faces. But at one point in the show, a cascade of male and female voices repeat “I am Bahjat Abdulwahed”: They are veterans, refugees, musicians, cooks—the Philadelphians participating in Michael Rakowitz’s performance Radio Silence (2017). I think of Tony Curtis and the rest of the oppressed throng leaping to their feet in a dusty valley, each shouting “I’m Spartacus!” while Laurence Olivier, the Roman general, looks on in dismay and Kirk Douglas sheds a manly tear. But that is an uneasy analogy. Hollywood’s saga glorifying slave revolt was released in 1960, when other rebellions were hardly receiving the heroic treatment in pop culture; it was the year that U.S. Special Forces arrived in Vietnam, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded. None of this correlates neatly to Rakowitz’s performance and radio series in memory of Abdulwahed (1939-2016), the newscaster once known as the Voice of Iraq.
Yet Radio Silence, like Rakowitz’s other experiments in historical-communal narrative, solicits coincidences and resonances like these. The results are inevitably half-finished, often improbable, made coherent by their commitment to revelatory relationship. “It’s art,” says Rakowitz, “because it’s impossible for this to exist in the world.”
“This” being reconciliation across difference, restitution without closure, a pleating of time and space in which a figure like Abdulwahed can be dead and alive, Iraqi and American at once; and soldiers and displaced persons can collaborate; and every listener-viewer tracks her own associations, however fleetingly; and the lusciousness of what we see—or taste, smell, touch, hear, think—cannot be separated from ways in which such sensual traces simultaneously mark the destroyed, the imaginary, the unthinkable.
“…attempting to remake something that clearly can’t be remade.”
– “From Invisible Enemy to Enemy Kitchen: Michael Rakowitz in Conversation with Anthony Downey,” Ibraaz (March, 2013)
The National Museum of Baghdad was looted in 2003. Afterwards, Rakowitz worked with databases from Interpol and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute to remake the stolen antiquities in papier mâché. For materials, he and his team used Arabic-American newspapers and packaging from imported Arabic foodstuffs like dried apricots and tahini. Garishly colored and cheerfully self-advertising, the results are collectively titled The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2007-ongoing)—a translation of the name Aj-ibur-shapu, the ancient Babylonian processional way that ran through the Ishtar Gate. Rakowitz exhibits his paper objects alongside a suite of drawings recounting the excavation of the Ishtar Gate by German archeologist Robert Koldewey in the first decade of the twentieth century, as well as the monument’s subsequent removal to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, and Saddam Hussein’s reconstruction of it at three-quarter scale in Baghdad. Not to mention the unlikely true story of Dr. Donny George, ex–Director General of the National Museum and former President of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, who for a time moonlighted as the drummer in a Deep Purple cover band called 99%.
If an original is sufficiently magnificent—like Deep Purple’s power ballad “Smoke on the Water” (1972) maybe; but certainly like the Ishtar Gate (575 BC)—then a cover version will display mostly just its own zeal. Rakowitz’s trash antiquities are like Saddam’s reduced-sized monument in this way. Except that, for megalomaniacal insistence on a sacrosanct past and triumphant future, swap in a faith in grief, collaboration, and re-envisioning. Instead of a belief that falsification is irrelevant and hubris a virtue, swap in an understanding that everything is funny, and tragic, and temporary, and connected.
“…not as a replacement, but as a surrogate or placeholder.”
– Lilly Lampe, “Michael Rakowitz: A Desert Home Companion,” Art Papers (July-August, 2016)
Simile is not the same as metaphor; in simile, relatedness is posited yet compromised. The replacement vase constructed from the cardboard of a date-cookie box is like the ancient vase in beaten gold; “Smoke on the Water,” which is about a fire at the Montreaux Casino in Switzerland, is like a panegyric on the immolation of Baghdad. The breakup of The Beatles, as examined in Rakowitz’s project The Breakup (2010), is like the Six-Day War, an-Naksah, “The Setback” (1967), and the subsequent failure of Pan-Arabism. But, of course, these synchronies are also, mostly, indicative of unlikeness. The Beatles do not replace partitioned Palestine, or Egypt after the death of Gemal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970). Rakowitz emphasizes this incommensurability, even as the Palestinian band Sabreen—the name (a woman’s name) means “those who wait”—performs “Two of Us,” “The Long and Winding Road,” “Don’t Let me Down,” “Get Back,” and “Let it Be” on a rooftop in Jerusalem in 2010. The members of Sabreen become placeholders for John, Paul, George, and Ringo performing the same songs in the Beatles’ last, impromptu concert on a London rooftop in 1969. And the Beatles’ split becomes, in turn, a placeholder for the dissolution of a progressive political vision for the region. The radical mismatch between crack-ups causes a glitch in meaning; out of such breaks, Rakowitz’s art and its critical elegy emanate.
The loss of peace, of home, of citizenship or leadership or justice, really cannot be compared to the loss of one’s favorite band. Except that, decades later, perhaps the political crisis can be made vivid only when the aesthetic conceit that frames it centers on absurd dissimilarity. Consider how, at the beginning of Rakowitz’s video documenting Sabreen’s performance, we zoom in from the map of the world to the Middle East and down through the clouds to a Google Earth aerial shot of the Jerusalem rooftop as the strings at the end of “A Day in the Life” build to crescendo and the last chord resounds. We can’t help perceiving that the plummeting trajectory and reverberating crash are surrogates for a bomb. Yet they are not a bomb.
“Bahjat and Hayfaa have become like adoptive grandparents.”
—“Michael Rakowitz: A Desert Home Companion,” Art Papers (July-August, 2016)
As journalists, Bahjat Abdulwahed (and for a short while, his wife Hayfaa Ibrahem Abdulqader) reported decades of twentieth-century Iraqi news, including the 1958 coup d’état, the Iran-Iraq War, and the first Gulf War. Then, like Rakowitz’s maternal grandparents Nissim Isaac David (né Daoud) and Renée Shamoon, albeit a half-century later, they emigrated to the United States. Abdulwahed, who had vanished from the airwaves in the disruption of Iraq, lived in anonymity in Philadelphia. Rakowitz conceived Radio Silence from a simple wish: “The goal became to give Bahjat his show back.” The related project RETURN, begun in 2004 and (at least provisionally) ongoing, intended in a comparable way to revive the import-export business founded by Nissim David in his adopted country. But, of course, Abdulwahed’s broadcasting career could not be “given back.” Rakowitz’s grandfather’s business could not simply be restarted. The broadcasts that will represent the programs once anchored by the “Walter Cronkite of Iraq,” and the pop-up shop on Atlantic Avenue that advertised “We Sell Iraqi Dates,” instead assemble around delays, anecdotes, elaborately imperfect substitutions.
Bahjat Abdulwahed died last year after losing his voice to a tracheostomy, and so the show intended to celebrate him must proceed without him. In 2004, given the conditions under which shipments from Iraq could enter the U.S., only ten boxes of the ton of dates that Rakowitz had ordered arrived in Brooklyn. In the off-symmetry across these projects, Rakowitz entertains a resonance between lost forebears and lost life’s works; between national events, however dire, and the taste of fruit. An elder, a career, the news from home, a familiar flavor: All penetrate and help to constitute the flesh of a local world.
“Their absence has re-inscribed their presence,” Rakowitz observes of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan (What Dust Will Rise, 2012). The silence in Radio Silence and the empty shelves in the Atlantic Avenue shop are iterations of the same space—the space of the Bamiyan niches—the space of vanishment, densely trafficked by memories, fantasies, and ghosts. For, just as the dates that could not cross the Syrian border became stand-ins for the refugees who also could not get out of Iraq, Rakowitz’s sense of Abdulwahed and Abdulqader as adoptive grandparents speaks to the way in which relationships are broken in diaspora, to be reconstituted in a distant place, ad hoc, brought into being by the special hopefulness that feeds on longing.
“It would be our pleasure to do business with the son of our city’s daughter.”
–“We Sell Iraqi Dates: An Interview with Michael Rakowitz by Peter Eeley,” Uovo Magazine No. 14 (2007)
In his pop-up Dubai restaurant Dar al Sulh (2013), Rakowitz served Iraqi-Jewish dishes, while the audio archive “Tuning Baghdad,” which was compiled by Iraqi-American curator Regine Basha, provided the restaurant’s soundtrack. These aspects of the Dar al Sulh project reiterate Rakowitz’s interest in food, communal gatherings, and music as vectors across which time and space entwine and telescope, humming with the energies of departure and recall. “It would be our pleasure to do business with the son of our city’s daughter,” an Iraqi date exporter told Rakowitz as they arranged the RETURN shipment that never arrived. Yet something was successfully delivered: Rakowitz relayed the message to his mother, whose recipes he later cooked for both Dar Al Sulh and its predecessor, the Iraqi-cuisine food truck Enemy Kitchen (2013-present), which has cruised American cities with high-school students and veterans of the Iraq war as sous chefs. The affirmation passed from the date seller to the artist’s mother, his countrywoman once removed, and from her to us, the artist’s audience, evokes a lost past as viscerally as any other Proustian mouthful. “Do I sound like your grandfather yet?” the exporter asked.
“What artwork isn’t relational?”
–“From Invisible Enemy to Enemy Kitchen,” Ibraaz (March, 2013)
Dar Al Sulh, or the “Domain of Conciliation” was the social territory that Jews, Christians, and people of other faiths traditionally occupied in Muslim lands. The dispensation provided autonomy, freedom of religion, and protection in exchange for a tribute tax. How, then, should a domain of conciliation be rendered under contemporary geopolitical conditions? How might an artist produce an object, an image, or a site that would foster this fragile balance? On the walls of the Dar al Sulh pop-up, which was hosted by Traffic Gallery at their warehouse location in Dubai, Rakowitz displayed a single picture: A grainy black-and-white news photo of armed Palestinians standing guard at the Maghen Abraham Synagogue in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. This image, the artist writes, “serves as a surrogate for others that do not seem to have been documented, of the Muslims and Christians in Baghdad who protected their Jewish neighbors’ homes during the Farhud, the anti-Jewish riots and pogrom that erupted in the Iraqi capital in June, 1941.” The scene we can see is a proxy for scenes we can’t see; the journalistic image is a placeholder for other images the artist did not choose to show. Each is a sign for the unpicturable tenors of the social sculpture that was the Dar Al Sulh event—the smell of cooking, the tunes from “Tuning Baghdad,” the diners’ laughter, the clink of the embossed-metal Iraqi-Jewish serving trays that refugees in the 1940s had smuggled from the country, which Rakowitz later bought on eBay.
To insist on the relationality of all art-making, as Rakowitz does in a 2013 interview, is to propose that “art” be taken as an element inherent not in objecthood or imagery but in an unpredictable transitivity, a tremor in the network linking self and other, past and present, like and unlike.
“The desire really is to get rid of all these terminologies and borders and to really speak to porousness.”
– Creative Time Reports: “Arab Jewish Identity: Regine Basha, Ella Shohat and Michael Rakowitz” (2014)
And yet. To speak requires terminologies, and porousness presupposes borders that can be rendered permeable. Speech—for which we might as well read “art”—is hopelessly absorptive, osmotically inviting in all kinds of things that don’t apparently belong. To speak to porousness, as Rakowitz does, is to amplify the voices inside silence, identity, history, desire. Such speech belongs exclusively to no one, and travels freely.
Frances Richard is the author of three books of poems, Anarch. (Futurepoem, 2012), The Phonemes (Les Figues Press, 2012) and See Through (Four Way Books, 2003). She writes frequently about contemporary art and is co-author, with Jeffrey Kastner and Sina Najafi, of Odd Lots: Revisiting Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Fake Estates” (Cabinet Books, 2005); she is the editor of Joan Jonas is On Our Mind, a volume of essays on the artist (Wattis Institute, 2017). She teaches at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
by Regine Basha
The process of tuning in Arabic or any kind of Eastern music may often be mistaken for actual playing to Western ears, since it can be a protracted quasi-musical process. The early 20th Century ethnomusicologist A.Z. Idehlson was one of the first to enter and record Middle Eastern and North African music, but upon hearing the atonal notes or quarter tones for the first time, he misread its qualitative value and made the assumption that the “Oriental” musicians were playing off-key and only “to the best of their limited ability.” The first important pan-Arab music conference took place in Cairo in 1932, bringing together musicians from around the Middle East as well as from the West. Iraq sent “Chagli Baghdad,” a beloved folkloric band of Jewish-Iraqi musicians, as a delegation to represent the best of Iraq’s music. This was the ensemble that played at Jewish weddings, house parties, and coffee houses. A famous image of Iraqi pride is of the old Chaghli Baghdad ensemble with a young Uum Khalthoum in Cairo.
One of the surprises I came across when researching the history of Baghdadi Jews and their role in the Iraqi modern music scene, was the fact that on Yom Kippur, the Jewish holiday of mourning, the Iraqi Broadcast Service would go silent. I heard this seemingly tall tale from my father first, but needing further proof, I went to the Iraqi-Jewish ethnomusicologist Yeheskel Kojaman, who indeed confirmed it for me. It didn’t go silent to honor of the Jews of the country, but because the founders of the station were simply at Synagogue that evening. Kojaman, like my father, lived the period when the musicians of Iraq were mostly Jewish but emphasizes that the music was quintessentially Iraqi. Kojaman was not a musician himself but an avid fan and devout listener of Arabic music growing up who went on to write a book about Iraqi Maqam, a form of popular music, later in life. My father learned to play the Oud in Basra, from a blind musician, and went on to play the Oud socially and served as a community leader and host of many musical house gatherings, wherever he moved to (and we moved a lot) over the past 70 years since his departure from Iraq. The sound of Arabic music wailing from behind the bathroom door was a continuous backdrop to my childhood, and though I was dragged to many all-night Arabic music parties throughout my childhood, begrudgingly, my interest in understanding the role of music in Iraqi-Jewish culture has only come much later. It was through Kojaman’s book and my father’s cassette collection that I became drawn to this elusive research about the Iraqi Maqam, essentially a set of scales, but also a culturally-determined musical tradition that relates to complex emotional states.
Although it might seem a curious fact, blind music teachers like my father´s were actually quite common at the time. There were many virtuosic blind musicians, such as Salim Daood, who were mostly alumni of the Jewish school called “Help the Blind,” due to a renowned Turkish Oud player who became the main instructor there, teaching by ear. I once found a picture of an entire orchestra of blind violinists, oud, and quanun players--an impressive image. These musicians often became the teachers of later generations and many known Iraqi musicians today, such as Munir Bachir, were taught by ear as well, within which the Iraqi Maqam - the soul of Iraqi music--is passed down
I met the blind qanun player Abraham Salman in his small apartment in Ramat Gan, over cookies and tea, and asked if he could explain to me what the Maqam actually was or what it represented. He paused for a long time. Then, he responded by asking me where I lived. “America,” I said. “Hmm. too far… he quipped. Salman was a child prodigy on the Iraq Broadcast Service, until, the force majeur, as they called it then, when he emigrated to the newly-formed Israel in the early 1950s. He later re-emerged there playing the qanun on the short-lived music tv channel Kol Israel as part of its “oriental hour” (a kind of east-west orchestral fusion a la Lawrence Welk). By the time I met with him, he was in his late 80s and only playing for friends and family at intimate gatherings held here and there in homes and community centers. “We lost our audience,” his wife told me. “There is no one here who will listen to Arabic music,” she said without irony.
The Iraq Broadcast Service was a modernizing and secularizing force in Baghdad from the 1930s to the 1940s. Previous to this, music had come from a primarily folkloric, ritualistic, or religious arena – related to prayer (Piyutim for the Jews) and/or the reciting of Koranic verse for instance, reserved for celebration of weddings, funerals, and circumcisions. The Chaghli Baghdad ensemble was perhaps the first form of folkloric music enjoyed by a wider public. As many of these ritualistic practices were shared between Jews and Muslims, the communities would often attend one another’s gatherings, mingling within these intimate spaces very naturally. Coffee houses also spread during this time, serving Turkish coffee or cay (chai) and offering respite and space to breathe outside the more cloistered communities, and becoming the vital common spaces to listen to music on the radio. Egyptian films and music (Abdel Wahab, Uum Khaltoum, Farid Al Attrache) ruled the era and the region--records were played all day since Cairo Radio only came on in the evenings. This set the tone for a rising scene of modern music— in other words, music no longer for the love for G-d, but about dramatic tales related to romantic love, loss, complex emotional duress, and the love of land and country. It was only by the late 1930s that women were allowed to listen to music in public spaces as well. Female singers, like Salima Pasha, were also becoming idolized and respected as serious songstresses, and collaborating with musicians. Eventually actual live performances happened in the coffee houses, and a lively Iraqi scene grew.
The Brothers Kuwaiti (Daoud and Saleh al-Kuwaiti) were, at the time, the most prolific and productive composers writing new Maqams in this era. They also founded the orchestra for Iraqi Broadcast Service in 1936, and despite originally came from Kuwait, were considered an Iraqi National treasure, so much so that the King tried to stop them from leaving Iraq. As the oft-embellished story goes, he purportedly ran to stop them at the border and pleaded, “Who is going to play our music?” The station was a seedbed for new compositions and collaborations. Though the Iraqi Maqam was often sung by a Muslim singer, Jews always provided the musical accompaniment. This led to the writing of new modern compositions modeled after the popular Egyptian compositions at the time—which led the way for Modern Arabic music throughout the whole Middle East.
There are other types of music, besides the Iraqi Maqam, such as folk songs, that create connective tissue between all Iraqis. Perform a YouTube search today of the beloved song, “Fog il Nahal” (I am higher than the highest date palm) and you’ll get a pretty good diagrammatic feed of the Iraqi experience. You’ll follow a debate (albeit digressive) of its dubious origin—some believe it was written and composed by the Jewish composer Saleh al-kuwaiti in the 1940s, while others believe it was originally written by Nazem El-Ghazali, a famous Iraqi singer who studied under the great Maqam singer Muhammad al-Qubbanchi and performed often on the Iraqi National Radio. Adding to any confusion, many speak of Saddam Hussein´s practice of actively erasing all mention of Jewish contribution to Iraqi cultural content and artifacts, effectively obscuring any relationship of Jews to national culture for a whole new generation of Iraqis. What is clear is that the song is equally beloved by Muslims, Christians and Jews alike - across the Middle East. On You Tube, Nazem El-Ghazali appears there singing the song. You will also learn that he was an illicit lover of the beloved female Iraqi-Jewish singer, Salima Murad (aka Salima Pasha), who was tragically murdered. You will also find a flamenco version by a Palestinian band, a disco version by a Lebanese singer, and, most recently, a folk-rock interpretation by Saleh al-Kuwaiti’s own grandson, who is now covering a lot of his grandfather’s compositions as a rising pop star in Israel. “Fog il Nahal” has been sung by practically every Arab singer in every era since the mid-20th century.
My research on Jewish-Iraqi musicians and the radio from the 20th century continues to be collected from unofficial sources like anecdotes, personal memoirs, mix tapes and VHS tapes of house parties in the diaspora, You Tube threads, blogs, discussions with musicians, and the one seminal book on the topic written by Yeheskel Kojama. This music history, integrated as it was in Iraqi culture over the years, does not define or belong to the Jewish community exclusively by any means--yet its specific cultural heritage is not prevalent in current official constructs of Iraqi cultural history. The information is spread mainly by the continual playing of the music by Iraqis of any denomination. Ultimately it is passed down by ear, through oral and audible channels, from musician to musician, creating a tenuous, but dedicated musical citizenship.
Regine Basha is currently Residency Director at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, a space where cultural production and collaboration between artists, musicians, scientists and writers takes place. Her inventive curatorial approach has been at work inside of institutions—Arthouse at the Jones Center (now The Contemporary Austin) and ArtPace among them—and often outside or alongside of them, developing site specific projects such as the town-wide sound exhibition The Marfa Sessions (with Rebecca Gates and Lucy Raven) for Ballroom Marfa and Marfa Public Radio; the large-scale exhibition When You Cut into the Present the Future Leaks Out at the Public Heritage Site of the Old Bronx Courthouse; and to mark the 50th anniversary of Experiments in Art & Technology, 9 Evenings + 50 (with Julie Martin and Daniel Neumann) for Fridman Gallery, Wave Form, and Issue Project Room. Her musical archive featured in this text, Tuning Baghdad, was most recently the subject of a 6-episode radio show for Clocktower Radio. She sits on the board of Art Matters and on the SETI (Search for Extra-terrestrial Intellgence) Artist in Residence program.